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“Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order — quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull.”
– Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat, 1889.
Three Men in a Boat may be a brilliant read, but it’s amazing how wrong Jerome K Jerome was when he wrote that down. Abingdon, dull? Sure people might just associate the town with the MG car factory or Radiohead, but Abingdon has had an (almost overwhelmingly) fascinating history. Its streets have played host to a series of incredible events, but more interesting still is the fact that the town’s residents have shown a worryingly intense inclination towards violence and mayhem. It’s true – you people terrify me.
Abingdon is full of… PEOPLE KICKING OFF AND STEALING EVERYTHING
Anthony Wood, a 17th century diarist, once described Abingdon as a “fanatical town”. He was talking about the town’s more extreme religious elements at the time, but it was a pretty apt statement – Abingdon has never been content to merely host moments of murder and mayhem, throughout history the entire town has repeatedly gone nuts in a big way.
A big point of contention for many centuries was the presence of Abingdon Abbey. For a long time the town of Abingdon was actually just a subsidiary of the Abbey, meaning the monks controlled the town and (more importantly) its economy. The town grew and grew, but the monks still refused to let the townspeople run their own affairs, which pissed a lot of people off.
It wasn’t just the unfairness of the situation that caused problems – monks in medieval times often had a reputation for liking the good life a little too much for men who’d sworn vows of poverty. Abingdon’s monks were no exception, and reportedly enjoyed access to plenty of servants, horses and good wine.
The Abbot in charge of the Abbey took things even further in the 13th century – he supposedly married a nun from Littlemore Priory! That proved a bit much for the rest of the monks, and he was kicked out, and spent the rest of his life in Tadmarton near Banbury. I like to think he was joined there by a hot nun wife.
The first recorded incident of things getting a bit hairy was in the 1310s, when locals got upset about the Abbot of the time grazing cattle on the Common. Their answer? They nicked the cattle. Merchants also stopped paying the men sent to collect the Abbot’s share of the profits from the town’s market, and it all became a bit intense. The Abbot issued summons for a Court of Law to sort the issue out, but a few days later his boat capsized in the Thames and he was drowned. Perhaps the big guy upstairs was showing which side he was on?
Things returned to normal for a few years, but the deep resentment the town felt about the monks hadn’t actually been solved, and in 1327 things went completely mental. There was a town meeting on the 20th of April, in St Helen’s Church, where a discussion on the issue grew incredibly heated, and soon people were shouting that the monks needed to be taught a lesson. A few people present were friendly with the Abbey and informed the monks, who began to prepare for an attack. The following night townspeople again met at the church to “counsel together how they might execute their malice on the monastery”. They split into several different groups and at dawn, they rushed to Market Square, where they set the New House aflame, on the spot now occupied by Market House.
This wasn’t enough for the riotous rabble and they surged on to the Abbey itself, where they tried to burn the door down to gain access. The monks were ready though:
“Certain men sallied out of the gate and violently falling on the malefactors, killed two of them and put the rest to flight. They took a number of men, all of which they put in the Abbey prison”
This wasn’t the end of the violence. The Abbot had been out of the county at the time, but on his return he preached reconciliation, and promised not to punish the aggressors if they gave themselves up. This obviously fell on deaf ears, and amazingly, the townspeople actually called to the people of Oxford for help. On the night of the 25th the Mayor of Oxford led a band of people to Abingdon, brandishing flaming torches. They burnt down some of the Abbey’s houses at Northcourt, and an Abbey farm at Barton.
They eventually broke through a side door into the Abbey itself, freed the prisoners from the first riot, and opened the main gate, which was being assaulted by another group, who were shooting arrows and throwing stones at the monks defending it. Some of the monks escaped over the river, although some drowned in the process. The victorious locals decided to make the most of their victory, and they “burnt most wickedly, to the great grief of the convent and greater of those who had a respect for venerable antiquity”. Obviously they also carried off anything remotely valuable.
