Burrowing deep into the birthplace of Bilbo Baggins
telegraph.co.uk – May 22, 2004
A comfortable family home in north Oxford was the inspiration for the best-selling works of JRR Tolkien. Richard Wilcock enters the Hobbit’s lair, now up for sale
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So begins one of the most famous books of the 20th century, The Hobbit, published in 1937.
The description of Bilbo Baggins’s burrow is short: “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole and that means comfort.” And so began the author, John Ronald Reuel (JRR) Tolkien, as he read to his three sons, seated on the floor of the study at 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, at the start of an evening of family entertainment.
When Tolkien took up the professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925, he looked for a comfortable home for his wife, Edith, and three sons, John, Michael and Christopher. In 1926, the family moved into 22 Northmoor Road in leafy north Oxford. Tolkien became a familiar figure cycling along the Banbury Road, travelling between home and Pembroke College on his extraordinarily high-seated bicycle while wearing cap and voluminous gown.
The family was to spend 20 years in Northmoor Road, but not all at number 22. Basil Blackwell, the famous bookseller, had built the house next door, number 20, in 1926. In 1929, the Blackwells moved out and, as John and Priscilla Tolkien relate in their book, The Tolkien Family Album (HarperCollins, London, 1992), the Tolkiens “decided to move in over the fence”. They became “deeply attached to this house, which was our home for 17 years”. Priscilla, the Tolkiens’ only daughter and fourth child, was born in 1929 and was to spend her entire childhood there.
Basil Blackwell was the son of Benjamin Henry Blackwell, the founder of the famous Oxford bookshop. He was a devoted fan of William Morris and this was expressed in the design of 20 Northmoor Road. The detailing is simple, rather severe. The oak front door is small for such a large house and tucked away discreetly in a corner recess of the west elevation. Outside, the façades are plain pebble-dash with leaded light windows. Inside, there is little decoration; the panelled doors have no mouldings, the simple, brick fireplaces could be by Philip Webb, designer of Morris’s Red House at Bexleyheath. Like Morris, Blackwell yearned for the country idyll; life in the suburbs was not for him and he soon moved out of Northmoor Road with his ever-expanding family to a Morris-style country house at Appleton in Berkshire.
Quiet and unassuming, the house matched Tolkien’s personality perfectly and it formed the backdrop for a happy family life. “The most exciting room was Tolkien’s study, which was never out of bounds except when he had students with him,” John and Priscilla remember. “The study was very much the centre of Ronald’s home life, and the centre of his study was his desk.”
At the desk in the window, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and much of The Lord of the Rings. The children recall the clutter on the desk: a dark-brown wooden tobacco jar, a Toby jug containing pipes and a large bowl for ash. There were also the materials with which Tolkien created the remarkable illustrations for his books: Quink and Stevenson coloured inks, boxes of Koh-i-Noor coloured pencils and tubes of paint. Priscilla remembers her father demonstrating the effective use of Chinese White while painting what was to be his favourite illustration, Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves.
Tolkien always denied that external events, specifically the rise of the Nazi party and the Second World War, had influenced the narrative of The Lord of the Rings. But it is impossible not to make a connection between the evil of Sauron, the threat to the Shire, and the worsening political situation in Europe during the 1930s. Tolkien had fought in the First World War at the Somme so he had experienced the horrors of war at first hand, including the death of all but one of his close friends from his youth in Birmingham.
During the Second World War, 20 Northmoor Road was to become a refuge from the conflict. A tennis court at the end of the garden had been turned into a vegetable patch in the 1930s and Edith’s aviary, in which she kept exotic birds such as budgerigars and canaries, was turned into a hen-house; both were invaluable in supplementing the rationed food. By the end of the war, the house had become too large for Tolkien and his wife and daughter (the boys had all left home). It was sold in 1947 and the family moved into a small, terrace house in Manor Road. But they were never really to settle and the magical atmosphere of Northmoor Road was never re-created.
After a number of owners, the Maclagan family acquired the lease of number 20 in 1952 and bought it outright in the 1970s, when Oxford colleges were rationalising their property holdings. The lease was still held by St John’s, so the house was bought first from the owners, Trinity College, and the freehold acquired at a later date.
Michael Maclagan was to become a renowned figure in Oxford, in both the university and city communities. He had a prestigious family background: his grandfather was Archbishop of York and his father, Sir Eric Maclagan, was director of the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1924 until 1944. Michael was elected fellow in medieval history at Trinity College in 1939 and also served as dean, librarian and wine steward (the latter task may explain why the parties at 20 Northmoor Road were so successful).
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