Oxford: Crime, Law and the University

By Cassie Watson; posted 21 December 2016.

The literature that considers law and crime in the city of Oxford is relatively sparse. Giles Brindley’s popular study relates cases drawn from the records of the assizes, quarter sessions and vice-chancellor’s court, augmented by news reports from Jackson’s Oxford Journal, to provide an excellent source of factual data mostly covering the years 1632–1849.[1] His primary source base seems however to be largely limited to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The index reflects the book’s sub-title, Crime, Death and Debauchery, with substantial entries for murder and suicide but none for more mundane crimes such as assault or prostitution.

For insights into a wider range of offences we can turn to Anne-Marie Kilday’s work on theft in Oxfordshire,[2] George Rousseau’s article on the eighteenth-century scandals concerning alleged homosexual assaults by college fellows,[3] or Arthur Engel’s article on prostitution in nineteenth-century Oxford.[4] An article published in 1975 looked at juvenile delinquency in the city, based on Oxford Police Court records for the period 1870 to 1914, but the author considered only boys under the age of 19. John Gillis outlined the dialectic between rough and respectable youth in the city, which often manifested itself in riotous behaviour, before identifying a clear role for youth organisations and the increasingly confident police in the pacification of the city’s working class youth.[5] Adrian Ager’s recent monograph investigates the relationship between legislative reforms, socio-economic change and crime in urban and rural districts of North Oxfordshire 1830–1885, focusing mostly on less serious offences like poaching (a largely rural activity), petty theft (which was motivated by privation), and prostitution (the hub of the trade was at Oxford).[6]

The multi-volume official history of the University has little to say about law and crime in Oxford, although it does provide details about some of the key areas of discord between the town and the university, most especially over the night watch — should it be carried out by the proctors (University officers responsible for enforcing university discipline and handling complaints) or the city constables — and the right to felons’ goods, both recurring disputes throughout the seventeenth century. In 1636 under the terms of its new charter the university gained the right to appoint its own coroners — apparently there were two — to deal exclusively with scholars and privileged persons (privilegiati), a right maintained until franchise coroners were abolished in 1928. Other areas related to law and order included the policing of prostitutes, which the university proctors took upon themselves; and the remit of the vice-chancellor’s court, which became a court of record in 1636 and emerged as the only remedy for the pursuit of debts against the privilegiati, a group that included matriculated persons such as fellows, students and selected townsmen, normally tradesmen (who continued to be matriculated until 1874 despite the fact that the practice should have come to an end with the Municipal Reform Act of 1835).[7] However, the vice-chancellor’s court was almost entirely limited in scope to debt actions, its role in cases of breach of peace and morals having apparently faded in the sixteenth century.[8] During the eighteenth century the proctors continued to commit prostitutes to bridewell, and in 1799 they read the Riot Act at Carfax as town versus gown rivalry flared once again. As Oxford was an assize town students were discouraged from attending trials and, more especially, executions, but certainly the proctors did, at least on occasion. With the institution of a new lectureship in anatomy from 1624, the regius professor of physic had the right to claim the body of one of the felons executed after each Lent assize, to be the subject of four complete lectures.

The university’s control began to weaken during the nineteenth century. When the watch again became a source of dispute traditional roles were reversed, since by then the university wished to shed a costly burden and the city no longer wished to take it over. According to the Victoria County History, the vice-chancellor’s jurisdiction extended beyond members of the university as long as the university controlled the night police, since he dealt with those they arrested. “Sometimes townsmen were handed over to the city magistrates, but even after the amalgamation of the city and university police forces in 1869 the proctors arrested disorderly persons on the streets, usually vagrants and prostitutes, and brought them before the vice-chancellor. In 1893 the city rejected a proposed compromise, and the system remained theoretically unchanged, though little used, until 1968, when all ex officio justices of the peace lost their places”.[9] This marked the formal ending of the vice-chancellor’s criminal jurisdiction and his status as a magistrate, though it had become unusual for him to claim jurisdiction over cases involving members of the university.

