In Oxford, the River Thames is reborn as the Isis, sharing its name with the Egyptian goddess who famously resurrected her brother from the grave. These mythic associations have always seemed a trifle grand for a muddy waterway in northern Europe, but then again, you only have to venture a little way downstream from the city to find a community that also died and rose again.
As you approach the first meander below Sandford Lock, you will see it: a palatial white cube commanding the heights above the bend, coyly half-veiled by trees yet impossible to miss. In outer appearance at least, it owes more to the Tiber than the Nile. During the eighteenth century, the fashion for all things Greco-Roman was still strong among the English aristocracy, with numerous lords vying to imitate the architecture of the Renaissance – or to give it its literal meaning, the ‘rebirth’ – which they had admired on their Grand Tours in Italy. The First Earl Harcourt was one such nobleman, who co-founded the Society of Dilettanti for enthusiasts of Mediterranean travel, and he wanted a Palladian villa of his very own on his Oxfordshire estate. There was just one problem: his chosen hilltop beside the river, which today makes his mansion so striking, was at the time already occupied by a village of his tenants. His solution was to demolish the entire settlement of Nuneham Courtenay and rebuild it a mile to the east, leaving space for landscapers to create his personal Arcadian idyll.
Although one visitor noted that “the poor people were very unwilling to leave their old habitation and several houses in the New Village remained for a long time uninhabited,” in the end there was no saving the first incarnation of Nuneham Courtenay from death at the earl’s command. Nonetheless, it would not be left without a eulogy. The poet Oliver Goldsmith had heard of the settlement’s destruction, and saw it as symbolic of a larger malaise. This was the age both of empire and of enclosures, when fortunes made in overseas trade allowed wealthy landowners to further consolidate their grip on property that had previously been held in common. These actions then accelerated the emigration of the displaced rural poor to the colonies, a cycle which Goldsmith viewed as inherently destructive. In protest, he made Nuneham Courtenay – fictionalised as “sweet Auburn,” and merged with aspects of other abandoned hamlets in both England and his native Ireland – the subject of one of his most famous and political poems, The Deserted Village.
Although much of the poem is devoted to boilerplate bucolic imagery, in which Goldsmith wistfully recalls the lost pastoral joys of yesteryear, its saccharine nature only makes its polemical parts feel all the more acerbic. In one particularly notable passage, he lambasts the grim fate awaiting England once its countryside has been parcelled out into the playgrounds of the rich:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
For all its modern-seeming concerns about imperialism and inequality, Goldsmith’s was a fundamentally backwards looking vision, which saw little prospect for reviving its lost paradise of rustic yeomen. The Deserted Village helped to cement his reputation as one of the giants of eighteenth-century letters, and provided an eloquent epitaph for a vanished community, but it did nothing to bring the original Nuneham Courtenay back from the dead. Nonetheless, the estate built on the hamlet’s ruins was eventually to host a rather more effective – if somewhat unlikely – avenger of its demise.
This figure was none other than Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt KC, the First Earl’s distant heir. Although his family owned Nuneham House, as a younger son he wasn’t expected to inherit the estate himself, so he threw himself into law and politics and in 1868 became MP for the City of Oxford. After rising high within the Liberal Party, he was then appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer under Gladstone. In this role, his crowning achievement was passing the 1894 budget and its sweeping ‘death duty’ reforms.
Previously, the UK’s system of inheritance tax had been a haphazard patchwork of minor levies, but the Liberals now consolidated and expanded it, whilst also introducing progressively higher rates for larger estates. Henceforth, every death in a landholding lineage was to take a substantial bite out of its property, and this contributed heavily to the decline of England’s great aristocratic households as the twentieth century wore on. Goldsmith’s requiem for an abandoned village was thus replaced by artistic laments for dying country houses, the most famous of which featured another Oxford-linked mansion, the fictional Brideshead Castle.
Meanwhile, the fate of Nuneham itself involved enough dark twists to be almost worthy of Waugh. Although death duties were originally dubbed the “second son’s revenge” on their elder siblings who stood to inherit, following the deaths of his brother and nephew Sir William ended up being hoist with his own petard. Apocryphally, on returning to Nuneham House in 1904, he exclaimed “I have inherited a bankrupt estate,” only for his agent to reply, “and whose fault is that, Sir William?” To cap it all, his own death a few months later hit the family with a second round of inheritance taxes in quick succession, and the fortunes of the Harcourts ceased to flourish and started to fade. The next owner, Lewis ‘Loulou’ Harcourt, managed to keep the estate going for another generation by marrying a nouveau riche niece of JP Morgan, but his own political career was chequered, and at one point his vehement opposition to women’s rights led to Nuneham being targeted by arsonist suffragettes. After Loulou died in surreal circumstances (quite literally: he was found dead following a sex scandal involving Edward James, the future patron of Dali and Magritte), his son became a banker and sold off the property for good in 1948.
