It was once the haunt of the likes of John Betjeman, T.E. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. An intellectual and bohemian enclave nurturing writers, artists and academics whose work had a profound impact on the world. The tree-lined streets of North Oxford were sometimes reckoned to have more “worthies” per square mile than any other suburb on earth.
But now it is claimed that its unique character is falling victim to the property market and the alleged greed of one of the city’s wealthiest colleges. St John’s, which built and owned most of the grand Victorian estate, is said to be acting like a “cut-throat developer”, hiking up rents and selling every scrap of land for housing.
Residents’ anger spilled over when the college refused to renew the lease of Martin Jennings, the 45-year-old royal sculptor who has lived and worked in the area for nearly 20 years.
Jennings, whose bust of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother stands in St Paul’s Cathedral, has been told he must leave his Victorian coach house in September because the college wants to convert it into a £500,000, three-bedroom home. His plight, the closure of a tennis club by the college, and concerns over the future of the only community centre have led to residents demanding answers from the university.
Jennings said: “They used to practise an enlightened patronage as a result of their enormous wealth but that appears to have disappeared over the last decade. The sense that everybody has around here is that they are out to make as much profit on the property market as they can and to deepen their already bulging pockets. They maintain that they do it for their students but nobody believes them. They are behaving like cut-throat property developers.”
Jennings’ eviction is said to be just the latest example of the college’s heavy-handedness and lack of care for the community. Less than two years ago St John’s refused permission for the Norham Gardens Tennis Club to continue using its facilities.
The clay courts, the original venue for the All England doubles championships before they moved to Wimbledon and used by the local club for 120 years, have since become derelict and are overgrown with weeds.
Down the road a builder’s yard has been sold off for development and recently closed workshops appear to face the same fate. Residents fear that the lease on the St Margaret’s Institute, now a community centre, will not be renewed next year. Suspicions are that St John’s will convert the handsome Victorian building into flats.
Jennings, a father of three who was a student at Oxford following his schooling at Ampleforth, said: “You don’t close down tennis courts, community centres and artist studios without it upsetting the local populace. Everyone seems to be put under intolerable pressure by St John’s College.”
The artist, who pays £5,000 a year rent but maintains the building himself, has carried out numerous works for the university, including a memorial for the poet W.H. Auden.
He said: “I feel very disappointed that they see no need to continue supporting me when I have done so much for the university. There are now no places left in the city for artists. It reflects very badly on its cultural health.”
His comments were echoed by Jim Campbell, the Liberal Democrat councillor for the local ward, St Margaret’s.
“The eccentric nature of North Oxford is being eroded and destroyed,” he said.
“People are sad to see that it is just becoming a very expensive housing estate and nothing else. A young academic could never afford to live here now.”
Jennings’s neighbour, Sir Richard Doll, the distinguished epidemiologist who first linked smoking to cancer, described St John’s behaviour as “ruthless”. He said: “I have great sympathy with Jennings who is being turfed out without any clear reason other than money.”
Sukey Christiansen, who lives with husband Eric, a retired history don at New College, in a house backing on to Jennings’ workshop, said: “We don’t want this place to become a ghetto just for rich people. Jennings makes a continual noise chiselling away but we don’t mind. It is wonderful. It will be a great loss to the community if he goes.”
Dr Anthony Boyce, principal bursar at St John’s, said the college always tried to balance its responsibilities. “There are inevitably difficulties between a landlord and individual tenants but St John’s tries to be fair,” he added.
“We have a duty to manage our properties in order to generate income needed for principal services which are education and research. We regularly make substantial contributions to the local community and to poorer colleges in Oxford and the university.”