My own interest in the history of crime and law in Oxford lies mainly in the fact that the city and university so rarely feature in the historiography of crime. Scholars recognise the decisive role of Sir William Blackstone in establishing the common law as an academic subject, via his Commentaries on the Laws of England, as Wilfred Prest’s biography shows,[10] but there seem to be few empirical studies of the sort that abound for London and other regions of the British Isles, studies in which the criminality of the populace and the reactions of the authorities are analysed using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data. Given that Oxford is only 50 miles away from London and has pretty good records, why hasn’t it received more attention?

Town and Gown

Part of the problem may be the fact that some of the criminal justice history of the region is so closely tied to the university that it cannot be studied using the sources that are the bread and butter of historians of crime: criminal indictments and depositions. While the county’s assize and quarter sessions minute books are fairly complete for the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and similarly the assize indictments, the depositions are rather less full: they start only in the 1820s, as I know from having gone through all of the relevant boxes at the National Archives. There is one exception: depositions survive from the examination of witnesses against Sarah Exlade, who was charged with killing her bastard child at Cromarsh Gifford in August 1771.[11] About 5% of the surviving depositions for the Oxford Assize Circuit (which included Oxfordshire and seven neighbouring counties) cover Oxfordshire up to 1914, the end of my period of study. The records thus preserved tend to include cases of homicide only, although depositions against a man for bestiality with a cow (during the summer of 1832) have somehow survived.[12] Evidently Oxfordshire was not a very violent county: only five men were hanged for murder between 1800 and 1836, out a national total of 496.[13] There were more people executed for property crime, including arson, but those depositions do not survive.

newes-title-pageIronically, however, two of the most famous early modern cases of homicide concerned women tried and executed in Oxford. The story of Anne Greene will be known to many. She was born in 1628 in Steeple Barton, and became a servant in the household of Sir Thomas Read at the manor house in nearby Duns Tew. She was seduced by her master’s grandson and gave birth to a child, which she drowned at birth, according to Robert Frank’s chapter in the History of the University. Convicted of murder, she was hanged on 14 December 1650, cut down after being suspended for a half hour and taken to a house for dissection; there, the four university physicians were astonished to find that she was still alive! William Petty (1623–1687), Thomas Willis (1621–1675), Ralph Bathurst (1619/20–1704) and Henry Clerke (1621/2?–1687) brought about her recovery within a week. She was granted a free pardon and immortalised in several pamphlets, the most notable of which, Newes from the Dead, written by “a Scholler in Oxford”, included a number of poems. Despite the grim subject one can only smile at doggerel such as: “Now we have seen a stranger sight / Whether it was by Physick’s might / Or that (it seems) the Wench was Light.”[14] If it did little for Oxford’s poets, William Petty admitted that the affair had bettered his reputation.[15]

L0036006 Mary (Molly) Blandy before her execution, 1752A hundred years later another young woman was hanged in Oxford, either in the Castle yard or on a raised mound at the Westgate. Mary Blandy was tried in March 1752 for the arsenic murder of her father; the trial was held in the hall of the Divinity School because the normal venue, the Town Hall, was under refurbishment. I have previously written of her case that it was the first in which convincing scientific proof of poisoning was given.[16] The crime took place at Henley-on-Thames and at first a local apothecary was called in, then Dr Anthony Addington (1713–1790) from Reading, who in turn sent for Dr William Lewis (1714–1781) from Oxford. Addington was the main prosecution witness, an Oxfordshire local who became the father of the first Viscount Sidmouth, Home Secretary during the early nineteenth century; he took his MD degree in January 1745, having matriculated at Trinity College in 1731. Lewis was a Londoner who matriculated at Christ Church in March 1731 aged 17 and took his medical degree in 1745. Together these close contemporaries did much to secure Blandy’s conviction:

Dr Lewis, the other physician, who has likewise been sworn, stood by all the while, and confirms Dr Addington’s evidence, tells you he observed the same symptoms, and gives it absolutely as his opinion that Mr Blandy died by poison, of which he has not the least doubt.[17]

The sorts of studies that can be done on Oxford crime and criminals must to some extent be limited by the available sources, which are themselves influenced and possibly restricted by the scope of the University’s influence. For instance, when looking for examples of local suicides for use in a class on the history of forensic medicine and the way in which medical ideas about melancholia affected inquest verdicts, I discovered Thomas Creech (1659–1700). He was a translator and classical scholar, a fellow of All Souls who became a parish minister in 1696 but continued to live in Oxford. In July 1700 news spread that he’d killed himself: “He was found dead in a Garret … on July 19, 1700 … but he had hung some days, as was guess’d, for the body then stunk”. There was much conjecture about his motive, with professional failure, a desire to emulate classical Roman suicides, and an unrequited love affair all thought to be reason enough for suicide. However, the more likely explanation is that Creech killed himself during a bout of depression, from which he’d suffered for several years. The final decision may have been related to despair over debts, but the coroner’s inquest declared him non compos mentis, not of sound mind.[18]

What research projects could be done with the records kept by the university coroners, if indeed they have been preserved? County coroners’ records are notoriously patchy because they were under no obligation to keep them; those for Oxfordshire are not particularly extensive, covering mainly the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Who were the university coroners and how did they do their jobs? Who did they seek medical evidence from? According to the Oxford History website, the practice of matriculating tradesmen survived as long as it did because they provided men to form a jury “in case the university coroner had to hold an inquest during the vacation, when it might have been difficult to find twelve real members of the university in residence”.[19] This raises some interesting questions for an historian of crime and forensic medicine, not least because normally an inquest jury was made up of more than 12 men. How different from city or county practice was University inquest procedure?

Another way in which the University’s jurisdiction might potentially make criminal justice history difficult was revealed by George Rousseau’s study of the homosexual scandals that occurred during the mid-eighteenth century; particularly the alleged assault by a fellow of Christ Church named William Lewis on a chorister. This was not the medical William Lewis mentioned above, but another one, who became the object of an attack by a former Balliol law don, George Wilmot.[20] The taunting jeer “Wadhamite–Sodomite” had emerged in the aftermath of an earlier homosexual scandal in 1739 when the warden of Wadham College fled to France after raping an undergraduate.[21] Students too are known to have committed suicide or left under a cloud: in 1774 a student was disciplined for “flagrant acts of lewdness and immorality” but his name was expunged from the college records after he had served out his punishment.[22] My point here is related to Wilmot’s, who objected to the fact that the vice-chancellor acting as a magistrate had dismissed a criminal case. How many other suicides and rapes might it be difficult to identify and include within a historical study of crime in Oxford? I looked for evidence of the Lewis case in the Oxfordshire History Centre but found nothing in their criminal files. Perhaps it is possible to write a history of violence in the city of Oxford which considers gown alongside town, but it will require recourse to different record sets than have typically been the norm amongst criminal justice historians.

Some Areas for Research

In conclusion I’d like to note a number of lines of investigation that it would be useful to pursue. What was the role of the university in training magistrates? Of the many clerical justices of the peace,[23] a great number must have studied at Oxford. What was the role played by Oxford dons and residents in criminal cases and how was that dealt with by the proctors over time? How did the university coroners carry out their duties and from where did they seek evidence about cause and manner of death? Who were the felons who were dissected after execution? How much money did the university receive from forfeited felons’ goods? What was the relationship between the large number of medical practitioners in the city – 22 in the 1790s as compared to only 9 attorneys[24] – and the criminal justice system? I suspect that a great deal of the most interesting information resides in college archives, so that researching the history of law and crime in this venerable university town will necessitate diligent attention to the perspectives of town, gown and court.

