The house that Alys had built in Bagley Wood was meant to start a new and hopefully better chapter in their lives. An earlier plan to build a home in Barford, near Farnham, Surrey, in cooperation with Gilbert and Mary Murray had failed. The architect, H.M. Fletcher, who designed this house, had also been consulted with regard to the Barford house. Harry Fletcher had been at Trinity College at the same time as Russell, although he was reading Classics. His wife, Ruth Emerson, was an American, and like Alys was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. However, his most important tie to Russell was the fact that he was a cousin of Crompton Llewelyn Davies, one of Russell’s closest friends. Graduating in 1892, Fletcher set up his own practice in 1897. He was described by Hope Bagenal as a “born domestic architect. Many a house he fitted well into the countryside…. The organizing of family essentials was a passion.… He could be severe both with client and with builder; to build was a discipline. Yet he was always sympathetic and generous-minded” (p. 13). Fletcher died in 1953; his life was memorialized in an obituary in The Times, 11 August, p. 8.
The decision to finally settle after their nomadic years may also have been a practical one. Alys wrote to Russell on 22 March 1904: “moving is always a terrible expense, and the money seems to trickle away.” She oversaw the choice of the site. Alys wrote to Russell on 1 March 1904 about a location in Bagley Wood: “I should like to bring thee and Harry Fletcher and Crompton down to see it on Saturday week. Oxford people are much flattered at thy wanting to come here….” Either this visit did not take place or the site was not suitable. On 21 March she wrote that she had bicycled out to Bagley Wood and looked at two sites: Lower Sugworth and Upper Sugworth Copse. Bagley Wood was divided into different sections “in order to identify specific areas when the woodland was worked by many woodmen …” (email, Joyce Gibbard, 5 Dec. 2013). Alys liked the Lower Copse site better because it was “higher, has a better view & is more remote from the Abingdon Road. But it is a heavy clay soil…. Does thee think it will make it damp? If satisfactory, I will go down with Mr. Fletcher next week & meet the well borer there….” On 28 March she reported that Mr. Fletcher “was charmed with our site & entirely approved my choice, & did not mind the soil.” The well digger was to “begin operations at once” because nothing can go forward “until water is found. Meanwhile Mr. Fletcher is to modify plan II for our inspection.”
There is no further extant correspondence between them on this subject until 22 April 1905. Alys was eagerly awaiting Russell’s arrival on Monday. She wrote: “I do love thee very much, & it has been the greatest pleasure getting this house ready for thee. I hope thee will be happy here, and get some good work done.” Alas, the personal happiness was not to be although the work certainly took place. On 16 May 1905 Russell wrote to Gilbert Murray who was moving to Oxford: “I reached this house on Easter Monday; I like it and my study is so palatial I feel ashamed of it. The house itself seems to be very pretty, and the surroundings charming. I am working very hard, and living uneventfully.” On the same day he wrote to Helen Flexner: “This house is charming—much nicer than any since the Millhangar.” The next month, on 13 June, he wrote to Lucy Donnelly: “This place is a great success. The house is pretty & comfortable, my study is so palatial that I am almost ashamed of it, and the country round has the typical English charm of fields and meadows & broad open views, with Oxford & the river besides.… I find it a great advantage being in touch with Oxford people—it is easier to keep alive my interest in work when I can bring it into some relation with human interests.” The river Russell is referring to the Thames, which is quite close to Bagley Wood. Russell touched on some of the reasons why Bagley Wood had been chosen in this letter to Lucy. Ronald Clark in his biography of Russell wrote that they moved there to be close to Alys’s mother who was then living with her son Logan at Court Place, Iffley (p. 100). However, Barbara Strachey indicated that the Pearsall Smiths did not move to Court Place until two years after the Russells established themselves at Bagley Wood. Court Place was “just across the river” (p. 235).