The central motivation for the rioting though was breaking the monks’ control over the town. On the next day there was a meeting in Bagley Wood, where the frightened monks promised that the town could elect its own administrators, and that everything that had happened was just water under the bridge. This victory wasn’t to last however, as the Abbot had run off to King Edward III, who promised his assistance.
When the Abbot returned he was accompanied by a great deal of armed men sent to reassert the status quo. Some of the rabble-rousers ran away, others were put in prison, and twelve more were hanged at Wallingford. Sixty were pardoned though, so that was nice.
That wasn’t the end of Abingdon’s riotous history. Although the renewed attempts to free the town from the monks took place in the law courts, in 1431 there was another attack on the Abbey, although the Duke of Gloucester turned up with a band of soldiers and executed the ringleaders. In the 18th century there were even more riots, although these were mainly about the price of corn – obviously they also failed, and some of those involved were deported to Australia. A punishment that, thanks to the presence of evil wildlife and Australian people, is widely considered a fate worse than death.
So what is there to conclude from Abingdon’s history of looting and destruction? Mainly, to be careful what you wish for – when the Abbey was dismantled by Henry VIII in 1538 the town was immediately thrown into a deep economic depression, as it depended heavily on the Abbey’s status for its prosperity.
Abingdon is full of… HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE MURDERS
As well as looking at Abingdon’s commitment to mob-dispensed justice, I think it’s probably worth having a (nervous) peek at the moments where individuals have decided to take things in a murdery direction. There’s something to be said for hearing about how some Abingdonians of old have fallen into committing acts of immorality – hopefully their mistakes can be a lesson to us all!
Some people bemoan the number of modern marriages that end in divorce, and talk nostalgically about how in the ‘good old days’ couples stuck with each through thick and thin. Whilst that might be true, that wasn’t always a good thing – one Abingdon woman stayed with her husband despite a murder attempt, and eventually paid the price for her loyalty.
In 1865 the Reading Mercury reported that in a house in St Helen’s Court, West St. Helen’s Street, a Mr John Willoughby had attacked his wife Sarah. He had for “some time past been jealous of his wife, without reason, and had lately left his home two or three times for several days together, leading many to suppose he was insane.”
One Sunday morning, seemingly without cause, he attacked her with a fire poker, hitting her with such ferocity that it broke in several places. Her cries (along with those of their children) alerted a neighbour, John Kirby, who burst in and apprehended the crazed assailant. Sarah survived, and appeared at his trial, although the Berkshire Chronicle said she was “conveyed to the court in a chair, and looked dreadfully ill and disfigured”. John Willoughby was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.
The story doesn’t end there. Amazingly, the couple were reunited after he had served his time, until 1885 when he viciously attacked her again. According to their daughter Mary (13), her mother was bringing a pie into the kitchen when John set upon her with a coal hammer, to which she shouted “Oh dear, don’t!”.
Mary ran out and fetched her older brother Albert (15), but by the time he arrived their mother was dead, and their father had tried to cut his own throat. Amazingly, John survived his suicide attempt and was taken to the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, where he continued to try and kill himself by pulling at his bandages.
The policeman guarding his bed prevented him from succeeding with his renewed attempts at suicide, and he was taken to court in Abingdon to be tried for Willful Murder. Several witnesses spoke about the unhappiness of the Willoughbys’ marriage, and the frequency of their arguments. It also came to light that he had been suffering from delusions that people were trying to poison him through keyholes, and that he experienced intense headaches. The jury only took five minutes to rule that John was “Guilty but Insane”, and the Judge ordered that he should detained at Oxford Prison as a lunatic. You can’t help but feel sorry for him.
As horrible as the story of John and Sarah Willoughby is, at least we can understand why it happened. That’s not the case with the next story, where a young local man showed himself impressively ill-suited to rejection.
