Funny old thing is fashion; and sometimes dangerous too. Take North Oxford, for instance, that area of mainly Victorian buildings north of St Giles, so beloved of Sir John Betjeman, where houses these days change hands for millions.

In the early days of its existence it was almost too fashionable. No less a figure than John Ruskin, writing in the late 1870s, wondered why visitors should want to see Magdalen walks rather than “stroll under the rapturous sanctities of Keble” — that apogee of high Victoriana, designed by William Butterfield (1814-1900).

Then he asked: “In the name of all that’s human and progressive, why not walk up and down the elongated suburb of the married fellows on the cock-horse road to Banbury?” (By which he meant Banbury Road, of course.)

Interesting that he already thought of these extraordinary edifices as being the abodes of married dons. For centuries the myth has persisted that North Oxford grew up after college fellows were allowed to marry, and that they and their families were the first inhabitants. But cold fact spoils the myth: the celibacy rule for fellows only came to an end in 1877 as part of the University Reform Act which, after a hard battle, finally implemented at least some of the recommendations of a Royal Commission set up in 1871. Oxford’s expansion northward was well under way by then.

True, according to The Encyclopaedia of Oxford (edited by Christopher Hibbert and published in 1988), some married professors and university coaches lived there before 1877, but it was not until after that date that university fellows arrived. And there was much snobbery between town and gown, with incoming academics often looking down their noses at tradesmen next door who had got there first.

As early as 1826, T. Little wrote in his Confessions of an Oxonian: “Pastry cooks who had made fortunes out of cheating members of the University” should “not be allowed to pollute the magnificent entrances to the most beautiful of cities in the kingdom”, and the Encyclopaedia says that sentiment was flourishing into the 1870s.

But far from being too popular, by 1900 the pop-ometer had already veered violently the other way. In that year the Rev. W. Tuckwell, in his Oxford Reminiscences, wrote of “the interminable streets of Villadom, converging insatiably protuberant upon distant Wolvercote and Summertown”. He was the first of the 20th-century commentators who almost universally ridiculed North Oxford architecture for the next 70 years or more.

This fashion of loving to hate the place could well have resulted in the destruction of much of it, particularly in the 1960s when many of the original 99-year leases were running out. Indeed, in March 1962 St John’s College, the owner of much of the southern part of North Oxford, announced that it was preparing a development plan that would involve the demolition of several notable houses. The architect of the plan, Lionel Brett, remarked: “My personal view of North Oxford is that it is one of the most beautiful sites it is possible to imagine for modern buildings.”

As a champion of high Victoriana, even at a time when it was unloved and laughed at by many, councillor Anne Spokes turned to John Betjeman for help. By 1964, several of the threatened houses had been listed.

However, by that time one of the houses, at 31 Banbury Road, had already been pulled down to make way for St Anne’s College. Number 31 was built for a local tradesman called George Ward in 1866 by William Wilkinson — who used its picture in his book of recently erected English Country Houses.

Among the houses saved was Wykeham House, at number 56. It was built for Henry Hatch, the owner of a clothes shop in Magdalen Street, in 1866. Mr Hatch never lived there himself but let it to distinguished tenants including Prince Leopold, youngest son of Queen Victoria, who lived there when he was an undergraduate at Christ Church.