II. The first locations: Beaumont Street, Woodstock Road and Westbury Lodge
No photograph survives of the first embodiment of the MFO at 28 Beaumont Street, a house which Henri Fluchère discovered in October 1946 as a particularly harsh winter was approaching. It is hardly surprising that no one has tried to keep its memory alive. Indeed, despite being in a pleasant location, the premises were spartan, to say the least: "The present house has a ground floor, two upper floors and a basement. It is of mediocre size and has only two habitable rooms per floor. The furniture is of the usual rental type, i.e. unstylish, motley, worn and sometimes dirty.” The rationing system still in force made it impossible to buy textiles and it was therefore necessary to do without dishcloths, towels or curtains. Fluchère therefore invited his guests and the University authorities to have lunch or dinner across the street at the Randolph. Claude Schaeffer was not impressed by Beaumont Street either, although he did manage to praise its simplicity, which was in keeping with the post-war climate of austerity: “It does not really matter if, for the moment, our “Maison” looks temporary, simple and even poor. Our Oxford friends find this quite normal in the present situation; on the contrary, too much luxury could only upset them, as they themselves know the difficulties of making ends meet.”
As soon as the idea of a French Hall of residence was mooted in 1943-44, the question of its location arose immediately and there was already talk of choosing a site “in the north of Oxford, in the Banbury road area”. When the idea of a college was abandoned, finding a house closer to the city centre became a possibility, despite the significant pressure Oxford property after the war.
In mid-1945, Claude Schaeffer mentioned the possibility of moving to a building with a garage and a garden "not far from the collegiate centre". However, Schaeffer was not sure that a large enough place could be found and suggested renting and transforming two neighbouring buildings: the first would house the library (which also served as a conference room), the dining room, the club room, the smoking room, as well as the director's apartment; the second would be devoted to student accommodation and guest rooms. These two wings of the Maison, corresponding to a separation of public and private, functional and residential spaces, will be found twenty years later in the first architectural drawings of the Maison in Norham Road.
Failing to find two buildings, Schaeffer found out in January 1946, through Alfred Ewert and Cecil Maurice Bowra, that the lease on a St John's property, the Blackhall (then held by the surgeon Henry Souttar) was about to become available. It was one of Oxford's finest mansions, nestled in the very heart of the city, in wealthy St Giles. But it had to be taken quickly because the British Council was interested. The French embassy’s cultural adviser, René Varin, was unable to secure the necessary £2,000 in time. So, the building narrowly escaped becoming the MFO, which everyone had hoped would open in a location belonging to St John's, the college most closely involved in the MFO’s history.
Despite the help of St. John’s President, Cyril Norwood, of Arthur McWatter, Secretary of the University Chest, and of the Vice-Chancellor, Richard Livingstone, nothing suitable was found to replace the Blackhall and the MFO had to be housed in 28 Beaumont Street, after considering postponing its opening for a few months. It was René Varin himself who rented, 'on his own authority', this “furnished house in a very good location but whose rather dilapidated interior would not be suitable for our business”. Fluchère could at least count on an embryonic team: Roger Hibon was recruited as assistant director and Gilberte Delahaye as executive secretary.
Although MFO had been deprived of a teaching mission, British students were to be housed there (the first class of female students dates from 1962). They were supposed to breathe a "French atmosphere" and experience "French taste". The aim was twofold: to create lasting friendships between generations of European students that would prevent further conflict, and to ensure that not only future political leaders, but also future captains of industry, would look to France as a priority when signing contracts. After the failure of the Blackhall, finding a showcase for French taste became urgent. This time it was thanks to St Hugh's that the MFO found its first home, at 72 Woodstock Road. The house, today the Principals' residence, was called 'The Shrubbery'.
In December 1947 the MFO moved to 72 Woodstock Road, a house rented by St Hugh's called 'The Shrubbery', where it remained until the summer of 1963. The first photograph is one of a set of two, showing the same person working 'at the large desk' and then at their own desk, taken in the summer of 1949. It is one of the few photographs of the inside of 72 Woodstock Road and of the members of staff in the late 1940s. The second photograph was taken a few years later, on 12 June 1956. Arranged in a triptych, it shows Henri Fluchère on the left, greeting guests on the front steps with a hand in his pocket and a dog at his feet, while on the right, Jean Cocteau and W. H. Auden are talking happily. MFO staff members, as well as Monique Fluchère (daughter of Henri), between the outside and the inside of the Maison, bridge the gap between the two groups. Marie-Louise Gravagne-Fluchère, in the middle, in white, is the only one to catch the photographer's eye. This photo is not one of the better-known shots of Cocteau and Auden in their caps and gowns at the afternoon garden party, following the conferral of the honorary doctorate upon Cocteau (and to the Rector of Aix-Marseille University, Jules Blache) that morning. Taken either before or after the festivities, this more intimate photograph was not preserved as carefully as the professional ones; it was found in 2020 at the back of a wardrobe, in a sheet of white paper held together by two paper clips.
The third date that marks the beginning of the MFO is 4 June 1948, the official inauguration in the gardens of The Shrubbery, in the form of a first garden party, of which the MFO still retains the tradition. Lord Simon, High Steward of the University of Oxford, cut the tricolour ribbon. The BBC made a report about the event which was broadcast in France. Surprisingly, no photo has survived in the MFO archives, but here the menu of the official dinner can be seen, while another dinner was being held at the same time, in Christ Church. Printed in French, as was fitting, the material imperfections of a still artisanal production can be seen, with the grave and acute accents added afterwards. The dishes - grapefruit, salmon and roast chicken - seem modest, but this was neither for lack of funds nor for a lack of intention to make the day a special occasion; 5% of the annual budget for 1948, i.e. nearly £260, was set aside for the inauguration day alone.
By the mid-1950s, Henri Fluchère realised that he would either have to expand The Shrubbery or leave, given the pressure generated by a library that was gaining over 1000 volumes a year. In the summer of 1963, it was necessary to pack up, just as the Fluchère couple had to move back to France for good and the new director, Auguste Anglès, took up his post. While waiting for the construction of a new building, the first stone of which had been laid in 1962, all the activities of the Maison Française had to be relocated to the few rooms of a Victorian house that St John's had sold at the same time as numbers 1-10 Norham Road: Westbury Lodge. The furniture also had to be moved there, as well as the 17,500 volumes of the library. The MFO remained in Westbury Lodge for four years, from 1963 to 1967. Given the delays in the construction of the new building, and in the midst of negotiations for the UK's entry into the EEC, there were rumours in Oxford that the French government was unwilling to keep the MFO going.