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Headington Hill Hall, Oxfordshire, England

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Headington Hill Hall, Oxfordshire, England

Headington Hill Hall stands on Headington Hill in the east of Oxford, England.[1] It was built in 1824 for the Morrell family, local brewers, and was extended between 1856 and 1858, by James Morrell junior (1810–1863) who built an Italianate mansion, designed by architect John Thomas.[2] The family remained in residence for 114 years.

Oscar Wilde attended an all-night fancy dress May Day Ball given by Mr and Mrs Herbert Morrell at the Hall on 1 May 1878 for around three hundred guests, gaudily dressed as Prince Rupert.[3] Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938), who owned the Hall for a period,[4] was particularly associated as a hostess with the Bloomsbury Group.

Subsequently, the publisher Robert Maxwell (1923–1991), founder of Pergamon Press, leased the building from the Oxford City Council for 32 years. He described it as the "best council house in the country."[5]

Since 1992, Headington Hill Hall has been leased to Oxford Brookes University.[6] It currently houses a number of Law lectures, history is held in the "Portacabin"-esque structure known colloquially as "Eww Willow",[7] the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and the Oxford Brookes University School of Law.

Detailed History:

Headington Hill Hall has always been in the Parish of St Clements, and its original main entrance was via the grand park gates near the foot of the hill. But now that its entrance is from the lodge at the top of the hill, Headington is pleased to adopt it as its grandest listed building. It was built in 1824 for the Morrell family and was occupied by them for 114 years, and then Robert Maxwell leased what he described as the “best council house in the country” from Oxford City Council for 32 years, Since 1992 it has been leased to Oxford Brookes University

The Oxford brewer James Morrell senior (1773–1855) had married Jane Wharton, a 17-year-old girl who lived in Headington, at St Andrew’s Church on 17 December 1807, and visits to her family may well have influenced his decision to live there himself after her early death in 1814. He bought some grazing land near the top of Headington Hill from the Savage family in 1817 in order to move his three surviving young children from the damp unhealthy atmosphere of Fisher Row to a healthy country estate in Headington.

Old part of Headington Hill Hall

The house that James Morrell senior completed in 1824 was relatively modest, but later he bought extra land extending all the way down to the Marston Road, comprising the present Headington Hill Park.

The picture below, also taken from the back, shows the relationship between the old house on the left and the new one on the right.

Back of Headington Hill Hall

The 1841 census shows James Morrell senior, described as a banker, at home with his sons James and Mark, who are both described as “independent”. By 1851 James Morrell senior was an old man of 77 living alone with a valet, cook, and two other servants.

James’s son James Morrell junior (1810–1863) had grander designs, and between 1856 and 1858 built an Italianate mansion: the architect was John Thomas and the builder Joseph Castle. This eclipsed his father’s old house to such an extent that thenceforth the latter was only deemed suitable for a kitchen and nursery wing. This mansion is the present Headington Hill Hall. On 8 November 1856, Jackson’s Oxford Journal (p. 5) reported:

The mansion now in the course of erection on Headington Hill for James Morrell, Esq, having been so far advanced that the roof is fixed, that gentleman celebrated the “roof rearing” by an entertainment, on Saturday night last, to all the workmen and boys employed directly or indirectly on the building.

Thus by 1858 the small country house had become a 51-room mansion housing 19 indoor servants. James Morrell junior also developed the exotic gardens that are now Headington Hill Park, and they were laid out by a Mr Baxter. The house eventually had four lodges, and its laundry building was built well out of sight on the other side of the London Road, near Gipsy Lane. Its vegetable garden was also situated away from the house, just to the east of Cheney Lane, so as not to spoil the landscape.

The 1861 census shows James Morrell junior (51) living at Headington Hill Hall with his wife Alicia Harriet (39) and their daughter Emily Alicia (7), and they had 18 servants (including a billiard marker and a page). But the couple only had about five years in their new mansion: James died in 1863, and Alicia in 1864. Their only child Emily Alicia Morrell (1854–1938) was left an orphan at the age of ten, so the Morrell Trustees took over responsibility for the Hall. The wealth of the child Emily was enormous: at the age of 19 she is listed in the Return of Owners of Land of 1873 as owning over 569 acres in Oxfordshire with an estimated rental income of £2,046.

The trustees let Headington Hill Hall out to Richard Corbet, a blind landowner from Shropshire, and the 1871 census shows him living there with his wife Eleanor (both aged 66), three of their children, and ten servants. He is described as a Justice of the Peace.

In 1874 young Emily Morrell married her third cousin George Herbert Morrell (1845–1906) and returned with him to her family home. The interior of the house was extensively remodelled at this time by William Wilkinson, the architect who also designed the Randolph Hotel and much of north Oxford.


In 1876 the family of the deceased Tyrrell Knapp were planning to sell the farmland attached to his home at the Rise in Cheney Lane to developers. The Morrell Trustees stepped in to purchase the land, thus doubling the size of the couple’s estate, and linked it to Headington Hill Hall by a bridge over the road. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 12 October 1878 (p. 8c) reported:

A new set of stables have been built near “Joe Pullin’s” tree, Headington Hill, for G. Morrell, Esq., by Mr. G. Castle. In their construction the latest improvements have been introduced, and they are considered some of the best stables in the County. Accommodation is provided for 17 horses, and there are ten coach houses, harness rooms, &c., with buildings for coachmen and grooms. A handsome bridge now connects the old portion of the estate with that purchased from the Knapp family, and this is also the work of Mr. G. Castle.

