September 2019 meeting: Hanging and escapes at Oxford Castle

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