Mildred Minturn, an American friend, visited in early June. Russell had mentioned her visit to Lucy Donnelly in his letter of 13 June. She described Bagley Wood as being “on top of a hill in real country three miles from Oxford. There is the loveliest quiet English view from my window … Alys has made this house so liveable and charming. Bertie knew nothing of it between the time when they chose the site last August and the day he came back from a walking-tour to find his clothes in the bureau drawers and his books on the shelves. That’s the way to be a great philosopher” (Allison, p. 138). It is highly unlikely that Scott is correct about August, as March was the date agreed upon in the extant correspondence.
The following year, on 26 March, Russell wrote to Margaret Llewelyn Davies: “Our wood is lovely, when it isn’t under snow. It has been almost as cold as the sunny south, but Bagley Wood is full of spring flowers, & we walk in it with a sense of achievement, after all the labour of getting permission.” Permission must have been needed from St. John’s College, the owner of the land. There are two indentures, dated 2 October 1904 and 31 January 1906, at the College signed by Russell re leasing the land (Sephton, p. 2). There is also mention of a lease in Crompton Davies’s letter to Russell of 9 May 1905: “The agreement provides that the College shall grant you a lease within three months after their architect has certified that the house has been completed—that lease will contain the provision about insurance. I will ask Messrs Morrell Son & Peel to send me the draft lease as soon as possible….” Payments were not complete until 1906; Russell had to sell some investments. Fletcher, the architect, got his final payment in May, making his fee £1,415 (document .300424); Kingerlee, the builder, was paid by June (two amounts are listed in document .100540 of £500 and £400). On 11 May Crompton wrote: “Fletcher advises insuring at once for £1,200 which is sufficient.” The insurance policy was taken out on 13 May.
Caroline Moorhead described the house as: “a white, undistinguished building with Italianate shutters and brick work. It is remarkable inside chiefly because it is almost without corridors.… It is light, the architect having angled the windows so as to bring in as much daylight as possible from the surrounding woods, and the Russells filled it with Delft tiling.” It was set in “Bagley Wood, three miles south of the city centre; it was thickly wooded, very green, with open meadows across which could be see the river and spires of Oxford” (p. 133).
The house had been designed to facilitate Russell’s work. He wrote to Ivy Pretious in an undated letter: “Going to a new place will for a time diminish the complications of my life as well as the pleasure. As soon as I come back from my walk, I shall plunge into work, which is almost as good as drink for producing oblivion, & quite as bad for producing headache. I have had a bad conscience about my work; for several years now I have not been interested in it, & I must try seriously to recover some of the zest with which I used to pursue it” (Clark, p. 103).
In his Autobiography Russell wrote: “very shortly after we had moved in I discovered my Theory of Descriptions, which was the first step towards overcoming the difficulties which had baffled me for so long…. In 1906 I discovered the Theory of Types. After this it only remained to write the book out…. I worked at it from ten to twelve hours a day for about eight months in the year, from 1907 to 1910. The manuscript became more and more vast, and every time I went out for a walk I used to be afraid that the house would catch fire and the manuscript would get burnt up” (I: 152). On 10 November he wrote to Lucy Donnelly: “My work has gone very well this summer… I have made more solid and permanent progress than I usually do (I: 180). On 1 January 1906 he wrote again to Lucy: “I spent the first hour and half of the new year in an argument about ethics, with young Arthur Dakyns, who is supposed to be my only disciple up here.… He is the only person up here (except the Murrays) that I feel as a real friend…. Lately I have been working 10 hours a day, living in a dream, realizing the actual world only dimly through a mist” (I: 181).
Visitors to Bagley Wood included Phillip and Ottoline Morrell (Monk, p. 181). Another visitor was Helen Dudley,1 who was studying Greek with Gilbert Murray at Oxford. She arrived at Bagley Wood with a “letter of introduction from Lucy Donnelly” (Monk, p. 355). Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson visited. He and Russell were photographed2 in front the French doors at the back of the house. While in Clovelly in the spring of 1906 Russell commented in a letter to Alys: “I am amused by the photo: Dickinson is absurd but still more or less characteristic; I am all mustache” (document .300424). With regard to this photograph Joyce Gibbard wrote to me: “This was taken on the terrace at the end pair of doors. There used to be shutters. These were removed by the Pedersens when they altered things about and put a dreadful garden room extension on the living room (called a study when Russell was here). We had to take it down when it began to leak and lean!” (email, 6 June 2020).