Preoccupied with the harmful consequences of emigration, Goldsmith had derided Britain’s overseas dominions as merely a “horrid shore,” home to “crouching tigers [who] wait their hapless prey, and savage men, more murderous still than they.” He is unlikely to have predicted that, as well as colonial plunder, these distant lands might one day provide England with new peoples and new ideas. Yet that has indeed happened, and this holds the key to the most recent transformation to have shaped his no-longer-deserted village.
Derived loosely from Hinduism, the Brahma Kumari spiritual movement emerged in mid-twentieth century Hyderabad, and is particularly notable for its strong tradition of female leaders. One of these, the redoubtable Dadi Janki, moved to England in 1974 and died recently at the age of 104, having in the interim overseen a worldwide expansion of the movement and the conversion of Nuneham House into its flagship Global Retreat Centre. After carving off a portion of the estate to make an arboretum, Oxford University (which bought the land from the Harcourts) was experimenting with various uses for the mansion, and in 1993 the building was leased to the Brahma Kumaris. It now offers courses in meditation and Raja Yoga, and is run by a collective of volunteers who profess dedication to the goal of “helping individuals transform their perspective of the world from material to spiritual.” The Brahma Kumaris teach the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and it is tempting to believe that karma has finally triumphed; after being killed off by a greedy class which eventually brought about its own downfall, at long last old Nuneham Courtenay has been reincarnated as a new community, with a devotion to simplicity that would put Goldsmith to shame.
Inevitably, it’s not quite that neat. The whole point of cosmic wheels is that they don’t just stop spinning, and already fortune is on the turn. Inheritance tax has been a powerful mechanism for neutering the aristocracy, yet it’s unclear how much longer Sir William’s legacy will be left intact. The implosion of Trussonomics has caused ministers to retract recent proposals for the tax’s abolition, but in any case, the banking elite which absorbed the old families has already been wriggling free of its straitjacket via a growing network of tax havens and offshore trusts; it turns out that you can just as easily get rich off the tropics by stashing your wealth there, as you ever could by plundering them. Meanwhile, resource-extraction in former colonies can still fund plans to tear up bits of Oxfordshire. In 2017, Oxford University quietly sold off Nuneham Park to investors linked with an Australian mining corporation, who later announced proposals to turn swathes of the landscape into a gravel quarry.
Even the saintly-seeming Brahma Kumaris give the impression of being slightly more attuned to the material world than their original ideals might suggest. On viewing the slick website of the Global Retreat Centre, it’s clear how comfortably the movement now fits into the burgeoning industry of corporate wellbeing initiatives and mindfulness away-days. This soothing westernised image also coexists with the group’s slightly different profile in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been courting its support for his Hindu nationalist vision.
So, if Nuneham’s past teaches anything, it’s that Arcadias-on-Thames rarely last for long. Ill fares the land, and it shall fare ill again. Nonetheless, there’s some hope mixed in with all the poetic gloom. Change is always coming, but as long as we keep studying history, then nothing stays buried forever.
Written by Louis Morris
References  Malcom Airs, ‘Good & Not Expensive . . .’: Lord Harcourt’s Nuneham Courtenay’ in Architectural History 44 (2001), p. 394.  Mavis Batey, ‘Nuneham Courtenay: an 18th-century Oxfordshire deserted village’ in Oxoniensia 33 (1968), pp. 120-4.  Oliver Goldsmith, ‘The Deserted Village’, poetryfoundation.org [accessed 12 January 2023]  ‘History of Nuneham House’, globalretreatcentre.org [accessed 13 January 2023]  Eleanor Flegg, ‘Suffragette arsonist’s antiques to ignite auction’ in Irish Independent (27 September 2019). The would-be arsonists, Norah Smyth and Helen Craggs, were stopped by police before they could torch the building. Smyth went on to lead an eventful career as a photographer, actor, chauffeur to Emmeline Pankhurst, and collector of Buddhist items.  Goldsmith, Deserted Village.  ‘Where are we?’, brahmakumaris.uk [accessed 13 January 2023]  Sophie Grubb, ‘Backlash over gravel quarry plan in Nuneham Courtenay’ in Oxford Mail (4 March 2020)  ‘Focus on rights made India weak, says PM’ in TheHindu.com (20 January 2022)