Margaret Louisa Woods (née Bradley; 20 November 1855 – 1 December 1945) who lived on Boars Hill was an English writer, known for novels and for her lyrical and socially conscious poetry.
The following account, written for the BHA in November 2022, was the last piece written by longstanding Boars Hill resident: Prof. Philip Stewart.
You may have lived for years on Boars Hill without wondering why there is a red-brick section visible from the road between the pseudo- mediaeval stonework of Foxcombe Hall and the half-timbered buildings on the right. The answer is that the brickwork is the front of Thessaly Cottage, the oldest brick house on the ridge of Boars Hill, completed in 1887 for the poet and novelist Margaret Woods and her husband, the Revd Henry Woods, President of Trinity College.
Margaret Woods, known to her family and friends as ‘Daisy’, was one of the most important people ever to live on the ridge of Boars Hill; in fact, she can be said to have founded the entire settlement. Living 45 years in the 19th century and 45 in the 20th, she was also a valuable witness to both periods. Her father, George Bradley, took holy orders and married Marian Philpot, ‘a woman of rigid views’ from a clerical family. This rather alarming couple produced five daughters, all of whom became writers, as did one of the two sons. Margaret was their third child. In 1870 the family moved to Oxford, where Margaret grew up and where George Bradley became Master of his former college, University.
In 1879, Margaret married the Revd. Henry George Woods; they were to have three sons. Henry became President of Trinity College in 1887 and it was of that time that Margaret wrote in her journal: ‘We were the first to plant a house on what was then the wild and lonely ridge of Boar’s Hill.’ It was familiar territory to her where, as a girl, she had often ridden with her father, but it must have seemed daring indeed to build a house in what was little more than a wilderness. Margaret, who was to publish six collections of poetry, two poetic dramas and seven novels, was doubtless of an original and romantic nature.
They bought twenty acres of Wootton Heath, sloping south from the ridge, on which they erected ‘an ordinary little home looking out on an extraordinary view’, across the valley to the Berkshire Downs. It was designed by Henry Wilkinson-Moore, the architect of many of the houses of North Oxford, and completed in 1887.
There had actually been one earlier house on the ridge. Swiss Cottage, a less permanent structure constructed in wood in the 1870s, was rebuilt in brick, also in 1887, and eventually named ‘Masefield House’ after its famous occupant. John Masefield was Poet Laureate from 1930-1967.
Robert Bridges (who preceded Masefield as Poet Laureate), had known Henry Woods from undergraduate days, and in the 1880s became a good friend of Margaret’s, sharing her poetic interests. For years they corresponded on the subject of Keats, a special interest for both and on whom Bridges was writing a book. He named his younger daughter after Margaret, and when his wife and daughter Margaret fell ill with TB, he decided to move them to Boars Hill for fresh air.
A glimpse of life in the cottage is given by Lawrence Binyon, a student at Trinity:
‘In the summer term of 1890, when I was half-way through my time at Oxford, I was invited by the Woods to dine and meet Robert Bridges, whose name I then heard for the first time. The President had a cottage on Boars Hill, the only house then existing on that heathy ridge, which has since become thick-sown with the dwellings of dons and poets. We dined at this cottage and walked down after dinner in the midsummer twilight.’
While on Boars Hill Margaret published the first two of her novels and the first of her collections of verse. She was also lively and enterprising, and seems to have been one of the first to take up the safety bicycle, with two equal-sized wheels and chain drive, which made women independent by giving them their own personal transport. One of her poems describes the joy of swooping down [Hinksey Hill?] into town. She gained a considerable following in literary circles, although her work is now largely forgotten. A major theme was a special sympathy for the rural poor.
The idyll was not to last. Margaret Woods suffered from bouts of depression and she craved the distractions of life in town. In 1893 the Woods sold their Boars Hill property to Lord Berkeley and in 1897 Henry Woods resigned his Presidency for reasons connected with Margaret’s health.
They spent increasing amounts of time in London, where he was Master of the Temple (Temple Church, by the Inns of Court) from 1904 until his death in 1915. Margaret, by then a highly regarded novelist and poet, was invited to give a lecture tour in America, but details of this are scanty. She died at the age of 90 in 1945 and is interred with her husband in Holywell Cemetery.
Thessaly Cottage was extended and made use of by Lord Berkeley, but the back of the cottage burnt down with the rest of the south facade in It was rebuilt in stone by the Church of England, who had just bought the building for Rippon Theological College.
For residents today, Margaret Woods is best known as the woman who put Boars Hill on the map. Probably the most important thing she ever did – certainly with the most far-reaching consequences – was to sell her red-brick cottage to Lord Berkeley in 1893.