Alice in Wonderland in Oxford
The original tea party on an Oxford riverbank inspires a beloved fantasy realm
On July 4, 1862, Christ Church College mathematics professor Charles Dodgson and a friend hired a boat for an afternoon and invited the three daughters of the college dean, Henry Liddell, to join them on the river.
It was a “golden afternoon,” according to Dodgson’s diary: “...the cloudless blue above, the watery mirror below, the boat drifting idly on its way.” They had tea on the riverbank, and Dodgson entertained the girls with a fantastical tale of a child’s underground adventures, casting young Alice Liddell in the lead role.
Dodgson—better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll—later recalled that, “...in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.”
Carroll didn’t invent Wonderland from whole cloth. He threw in bits of his everyday life at Oxford—for instance, a cat named Dinah that was fond of napping in a tree in the Deanery garden.
Alice Liddell would buy candy from The Sheep Shop on St Aldates (since renamed “Alice’s Shop”), so Carroll turned it into a Wonderland shop owned by an actual sheep in Chapter 5 of Though the Looking Glass.
Dodgson even had his very own rabbit hole, a spiral staircase hidden by the wood paneling on the dais behind the staff table in Christ Church college’s grand dining hall, which he often used to slip out quietly after dinner.