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Robert Maxwell (1923–1991)

Robert Maxwell was born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch on 10 June 1923 in a poor, Yiddish-speaking orthodox Jewish family. His birthplace was Solotvino (then in Czechoslovakia but now in the Ukraine). Most of his family died in Auschwitz, but he escaped to France and fought in the British army in the Second World War.

He then worked in publishing, and built up Pergamon Press to a major publishing house.


In 1959 Robert Maxwell put in a tender to rent the whole Headington Hill Hall site for £2,400 a year, and although initially he used it solely for business purposes, he and his wife Betty and their eight surviving children soon moved into the Hall itself, relegating Pergamon Press to the old stables.

He restored the house, which had become dilapidated, and described it as the best council house in the country; other people jocularly called it “Maxwell House” (after a brand of instant coffee that was then popular).

The stained glass window

The original Victorian stained-glass window on the stairs had been damaged during the Second World War, and in 1966 Robert Maxwell replaced it with a new window (right).

It depicts Samson walking off with the town gates of Gaza, and was created by the Israeli sculptor and ceramicist Nehemia Azaz, it is believed to show Robert Maxwell himself as Samson, who has around his neck a large pendant, which is supposed to depict the head of Penelope and to indicate that behind every successful man there is a strong female presence. (This seems rather odd, in view of the damage Delilah did to Samson, and the fact that Penelope is a figure from Greek myth, not the Old Testament….)

In Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell (Penguin, 2021), John Preston records, "On one occasion, several of the children went out to the local cinema in Headington. Halfway through the film, a notice appeared on screen telling them to come home immediately.”

When his son Michael Paul Andre Maxwell died at the age of 21 on 27 January 1968 (seven years after suffering brain damage in a car crash on the way back from Thame), his funeral was held at St Andrew's Church in Headington before burial in Wolvercote Cemetery.

Maxwell served as the Labour MP for Buckingham for six years, but lost his seat in 1970 when the Department of Trade reported that he was “not a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company”. He was however completely cleared after a police investigation.

Maxwell then concentrated on publishing again, buying up companies such as the British Printing Corporation, Mirror Group Newspapers, and Macmillan Inc.

In 1973 Maxwell placed an advertisement in the Oxford Times stating:

Work in Headington at London rates of pay

Too good to be true? Not if you join one of the Maxwell group of companies. Here at Headington Hill Hall you will discover the advantages of working in an organization large enough to offer almost limitless scope, but not so large that good work and enthusiasm escape notice.

[Followed by advertisements for numerous jobs at Pergamon Press, from Executive Trainees down to a “Junior Cashier (female)”.]

The Maxwell helicopter was frequently heard passing over Headington.

His next important connection to Headington started near the beginning of 1982 when he saved Oxford United Football Club (which was then still at Headington) from bankruptcy. The following appeared in The Times of 8 January 1982:

Third division Oxford United Football Club were a mere two weeks away from bankruptcy when a fairy godfather in the shape of the mercurial Mr Robert Maxwell materialized at the Manor Ground on Wednesday night bearing the promise of a £120,000 cash injection to meet the club's immediate debts. He was insisting yesterday that he did not demand the chairmanship as a quid pro quo, but had it thrust upon him by the directors “like a bed of nails”.

Robert Maxwell owned the football club for ten years. He attended matches at the Manor Ground and was Chairman until May 1987, when he took over at Derby County. He handed the club over to his son Kevin.

In 1989 Robert Maxwell got into debt and had to sell some of his successful businesses, including Pergamon Press, which was bought by Elsevier.

When it was revealed that Oxford Polytechnic would become a university, Maxwell offered to donate £1million to it if they would name it Oxford Maxwell University. They refused, and in the event in 1992 it became Oxford Brookes University, named after John Henry Brookes, and it later ironically took on the lease of Maxwell's former home.

On 5 November 1991 when Robert Maxwell drowned at the age of 68 after apparently falling from his yacht into the Atlantic Ocean. He was buried in Israel (see grave). Headington Hill Hall was put in the hands of the receivers; and Denis Smith became Oxford United Football club’s chairman. Mrs Maxwell remained at Headington Hill Hall for a short period before selling the family’s possessions and returning to her native France.

Robert Maxwell was thoroughly disgraced just weeks after his death when a £460m hole was discovered in the pension funds of his companies: he had used the money to prop up his collapsing empire. His sons Kevin and Ian Maxwell went on trial for this but were acquitted in 1996.

Headington’s only memorial to Robert Maxwell is this inscription, set in a flower bed at the top of Headington Hill:

Pergamon inscription

There is a much fuller entry on Robert Maxwell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The ODNB online is available free to many public library users, including those in Oxfordshire:
enter L followed immediately by your library ticket number in the “Library Card Login” box

Wikipedia: Robert Maxwell

Brief BBC profile of Robert Maxwell

Original news report on his death from the Guardian

© Stephanie Jenkins

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