Category Archives: Meeting report

October 2020: Artists in Wonderland – Mark Davies

On 12 October, via Zoom, Mark Davies (local historian and author of Alice in Waterland) described and illustrated the adventures in Oxford of some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and their encounters with Thomas Combe, Printer to the University, philanthropist, and art collector; and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In 1850 John Millais and Charles Collins were experiencing what Millais described as ‘Bottleyonian privations’, receiving poor fare at a boarding house near Wytham Woods. Through James Wyatt, an Oxford art dealer and picture framer, they met Thomas and Martha Combe. Martha supplied them with a meat pie; and Thomas assisted Millais in locating the shoes of the child model for The Woodman’s Daughter, so that Millais could paint them accurately. Collins later painted the flowers for Convent Thoughts in the garden of the University Press in Jericho, where the Combes lived.

The Pre-Raphaelite ‘Brotherhood’ in Oxford expanded to include Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones. They attempted, without proper preparation, to paint murals of Arthurian legends in the Union Society’s  library. The daughters of Mrs Lipscombe, landlady of the Trout Inn, Godstow, were noted ‘stunners’. Rossetti persuaded Morris to journey to Godstow to ask one to model for Isoude. He met with a heated refusal, and returned crestfallen to Oxford.

Charles Dodgson was also in the Combes’ circle. His photographs are particularly valuable because he carefully identified and dated them: for example Holman Hunt and Thomas Combe in 1860, Millais in 1865, and Rossetti in 1863.

St Frideswide’s well at Binsey, which would probably have been known to the Pre-Raphaelites from sketching and walking over Port Meadow, was the inspiration for the treacle well in Alice. And the ‘Drawling-master’ is said to be based on John Ruskin. He and others, especially the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, advised Dodgson not to use his own drawings, which led to him engaging Tenniel as his illustrator.

Martha Combe inherited Thomas’s collection, and bequeathed much important Pre-Raphaelite art to the Ashmolean Museum. Search for ashmolean.org to look at it online, and check about visiting.

Reports of earlier meetings

September 2020: The Wilts & Berks Canal: Past, Present, and Future – Martin Buckland

On 21 September, appearing via Zoom and resplendent in a luxuriant pandemic beard, Club member Martin Buckland related the history, and hoped-for future, of the Wilts & Berks Canal.

That, including the ampersand, was always its official name, starting with its enabling Act of Parliament of 1795. Canals were then prospering, because for bulky or fragile cargoes they were better than the rough – and often impassibly muddy – roads. The Wilts & Berks opened in 1810, offering a new 52-mile route from Semington (on the existing Kennet and Avon Canal) to Abingdon. This route was (and one day could again be) much shorter than via Newbury, Reading, and the Thames. The Wilts & Berks had branches to Chippenham, Calne, and Wantage; and later a link to the upper Thames at Cricklade.

The Oxford Canal had brought the price of coal (from Coventry) in Oxford down to £1.60 a ton, undercutting sea coal from Newcastle at £2.60 a ton, brought via London and the Thames. The Wilts & Berks hoped for lucrative traffic from the Somerset coal fields. It also carried grain for the Abingdon breweries. But there was little return traffic from Abingdon to the west.

The route passed through what were, in 1810, fields near the small market town of Swindon. From 1840, the canal briefly prospered, carrying materials for the building of Brunel’s Great Western Railway and the new Swindon railway works and town. But the canal thus brought on its own decline, because the railway captured much of its traffic. The canal bore increasingly unsustainable losses. Traffic had largely ceased by 1901, and the canal was formally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914. Its land was transferred to the adjacent landowners, although the local authorities retained responsibility for the bridges. Many stretches were built on or filled with rubbish, and some lock structures were used for demolition practice by the army.

In 1971 Jack Dalby’s pioneering book ‘The Wilts and [sic] Berks Canal’ was published, and awakened enthusiasts’ interest in restoring the canal to navigation. This is now being energetically taken forward by the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, in cooperation with the local authorities and the national Canal & River Trust. Several short stretches are open to navigation, and there are credible plans for new routes past Swindon and through Melksham.

2006 saw the triumphant opening of the first stretch of a completely new section of canal leaving the Thames nearly opposite the Culham Cut, and planned to replace the original route from Abingdon through Caldecott. That is now irretrievably built over: only a pretty bridge at the mouth of the Ock remains as a memento of the Canal’s wharf there. A free downloadable leaflet is available to guide you on a fascinating walk around the old and new routes from Abingdon.

Reports of earlier meetings

Reports of Club meetings in 2019-2020 published online

After each speaker meeting a short report is produced for submission to the local parish magazine, Radley News, and to circulate to members in the monthly Club newsletter. The reports for September 2019 to March 2020 have now been published on the Club website. Unfortunately the COVID-19 crisis has meant that the meetings planned for April to July 2020 had to be cancelled.

Read the reports

Report of September 2019 meeting

Hanging and escapes at Oxford Castle – Mark Davies

On 9 September, after Radley History Club’s usual brisk annual general meeting, Oxford historian and narrow-boat resident Mark Davies narrated gruesome tales about crimes and punishments at Oxford castle and prison.

In the 17th century, the gaolers ran the prison as a money-making family business, and you could be imprisoned for making ‘saucy and rash comparisons’ between your wife and ‘the best wives in the town’. In 1650, Anne Green was hanged, falsely accused of killing her stillborn child. As usual, her body was cut down to be used by medical students. They noticed she wasn’t dead. She revived and lived on until 1662.

Jack Ketch – the brutal executioner of Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth – was so infamous that he figured in Punch and Judy shows. Mr Punch protested that if he, Punch, was cruel to have murdered, then Ketch would be cruel to hang him; and then tricked Ketch to put his head in the noose.

In 1752 Mary Blandy was hanged for poisoning her father with arsenic. She claimed to have trusted her suitor that the powder was a love potion to make her father less hostile towards the intended marriage. In 1761 they hanged Isaac Darkin, a handsome and silver-tongued highwayman whose ‘sufferings made a deep impression on the tender hearts of the ladies’. In 1776 rewards were offered for the apprehension of two young women who had escaped from the by then dilapidated prison.

From 1787 Daniel Harris began an enlightened policy aimed at rehabilitating the prisoners, putting them to work in the prison, and helping build the Oxford Canal. Harris went on to become the architect of Abingdon gaol.

Responding to a question after his talk, Mark Davies confirmed that, according to at least one source, in 1142 Empress Matilda escaped from a snow-bound Oxford Castle camouflaged in a white cloak.

All these stories and many more are in Mark’s book, Stories of Oxford Castle.

The Club’s next meeting will be a talk by Liz Woolley on ‘Olive Gibbs, Oxford politician and peace campaigner’, at 7.30 pm on Monday 14 October, at Radley Church – the Club’s new venue for its speaker meetings. The church’s sound system has a hearing loop, and there is step-free access.

List of all meeting reports