In 1907 Russell ran for Parliament. He wrote his manifesto to the electors of Wimbledon (B&R A6) at Bagley Wood on 3 May 1907. Two months later Alys wrote in her Journal: “… I had a real joy in preparing this house & garden for him, hoping that he would like the place & the people….” Also in 1907 Arthur Russell visited the house and sent Agatha Russell photographs he took, which unfortunately do not appear to have survived. In the summer of 1909, from 30 July to mid-August Russell took a walking tour in the Italian Dolomites with C.P. Sanger; Alys noted this absence in her Journal on 8 September. The following year in the train on 29 July 1910, Russell wrote to Murray: “Longmans are publishing my collected essays.3 The other proofs amble on.4 My head is full of plans for new work and projects of lectures.” He and Sanger walked in "Carinthia and Styria and the N.E. of Italy" (to Helen Flexner, 20 Aug. 1910).
In the autumn of 1910 Russell returned to Cambridge to lecture on the principles of mathematics at Trinity College. He shared lodgings with Alys in Bridge Street, and he also had rooms in Nevile’s Court. On 23 January 1911 Virginia Woolf visited Bagley Wood and wrote a letter to Clive Bell from there. “... I went first to Court Place.… We had an icy motor drive over to Bagley” (Letters, pp. 449–50). Bertrand and Alys Russell are not mentioned in this letter. Marjorie Strachey, the sister of Oliver who was engaged to Ray, Alys’s niece and Katherine Cox were present. The house may have been up for sale. The reason for Woolf’s visit is unclear.
The house was sold to R.E.S. Spender who lived both at Quarry Cottage, Northleigh, Witney, Oxon and in London at 44 Hyde Park Gate. The estate agent, Joseph H. Stretton, wrote to Crompton on 7 March 1911: “My client Mr. Spender is prepared to offer £1,000 for Mr. Russell’s house at Bagley Wood provided the drains are in order & there is sufficient supply of water throughout the year for domestic purposes including the Bath Room especially during the three months of July, August and September.” The Russells were taking a considerable financial loss with this sale. The contract of sale was dated 25 April although Spender wrote to Alys on 4 May that he would not be moving in until June. Writing to her sister Mary on 14 June, Alys told her: “We had discussed his going [to Cambridge] without me, & my staying at Bagley Wood, and only keeping up nominal relations. We decided, however, to try Cambridge, but it was not a success, and so the separation had to be avowed and not nominal, after all our fuss about a house, etc.” By this point she knew about Russell’s affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, which began just before he left to lecture in Paris on 22 March, but it is not mentioned in this letter. In his Autobiography, Russell wrote that he threatened suicide if Ottoline’s name was ever mentioned (I: 204).
The dispersal of their furniture dragged on after they left the house. It was in storage in more than one location. On 3 October 1911 Alys wrote that the desk belonging to Russell’s father was at 68 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and he could collect it from there. She was going to return a desk that had belonged to Evelyn Whitehead to her. On 23 January 1912 she let Russell know that she would be eventually sending on to him “the little oak table, thy family photographs, china & ornaments, & some papers of thine.” Several years later, on 29 September 1918, she had to admit that she could not find “that old bundle of thy parents’ letters.” She was sending him “some old papers & articles.” She also noted: “This is the miniature so unfortunately injured by a servant.”5
Bagley Wood has been renamed several times: the Russells formally called it Lower Copse but informally just referred to it as Bagley Wood. Their printed letterhead changed from “Lower Copse, Bagley Wood, Oxford” to “Bagley Wood, Oxford”. The lack of a more specific name was presumably made possible by the fact that their home was the first and for some time the only one in Bagley Wood. The house was renamed Halshanger by the Spenders. When the property was sold to Lettice Davenport she changed the name to St. Giles. Before moving to Bagley Wood she had been living with her father in St. Giles, Oxford. Its current name, Nuthatch, was bestowed by Ronald Goldstein and kept by the subsequent owners, the Gibbards. The address is 103 Bagley Wood Road, Oxford.
