History of the Nettleship Library (IV): Hartland House

This article is part of a series.  Click to read the first, second and third entries.

In 1936, the Nettleship Library was 15,000 books housed in “four dark little rooms” at Jowett Walk.  The Society of Oxford Home-Students, for 60 years now a somewhat nomadic entity, had desperate need of more permanent space to call its own; where clubs and societies could meet but “above all where they can have a really good library” [p.4, Proposed Central Buildings for the Society of Oxford Home Students].

The Annual Report of the Society in 1929 makes brief mention of an anonymous donation for a trust to provide buildings for the Society [p.5, 1929, Society of Oxford Home-Students: Annual Report].  The mysterious benefaction and reportedly mysterious sum of money soon became clearer in Mrs. Hartland, who had been searching in earnest for a site to accommodate the Society’s needs for several years.  In 1932 she found it when by chance two houses with adjoining gardens, one on Woodstock and the other on Banbury Road, came up for sale.  More fortuitous still was that the houses adjoined 33 Banbury Road, where the Wantage sisters leased Springfield St. Mary; run as a hostel for Home-Students.  Mrs. Hartland paid £19,325 for the site and founded a Trust Fund to support the construction of a Society building.

Musgrave House [St Anne's College Archive]

With pressure on from the University to vacate Jowett Walk, good fortune struck again when Mrs. Florence Musgrave left the remainder of her lease on 1 South Parks Road (Musgrave House) to the Society.  The house provided a good base for administrative operations as well as rooms for the Principal and tutors.  This also had the effect of ensuring that Mrs. Hartland’s new building could be devoted to library and teaching space.

The renowned architect Giles Gilbert Scott had been employed in the early ’30s to design the New Bodleian Library, a vast book-stack that would sink deep into Broad Street and house hundreds of thousands of books.  It was with some enthusiasm then, that Grace Hadow (Principal 1929-40) engaged him to design the Society’s new building.  She wrote in The Ship of 1935-6 of her excitement at being part of same grand architectural scheme and that it would be worth waiting a year or two if their new building could be said to rank among other ‘architectural icons’ [pp.28-33, 1935, The Ship].

Giles Gilbert Scott's plans for Hartland House with the first module outlined in thicker black.  The first floor is entirely unchanged in the present day. [Proposed Buildings for the Society of Oxford Home-Students]

Mrs. Hartland’s Trust Fund was valued at £15,000, perhaps enough to build one module of a larger building but not enough to support all of the Society’s needs immediately. Gilbert Scott’s design was a clever one, a large building with all that the Society needed, but that could be made in three modules as funds became available.  The first, for which £15,000 would suffice, would contain just the library and lecture rooms.  Even then, the daunting sum of £5000 needed to be raised as an endowment to support running costs.  The Ship of these years reports the charming fundraising initiatives of students and alumnae as they ran dances, whist and tennis tournaments, and sold sweets to contribute what they could to the endowment fund.  The projected costs for the whole building were £65,000 – a further £50,000 on top of the Trust Fund.

Once the design had been approved, the first wing of Hartland House sprung up in a little over a year, being structurally finished in October 1937.  With the New Bodleian under construction from 1936 to 1940, the Society’s little library up the road must have felt like an interesting side project to Gilbert Scott, and perhaps even somewhere to try out designs or materials.  Mrs. Hartland remained involved in the minutiae of the design, helping to choose materials and even going so far as offering to tear down several barns on her own property so that their red-flecked stone might be employed.  Fortunately, this was deemed unnecessary though her contribution is evident elsewhere in the motto inscribed on the South side of the building: “Get knowledge, get riches, but with all thy getting, get understanding”.  She was also adamant that the building should have a sturdy stone roof and reportedly sold several of her personal treasures to contribute funds towards the extra cost.

Hartland House finished in 1937 with only the South wing and 'Johnson Tower' built. [St Anne's College Archive]

Miss Bigg (the Librarian of the Nettleship) retired after 18 years in 1937 and a new librarian, (Mary) Christabel Draper, managed the move of the Nettleship books from Jowett Walk into their new lodgings during the Christmas Vacation.

On 16th January 1938, a ‘Blessing of the House’ service saw the building open for use for the first time.  An official opening ceremony was planned for the summer but the Library was very much in use before then, as evidenced in the amusing excerpt below; taken from a letter to Giles Gilbert Scott from Grace Hadow:

“I am really rather horrified to find that the new library is attracting people so much that even on fine sunny afternoons it is full of young women industriously reading.  The Librarian tells me that never has our library been so constantly in use.  I think it is rather interesting to see how beautiful surroundings do definitely have an effect on people in their work.”

[p.24, St Anne’s College, Oxford : An informal history]

The Library design, with the Geldart Law Library housed separately and opposite to the Librarian’s office, ensured that existing access arrangements could continue.  The Law Library would remain open to students of all the women’s colleges, whilst the Main Reading Room was for Society students only.

An official opening ceremony was held on 16th July, 1938.  The Vice-Chancellor, Mrs. Hartland, Giles Gilbert Scott, the Principal, Tutors, Friends, some 200 Old Students and a group of American summer school students were in attendance.  Mrs. Hartland herself opened the building with a silver master-key.  Opinion was divided over the carved beavers above the West door, but the Society’s new Library itself was a resounding success.

The New Bodleian Library (since reopened as the Weston Library), also designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.  The building bears some resemblance to Hartland House in its architectural features. [http://oxfordhistory.org.uk]


Butler, R. F. (1957). St Anne’s College : A History : 1879-1953. Oxford: St Anne’s College. http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/OXVU1:LSCOP_OX:oxfaleph013422686

Reeves, M. (1979). St Anne’s College, Oxford : An informal history. Oxford: St Anne’s College. http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/OXVU1:LSCOP_OX:oxfaleph012336645

Society of Oxford Home-Students (1936). Proposed Buildings for the Society of Oxford Home-Students.  http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/OXVU1:LSCOP_OX:oxfaleph015532255

Society of Oxford Home-Students (1911-). The Ship.  http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/OXVU1:LSCOP_OX:oxfaleph012374042

University of Oxford (1922-). Society of Oxford Home-Students : Annual Report

This article was written and researched by Duncan Jones (Reader Services Librarian).