The enlarged garden was described in detail in the Gardeners’ Magazine of 1880. The new part of the garden comprised the present South Park as well as the area covered by Morrell Avenue, a road of high-standard council houses which was built in South Park in 1929–-31.

In 1881 George Herbert Morrell (36) was at home in the Hall with his wife Emily (27) and their eleven servants. By 1891 they had two sons James (8) and George (6), plus thirteen servants: a butler, three footmen, three housemaids, two nurses, a kitchen maid, a scullery maid, a ladies maid, and a housekeeper. In 1901 the two sons were at Eton and there were now eleven servants (the nurses being no longer required).

George Herbert Morrell died in 1906, and at the time of the 1911 census the Hall was occupied only by seven servants: Miss Rhoda Lilian King (36), who was its housekeeper, and two head housemaids, a kitchenmaid, scullery maid, 1st footman, and hall boy.

Mrs Emily Morrell died at the age of 84 in September 1938. A year later the government requisitioned the Hall for use as a military hospital, and its contents were sold. After the war the Hall became a rehabilitation centre run by the Red Cross and the Order of St John.

In 1953 Emily’s elder son, James Morrell III, sold Headington Hill Hall to Oxford City Council for a mere £13,700: this price included 37 acres of land, as well as its four lodges and outbuildings, and there was applause in the council chamber when the purchase was announced. The rehabilitation centre continued to use the building until 1958

The original plan of the city council was to demolish the Hall and build council offices on the site, but finances did not allow this, and so the council appropriated 20 acres to form Headington Hill Park and offered the rest of the estate on a 21-year lease to the highest bidder.

Stained-glass window

This proved to be Robert Maxwell, Director of Pergamon Press, with a tender of £2,400 a year, and Pergamon Press moved in in 1959. Initially he rented the estate purely as business premises for the Press, but soon he and his wife Betty and eight children took up residence in the Hall, relegating the Press to the old stables. Maxwell restored the house, which had become dilapidated, ripping a 150-year-old chimney piece out of the old Pergamon offices in Fitzroy Square, London to put in his new home. He filled shelves with dummy books, and installed cinema-screen televisions in most of the rooms.

The original Victorian stained-glass window on the stairs, showing Samson at the gates of Gaza, was damaged during the war, and was replaced by the Maxwells. The new window (left), created by an Israeli artist, casts Robert Maxwell himself as Samson. He has around his neck a large pendant, which is supposed to depict the head of Penelope and to indicate that behind every successful man there is a strong female presence. (This seems rather odd, in view of the damage Delilah did to Samson, and the fact that Penelope is a figure from Greek myth, not the Old Testament….)

The grounds, meanwhile, were becoming littered with ugly prefabs to house Pergamon Press, and when Maxwell requested a longer lease in 1962, one of the conditions was attached was that he must erect,

“within a period of 36 months from the granting of the lease, a new building of a type and design and on a site approved by the Council, to replace the existing five temporary huts, and within three months of the completion of this building, to demolish the five huts, clear their concrete bases, and reinstate the sites to their original condition”.

In exchange for his original 21-year lease, he was granted 75 years’ tenure at an annual rent of £4,500, to remain fixed for the entire term (an incredible decision by the city council at a period of inflation). Maxwell did build a new office block, but the other promises he made (that he would make more of the Hall grounds available to the general public; that staff would have to use a new entrance at the back of the estate; and that no Pergamon cars would be allowed to use the main driveway, which would become a public footpath) were ignored.

In 1978 Maxwell managed to extend his lease yet again, to 99 years, with the annual rent increased to £7,600 until 2002 (when there would be an annual increment until it reached £14,540 per year in 2076).With nearly a hundred years of security ahead of him, Maxwell turned the Headington Hill Hall site into a fortress. Guards were posted at the main entrance, the fence was reinforced with barbed wire, and video cameras were fixed to trees. Staff were kept away from the main house and its swimming pool and tennis court, although the old kitchen wing of the mansion was used as offices. Speakers were fitted to every office so that Maxwell could make announcements to the staff, who called the firm they worked for Purgatory Press.

In March 1991 Maxwell sold Pergamon Press to Elsevier, and on 5 November that year Maxwell’s body was found in the sea. On 20 December Grant Thornton announced that they had been appointed receivers to 33 properties owned by PHL Estates Ltd (part of the Maxwell Group), including the 84 remaining years of the lease of Headington Hill Hall.

In 1992 the Council negotiated a long lease with Oxford Brookes University. In 1996 the School of Art, Publishing and Music (Richard Hamilton building) was opened in the old stables, and the Pergamon Press offices were converted into the Helena Kennedy Student Centre.

Headington Hill Hall now forms the most glamorous part of Oxford Brookes University, and is the home of the School of Social Sciences and Law. It also has handsome function rooms, and is the only place in Headington licensed to hold civil wedding ceremonies.


// this project is in History Link