There were two magazine articles published about the house, then named Halshanger in 1924, one in Country Life and the other in Homes and Gardens. R. Randal Philips’s article in Country Life in February 1924 was one of a series6 on “The Lesser Country Houses of Today.” It began with a discussion of old English and Georgian styles, which were both popular then. He commented that Bagley Wood does not fall into these styles, instead its design suits its building site “a clearing in the copse … made for it.” The house is constructed of brick covered with coarse plaster. The author noted: “When first built, the house had not the flanking walls with their arches” which are seen in the illustrations in the article. The author also remarked on the “large study lined with books and designed to accord with the literary pursuits of the client.” Russell was the client, not the current owner, but no mention is made of him. The photograph of the study in the article looks like a sitting room.
Robert Stanley in Homes and Gardens disagreed with Philips, writing that the house was “frankly modern, yet imbued with the lingering tradition of an old English building.…” Although Fletcher’s name appeared in Philips’s article, it was Stanley who described the architect’s “keen sense of value, as well as a right knowledge of design and materials.” He pointed out that the shutters were green. He described the furnishings in detail and noted the “blue Dutch tiles” that surrounded the fireplace. He indicated that the house would cost £2,400 to build in 1924 because building costs had doubled since 1914.
Both Philips and Stanley noted the lack of corridors. The floor plans printed in both articles and the book Small Family Houses are the same except for a room labelled “Hall Dining Room” in Country Life, which is not labelled in the other two. The plans show a large study on the ground floor as well a drawing room, dining room, entrance hall, water closet and a kitchen with associated rooms (pantry, larder, scullery). The coals room was attached to the kitchen but the only entrance was from outside. The first floor had four bedrooms, a dressing room, box room, and bathroom. There were two fireplaces downstairs and three upstairs.
It is not known why the house would have been covered by two magazines in 1924. However, the publications were related as “Telegrams ‘Country Life’” appears in the masthead of Homes and Gardens. Philips’s article was condensed and published in Small Family Houses. The floor plans are printed again; the photograph of the study is different and is labelled “the sitting room.” Although all three publications appeared in 1924 the outdoor photographs in Country Life were taken earlier; the garden planting in Homes and Gardens is much more mature. Also although it is Philips’s article that is condensed in Small Family Houses, two of the photographs used are from Stanley’s article.
The name of estate agents, James Styles & Whitlock, and the date July 1935 are handwritten in the margin of the copy of Country Life I accessed. The house was sold in 1935 or possibly 1936 to Lettice Davenport.
Ivor Grattan-Guinness took photographs when he visited c1973. At that time the house was called St. Giles; a sign with this name is attached to the brown pump house in the foreground of the photograph. The owners Mr. and Mrs. Pedersen, who had purchased the home in 1970, gave him a tour. They had thoroughly renovated the house and the gardens. The flanking walls with the arches, which were added after Russell left, were gone. The home might have had to be demolished to make way for a by-pass road to Abingdon. Instead the new road passed more than 200 yards away. Ivor was also told a delightful story by an employee of the Bagley Wood Sawmills of Russell trying to commandeer the bicycle of his father, the postman. Russell failed. Ivor also learned that Russell and his second wife, Dora, took tea with the Spenders in 1923.
Front photographed by Ivor Grattan–Guinness c.1973; the name St. Giles is visible on the front of the shed.
“In 1977 the house was purchased by Ron and Hazel Goldstein, both McMaster University students, to live in while Ron pursued his doctoral studies at Oxford. Kenneth Blackwell, the Russell Archivist, and his wife, Kadriin, had visited the Bagley Wood home that spring and learned from Mrs. Pedersen that it was for sale.7 The Blackwells told their friends the Goldsteins about the opportunity, and they took it.” (Blackwell email, 26 Feb. 2014). The Goldsteins changed the name of the house to Nuthatch. The outbuilding with the name St. Giles was not there when they moved in. “It covered a well which was there and no doubt still is, which in Russell’s time contained the septic outflow which was emptied by a bucket a couple of times each week by the gardener and deposited in a cesspit at the rear of the garden…. I don’t know when the mains drains were installed” (Goldstein, email, 23 April 2014). Ron was an admirer of Russell. “Following a frightening incident in Damascus en route from Australia to the UK in 1985 we changed our name from Goldstein to …. Russell” (email, 18 April 2014).
