Annie Moberley - 3

In the summer the Moberly family decamped to a farmhouse they rented at Hursley. Life in the home involved ‘fun, games, and habitual merriment, animation and playfulness’, according to novelist Charlotte Yonge, who was a frequent visitor. But Annie faced a future as the ‘home daughter’, with all that meant. After her father retired from the Winchester headship he took a living at Brighstone on the Isle of Wight and then was appointed bishop of Salisbury. Annie became at first his secretary and then his nurse-carer until his death in 1885.

It looked as if Annie faced a future of genteel poverty, living modestly with two sisters in Salisbury. But all changed when she was invited to become the first principal of St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford, a new college for Anglican girls. The offer came from close at hand – from Elizabeth Wordsworth, sister of the man who followed Moberly as bishop! She had founded Lady Margaret Hall, but wanted now to set up another hall suitable for less-well-off students, especially the daughters of clergymen. It wasn’t, in fact, much of an offer. There were only four students, lodging in a private house, and none at the time was recognised for graduation from the university – that had to wait until October 1920.

Annie, however, had no doubt seen her father in action at Winchester.  By the time she retired in 1915 what was to become St Hugh’s College had 60 students and purpose-built premises in St Margarets Road, where it still stands. She gained a reputation for being ‘exciting’, but was a hopeless housekeeper:  St Hugh’s gained a reputation for Spartan comfort and poor food!

Establishing  St Hugh’s in the academic world of Oxford  was not straightforward. At one stage Elizabeth Wordsworth wanted to merge it with Lady Margaret Hall, but the council would not agree and so the fledgling college survived. It was, however, beset by financial problems and relations with its founder were often difficult. Annie did not pursue an academic career in the modern sense, but a family memoir she published in 1911 for her forty-one nephews and nieces is still available under the title  Dulce domum: George Moberly…his family and friends.

When Annie eventually retired in 1915, she left the college in the hands of her assistant, Eleanor Jourdain, who had set up the trip to Versailles and played a leading role in the uproar that greeted news of the vision of Marie Antoinette they reported. The story hit the headlines in 1911 after it was described in a bestselling book by ‘Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont’.

On visiting Versailles, it said, the two women had got lost and came upon a deserted cottage and gardeners wearing three-cornered hats and long coats. They also saw a lady sketching on the lawn in eighteenth century dress – this they claimed was the long-dead queen beside her rustic retreat, the Queen’s Hamlet.

It might be imagined that the two Oxford academics would be outraged at the way in which such a personal story had been released to the detriment of their academic reputations. But it was they who were responsible, as they had written the book, An Adventure, under pen-names! It has recently been reprinted with attribution and the unlikely subtitle,  A True Story About Time Travel.

Eleanor Jourdain, it turns out, was prone to fantasies. During the First World War she claimed that a German spy was living in the Oxford college. Later, her behaviour became so unusual that in 1924 she faced mass resignation of academic staff. Politely termed  ‘the row’, it ended with her sudden death.

Much later a possible explanation for the visions emerged: what they had seen might have been a rehearsal for one of the fancy-dress parties that the dandy Comte Robert de Montesquiou liked to give at Versailles at the time. There is another twist: in 1867 at Oxford her brother Robert had won the Newdigate Prize for a poem on Marie Antoinette.

St Hugh’s graduates include the former Prime Minister Theresa, Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi and Emily Davison, the suffragette who died under the hooves of horses at Epsom in 1913.