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‘Good & Not Expensive . . .’: Lord Harcourt’s Nuneham Courtenay

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 April 2016

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The definitive historical study of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the village of Nuneham Courtenay, a few miles south-east of Oxford, was published more than thirty years ago. In a wide-ranging essay Mavis Batey recounted how the first Earl Harcourt, founding President of the Dilettanti Society, embarked in 1761 on the creation of an appropriate landscape garden to complement the setting of his newly completed classical villa. An essential preliminary to the landscaping was the necessity to remove the medieval village out of sight of views of the house, and as early as 1760 work had already begun on building a new settlement outside the confines of the park. Progress was rapid, and by the autumn of 1761 the new estate village placed astride the Oxford-Henley turnpike was a going concern (Fig. 1). There is little to add to Mrs Batey’s account of the controversy that accompanied this arrogant display of the power exercised by eighteenth-century landlords over the lives of their tenantry apart from taking the opportunity to record that her own further research has confirmed the tentative identification of Nuneham with Oliver Goldsmith’s critical poem The Deserted Village. An entry in the manuscript notebooks of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, recording a visit to Lord Harcourt on 20 August 1800, reads:

The village was originally in the Park at no great distance from the House and consisted of pretty white cottages, scattered round a small piece of water and shaded with a number of very fine trees. The late Lord Harcourt thinking the village too near the house, built a new one on the Oxford road, about a mile from the mansion house. But the poor people were very unwilling to leave their old habitation and several houses in the New Village remained for a long time uninhabited. And this was Goldsmith’s Deserted Village — so Lord Harcourt told me.

Section 9: Towns and Villages
Copyright © Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 2001



1 Batey, Mavis, ‘Nuneham Courtenay: An Oxfordshire 18th-Century Deserted Village’, Oxoniensa, XXXIII (1968), pp. 108-24Google Scholar.

2 Lambeth Palace Library, Porteus Notebooks, vol. 4 (1800): MSS 2101, p. 3. I am grateful to Mavis Batey for sending me a transcript.

3 Hannah, Gavin, The Deserted Village: The Diary of an Oxfordshire Rector, James Newton of Nuneham Courtenay, 1716-86 (Stroud, 1992), p. 103 Google Scholar.

4 Northants Record Office, H(K) 192: Earl of Harcourt to William Hanbury, May 1767. I am indebted to Dr Keith Goodway for permitting me to make use of his discovery of this letter and to Mavis Batey for alerting me to its existence.

5 Colvin, Howard, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, 3rd edn (New Haven & London, 1995), p. 941 Google Scholar.

6 Young, Arthur, A General View of the Agriculture of Oxfordshire (London, 1813), pl. iv Google Scholar.

7 Mavor, William, A General View of the Agriculture of Berkshire (London, 1809), p. 71 Google Scholar.