The next owners, Joyce and Simon Gibbard, bought the property from the Goldsteins in 1983. Joyce has been very helpful in providing information about the house. With regard to the well she wrote: “It’s all sealed up and the magnificent winding mechanism is still in place. It must have been a lot of work for someone to pump the water up 100 ft. approximately to ground level and then into a huge holding tank in the attic for household use” (email, 12 Dec. 2013). The tank remains in the attic as “it was placed there before the roof went on. Not in use.”
When I began revising this article I contacted Joyce again. She told me that in July 2018 her granddaughter “Lizzie (aged 4 at the time) had been badgering us to do some metal detecting as she wanted to find some treasure and delay bedtime. To our amazement she unearthed the spoon. A local silversmith repaired it for us” (email, 10 March 2020). The photographs she sent me illustrate a blackened object broken in half as well as the restored spoon. Engraved on the Apostle spoon8 are the words: “Alys 1889.” The date does not seem significant in Alys’s life; perhaps her parents gave her a spoon every year until the set was complete. Alys must have missed the teaspoon. It is stunning that the spoon was not found then but instead more than one hundred years later. The spoon evokes long-ago tea parties that the Russells held on the lawn. I also thought of the line in the poem9 that T.S. Eliot wrote about Russell, although this was after he left Bagley Wood: “When Mr. Apollinax visited the United States / His laughter tinkled among the tea cups.”
Joyce told me that she and Simon had decided to sell. Attached to her email of 12 March was the sales brochure. In the same email she wrote: “Ron Russell and his wife did visit several summers ago…. The name change from St. Giles … to Nuthatch was because of the presence of so many of the birds of that name in the woods, beautiful little birds. When he moved in, he handed over the keys and said ‘Please feed my lovely birds’ and we have.…”
I inquired about the land surrounding the house. Joyce replied: “we were able to purchase the 7 acre block of woodland alongside our property from St. John’s college in 1985 … they were reluctant but the area was of no significance to them…. But to us, it was a very important woodland as it buffers the property from the intrusion of noise….” She went on to write: “The Russells built on leasehold land of 1.5 acres, the Spenders had the same agreement … and Lettice Davenport the same … and when the Pedersens bought in 1971 they were able to secure the purchase of the leasehold and a further 1.5 acres … thus making it a land holding of 3 acres. When we purchased in 1983 from the Goldsteins, it was just the three acres.”
In a long email of 7 June 2020 Joyce recounted much of the house history. “The Spenders created a very formal Italianate garden with roses and stone pathways, very long and wide formal flower beds leading from the terrace down to the then woodland edge, installed under ground water storage tanks (brick built) to take the rainwater from the house roof…. Tanks still used for that purpose today.” Images that appear in Country Life and Home and Garden are from this period. “Mains water did not arrive until mid 1930s (unconfirmed but local legend)…. They had a resident gardener…. When the Russells lived here, they would have had to have help to run the place. And it would have been hard work. It would, at that time, have been difficult to keep warm so required constant fires in all rooms…. In the winter … it would have been very cold indeed!.... Some anecdotal stories from the village elderly whose parents or family were hereabouts when Alys and Bertrand were, intimate that local village girls were employed but did not live in.” This confirms the use of domestic staff; the Russells had always employed a gardener, cook, and a maid.
Joyce went on with regard to the Pedersens: “Up until that point, the kitchen had one of those black cooking ranges, with ovens either side, which not only cooked but provided some heat and hot water. The scullery still existed which was fed cold water from the large tank in the attic … but the range was the only source of hot water for the whole house. The book-lined study (living room) was still in situ, and the house was laid out in the floor plans of Small Country houses. The Pedersens set about re-jigging the kitchen into one large functional area. They created a new and different ground floor living area…. And they constructed a large flat roofed building to the West side of the house to accommodate cars, sauna, garden room etc. In addition, a conservatory style room was added to the living room.” Much of this work was done to substandard levels. “We had to redo a lot of the work … and brought most of the original ground floor layout back into existence, which we like very much. We took the conservatory addition off also (it always leaked) and replaced the flat-roofed garage build with a more appropriately designed building, which is what you see in the [estate agent] photos.”
