IN 1901 two middle-aged ladies from Oxford reported that during a trip to Versailles they had seen Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, both guillotined during the French Revolution. These were not ecstatic pilgrims overcome by the moment, but two serious academics accustomed to vigorous debate.

One of them was Annie Moberly, brought up within the walls of Winchester College, where her father was headmaster. She was the seventh of eight girls in a family of 15. At a time when girls could only be educated at home, she benefited from learning music with the school’s organist and sharing her brothers’ lessons in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Life in the Moberly home involved “fun, games, and habitual merriment, animation and playfulness”, according to Hampshire novelist Charlotte Yonge, who was a frequent visitor. But Annie faced a future as the “home daughter”, with all that meant. After her father retired from the headship he was appointed bishop of Salisbury. She became at first his secretary and then his nurse-carer until his death in 1895.

It looked as if she faced a future of genteel poverty, but all changed when she was invited to become the first principal of St Hugh’s Hall, a new college for girls set up in Oxford. It wasn’t, in fact, much of an offer. There were only four students, lodging in a private house, and none at the time was recognised for graduation from the university – that had to wait until October 1920.

Annie, however, had no doubt seen her father in action at Winchester. By the time she retired in 1915 what was to become St Hugh’s College had 60 students and purpose-built premises.

Annie left the college in the hands of Eleanor Jordain, who had set up the trip to Versailles and played a leading role in the uproar that greeted news of the vision. The story hit the headlines in 1911 after it was described in a book by “Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont”.

On visiting Versailles, it said, the two women had got lost and came upon a deserted cottage and gardeners wearing three-cornered hats and long coats. They also saw a lady sketching on the lawn in eighteenth century dress – this they claimed was the long-dead queen beside her rustic retreat, the Queen’s Hamlet.

It might be imagined that the two Oxford academics would be outraged at the way in which such a personal story had been released to the detriment of their academic reputations. But it was they who were to blame, as they had written the book An Adventure themselves under pen-names! It has recently been reprinted with attribution and the unlikely subtitle A True Story About Time Travel.

Eleanor Jourdain, it turns out, was prone to fantasies. During the First World War she claimed that a German spy was living in the Oxford college. Later, her behaviour became so unusual that in 1924 she faced mass resignation of academic staff. Politely termed “the row”, it ended with her sudden death.

St Hugh’s graduates include the former Prime Minister Theresa, Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi and Emily Davison, the suffragette who died under the hooves of horses at Epsom in 1913.

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By Barry Shurlock