Annie Moberley

Raised in Winchester, fulfilled in Oxford, Annie Moberly (Principal and Fellows of St Hugh’s College, Oxford).

Stern expressions, dark clothes, rectories the size of small palaces – these are all clues to what life was like for the middle class in Victorian England. No place was probably more typical of this than Winchester. Not to be ordained, not to have gone to a Public School and Oxford, not to go to church without fail, and above all, not to have close contacts with those who could fix up a good job – these could all spell disaster.

The Moberly family par excellence exhibited mid-Victorian life in the cloistered walls of Winchester College, and in the wider world. Its men especially were embedded in an Anglican coterie that struggled with the ‘polluted’ style of ministry that had emerged from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Some of them yearned for a more Catholic ministry – some even converted – they saw themselves as direct descendants of the Apostles. Encased in a rigid way of life, it took a World War to release them.

The women, with a few notable exceptions, were trapped in a different sense. And yet from a family of 15, it is Annie Moberly who today commands the longest entry of three assigned to her family in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A brother with a life committed to theological philosophy comes second, and the shortest entry goes to their father, for 30 years headmaster of Winchester College. Men, it seems, were crowding into a cul-de-sac, whilst some women were stirred by hopes of women’s suffrage and a decent education. The story of Annie Moberly illustrates some of these elements.

In 1901 two middle-aged ladies from Oxford reported that during a trip to Versailles they had seen Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, both guillotined during the French Revolution. These were not ecstatic pilgrims overcome by the moment, but two serious academics accustomed to vigorous debate.

One of them was ‘Annie’ Moberly, christened Charlotte Anne Elizabeth (1846–1937),  brought up within the walls of Winchester College, where her father was headmaster. She was the seventh of eight girls in a family of 15. At a time when girls could only be educated at home, she benefited from learning music with the school’s organist and sharing her brothers’ lessons in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.


Annie Moberly’s father, George Moberly(1803–1885), was born in St Petersburg, the son of  a Russia merchant. Her features were said to reflect his Slavonic background and a family myth that it was descended from an illegitimate child of Peter the Great.

George Moberly started his education at Hyde Abbey School, Hyde Close, Winchester (still standing, now occupied by a carpet business), which was run by the Rev. Charles Richards. Amongst its pupils of an earlier generation had been George Canning (1770-1827), sometime foreign secretary and prime minister. Moberly went on to Winchester College and then to Balliol College, Oxford.

In 1834 he married Mary Anne (1812–1890), daughter of a Scottish merchant, Thomas Crokat of Leghorn, and in the following year – as married men were obliged to do – he left Oxford and took up the headship of Winchester College, a post he held for thirty years. Although he had left university before the start of the high-church Oxford Movement, he shared its values and was an intimate of two of its key protagonists, who happened to live near Winchester. These were the Rev John Keble, rector of Hursley, and Charlotte Yonge, the novelist, from Otterbourne. Mrs Keble was Annie’s godmother.

At Winchester George Moberly became known for building one of commoners’ houses and also for reducing the number of floggings, though apparently their severity increased. Towards the end of his career the numbers of pupils fell, which led to the idea that he was not, after all, a very successful headmaster. In 1866 he resigned and left Winchester in the hands of his son-in-law George Ridding. He was at first presented with the living of Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, but soon afterwards was translated by Gladstone to the bishopric of Salisbury.

All five of his surviving sons entered the church. The most successful of these was the theologian Robert Campbell Moberly.

Robert Campbell Moberly (1845–1903), was the third son and the tenth child of George and Mary Anne Moberly. He started his education at Twyford School and went on to Winchester College and then its sister foundation, New College, Oxford.



In 1876 he was deeply affected by a six-month trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Afterwards he became principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, which trained Anglican clergy for missionary work abroad. Two years later, at his father’s bidding, he became principal of the Diocesan Theological College at Salisbury. He married Alice Sidney Hamilton, a daughter of the bishop who had preceded his father. Their son, Sir Walter Hamilton Moberly, was to become vice-chancellor of Manchester University.

Robert Moberly later became regius professor of pastoral theology at Oxford and his writings continued to influence Anglo-Catholic thinking well into the 20th century.


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.

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