A comparison of the 1924 floor plans with the 2020 plans show that the box room has vanished, absorbed into a new larger bathroom and the dressing room is now a bedroom, bringing the total to five. Downstairs the kitchen has of course been modernized and the scullery, larder, and pantry are gone. There is now a utility room.
While the Gibbards lived there, the house was visited by Nicholas Griffin, past director of the Bertrand Russell Research Centre. He was there in May 2005 to film a documentary about Russell’s life, “Three Passions”. Alas the company, Red Canoe, which was producing the documentary folded before the project could be completed. Griffin was filmed on the grounds of the house; inside Alan Ryan was interviewed. Robert M. Sephton, a local historian also visited Bagley Wood when Joyce and Simon Gibbard lived there and he published a pamphlet about the house.
The sale of Bagley Wood closed a chapter in Russell’s life. His and Whitehead's masterpiece, Principia Mathematica, had been finished within its walls. His first marriage ended there (with the caveat that he left Alys for good from Fernhurst). Russell embarked on a very new life—a life without a wife to arrange his domestic life—but a life he embraced.
© Sheila Turcon, 2020
Leslie Minturn Allison, Mildred Minturn: A Biography. Shoreline: Ste Anne de Bellevue, 1995. Emails: Kenneth Blackwell, Ron Russell and Joyce Gibbard to the author. Archival Correspondence: Alys Russell, Gilbert Murray, Lucy Donnelly, Margaret and Crompton Llewelyn Davies, Mary Berenson, Mildred Minturn. Documentary: “Three Passions”, Red Canoe, rough cuts. Kingerlee is still in business, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018.
Kenneth Blackwell, “Editor’s Notes”, Russell, nos. 23–4 (Autumn-Winter 1976): 2.
Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell. London: Jonathan Cape and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975.
Henry Martineau Fletcher, Some Architectural Writings (St. Albans, Herts.: Staples Printers Ltd., Feb. 1957); includes Hope Bagenal, “H.M. Fletcher: A Memory and Portrait”.
Ivor-Grattan Guinness, “Russell’s Home at Bagley Wood”, Russell no. 13 (Spring 1974): 24–6.
Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude. London: Jonathan Cape, 1996.
Caroline Moorehead, Bertrand Russell: A Life. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.
Nigel Nicolson, ed., The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1, The Flight of the Mind 1888–1912. London: Hogarth Press, 1975.
R.R.P. [R. Randal Phillips], “The Lesser Country Houses of To-Day: Halshanger, Bagley Wood, Near Oxford”, Country Life 55 (9 Feb. 1924: 221–2); reprinted with omissions as “‘Halshanger,’ Bagley Wood, Oxford” in R. Randal Phillips, Small Family Houses (London: Country Life, New York: Scribners, 1924), pp. 77–80.
Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1872–1914, Vol. 1. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.
Robert Stanley, “In a Woodland Setting: A House of Restful Character in Harmony with Its Surroundings”, Homes and Gardens 6 (Oct. 1924): 161–5.
Robert M. Sephton, “Searching for ‘Halshanger’”, Kennington History Society, 2007.
Robert M. Sephton, Bertrand and Alys Russell in Bagley Wood, self-published, 2007, 2010.
Barbara Strachey, Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Family. London: Gollancz, 1980.
Alasdair Urquhart with the assistance of Albert C. Lewis, eds., Foundations of Logic, 1903–05, Vol. 4 of The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell. London: Routledge, 1994.
Emails: Kenneth Blackwell, Ron Russell and Joyce Gibbard to the author.
Archival Correspondence: Alys Russell, Gilbert Murray, Lucy Donnelly, Margaret and Crompton Llewelyn Davies, Mary Berenson, Mildred Minturn.
Documentary: “Three Passions”, Red Canoe, rough cuts.
Kingerlee is still in business, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018.