Town and Gown riot, November 5th. From Verdant Green [1850s]—Image courtesy of Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre (Picture Oxon), ref. POX0079287.

Mary (Molly) Blandy, before her execution for poisoning her father (etching, 1752)—Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

[1] Giles Brindley, Oxford: Crime, Death and Debauchery (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006).

[2] Anne-Marie Kilday, “’Criminally poor?’: Investigating the link between crime and poverty in eighteenth century England”, Cultural and Social History 11 (2014): 507-526.

[3] George Rousseau, “The kiss of death and cabal of dons: blackmail and grooming in Georgian Oxford”, Journal of Historical Sociology 21 (2008): 368-396.

[4] Arthur J. Engel, “’Immoral intentions’: The University of Oxford and the problem of prostitution, 1827-1914”, Victorian Studies 23 (1979): 79-107.

[5] John R. Gillis, “The evolution of juvenile delinquency in England 1890-1914”, Past and Present 67 (1975): 96-126. The medieval city was a much more violent place, though homicide seems to have been experienced mainly by those lowest on the social scale: Carl I. Hammer, Jr., “Patterns of homicide in a medieval university town: fourteenth-century Oxford”, Past and Present 78 (1978): 3-23.

[6] A. W. Ager, Crime and Poverty in 19th-Century England: The Economy of Makeshifts (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[7] Oxford History, “The privileged tradesmen of Oxford”, http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/mayors/government/1_privilegiatus.html [accessed 14 Dec 2016].

[8] A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford (London: Victoria County History, 1979), online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol4/pp74-180#s17 [accessed 14 Dec 2016].

[9] Ibid., http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol4/pp181-259#s13 [accessed 14 Dec 2016].

[10] Wilfred Prest, William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 308.

[11] The National Archives (hereafter TNA), ASSI 6/1 part 2, Rex v Sarah Exlade (Oxfordshire, 1771).

[12] TNA, ASSI 6/2, Rex v William King (Oxfordshire, 1832).

[13] 1800–1827 Public Executions, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/1800.html; 1828–1836 Public Executions, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/1828.html [accessed 14 Dec 2016].

[14] Newes from the Dead. Or a true and exact narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Greene, who being executed at Oxford Decemb. 14. 1650. afterwards revived and by the care of certain hysitians [sic] there, is now perfectly recovered. Together with the manner of her suffering, and the particular meanes used for her recovery (Oxford: Leonard Lichfield for Thomas Robinson, 1651), 9. The ‘scholler’ was Richard Watkins (1623/4–1708), of Christ Church.

[15] Robert G. Frank, Jr., “Medicine”, in Nicholas Tyacke (ed.), The History of the University of Oxford, Volume IV, Seventeenth-Century Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 545-546.

[16] Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), 3-5.

[17] The judge’s charge to the jury, in William Roughead (ed.), Trial of Mary Blandy (Glasgow and Edinburgh: William Hodge, 1914), 118.

[18] Hermann J. Real, “Creech, Thomas (1659–1700)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxforddnb.com.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/view/article/6661 (accessed 14 Dec 2016).

[19] http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/mayors/government/1_privilegiatus.html.

[20] George Wilmot, A serious inquiry into some late proceedings in vindication of the honour, credit, and reputation of the University of Ox—d, relative to an offence of a certain member of the same (London: printed for J. Goddard, jun., 1751).

[21] Rousseau, “The kiss of death and cabal of dons”, 371-372.

[22] Judith Curthoys, The Cardinal’s College: Christ Church, Chapter and Verse (London: Profile Books, 2012), 188-189.

[23] W. M. Jacob, The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680-1840 (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

[24] The Universal British directory of trade, commerce, and manufacture: comprehending lists of the inhabitants of London, Westminster, and borough of Southwark and of all the cities, towns, and principal villages, in England and Wales (London: Printed for the patentees at the British Directory Office, 1793-1798), vol. 4, part 1 [Oxford].

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