In 1876 in the nearby village of Drayton, Benjamin Marshall (23) had been courting Miss Elizabeth Bessley for eight months, and paid regular visits to her father’s house. Eventually she seemed to tire of him, and is reported to have brushed him off saying, “I will have nothing to do with you.” He kept popping up in an attempt to win her round, and on one occasion was “apparently excited by drink”. His efforts obviously failing Benjamin decided to abide by the wise and noble sentiment, ‘if I can’t have her, no-one can’. He bought a revolver in Oxford for 18 shillings, and returned to the Bessley household. She once again spurned his affections, and so he pulled the gun from his pocket and fired at her twice, knocking her down. Her father ran into the room, and although he was fired at three times, he succeeded in tackling Benjamin to the floor.
Benjamin immediately said he was sorry about the whole business, but he was still put on trial at Abingdon and convicted of Attempted Murder. Elizabeth appeared in court to give evidence, though she was still gravely ill, as one of the bullets was still believed to be in her lung. There’s no further information describing what happened afterwards – hopefully she recovered and found a nice man who didn’t shoot at her.
The final story is still a bit gruesome, but it has something of a happy ending to it. It concerns a woman named Maria Tarrant (25), who was convicted in Abingdon in 1856 for killing her own baby. She had been previously married to her cousin, a soldier, with whom she had a child. He abandoned her, leaving her in a precarious position, and she wandered around the country until she began cohabitating with another (unnamed) man. She had another child with her new man, but she strangled the baby, perhaps to save him from a life of illegitimacy, poverty and torment.
The case received nationwide coverage, as it was seen to signify how vulnerable ‘abandoned women’ really were, and the way that society seemed to avoid judging the men involved. As such, Maria was treated almost kindly by the public and the press; The Berkshire Chronicle wrote that, “Let it not be supposed she is one of those stolid, obtuse persons, only one degree above the animal. She was for several years in the National School of her parish, and evidently possessed an amount of shrewdness and appreciation considerably above the average of persons in her class.” A bit of a backhanded compliment, but better than nothing.
She wrote a letter to her family whilst in prison, and it’s actually upsetting to read. She finished it with, “I will pray night and day for the Lord to forgive me my sins that I have committed in times past. And Dear Mother, give my kind love to Father, and Brothers, and Sisters, and Grandmother, and my Dear littel boy, and I hope I shall see him onse more.” They came to visit her, and although they said little to each other, after their departure “the poor wretch went into hysterics.”
So what’s the happy ending to the story? Well the prison’s chaplain was so moved by Maria’s case, that he organised a personal meeting with the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, to plea for mercy on her behalf. His efforts were obviously not in vain, for the Home Secretary wrote a letter to the Governor of the Prison preventing the death sentence from being undertaken. Maria would still have been given a harsh punishment, but again, it’s better than nothing.
Abingdon is full of… PEOPLE BEING MEAN
These big, dramatic moments in Abingdon’s history are obviously the most eye-catching, but the records are full of little moments of unpleasantness. Petty crime used to be a much greater threat than it is now, even without the existence of alcopops.
In the 16th century the town’s authorities ordered that every householder should have “a good and sufficient club, ready when need shall require it”. Law-abiding citizens formed a night-watch, and would roam around the town looking for trouble. The night-watch was discontinued for a time, but in 1604 it was reformed because “much evil rule and disorder is kept and used.” It could be a hard job, the leader of the watch, who held the position of Bellman, had his pay docked in 1735, because he had allowed pigs to run rampage around the streets.
As terrifying as pigs are, sometimes the threat was a bit shootier. In 1783 a Mr Blewett was stopped by pistol-wielding robbers in Bagley Wood – he promptly gave his horse a kick, and rode off at full speed, with the robbers’ bullets doing their best to chase him down. He made it back to Abingdon alright, but with a hole through his hat!
If you were caught acting in a villainous fashion in the 18th century, you could end up on public display in Market Square, where there were a pillory, stocks, whipping post and a big cage for locking up prisoners. Presumably if you were having a bad day you could pop down town and shout abuse at whoever was in the cage. It sounds wonderfully therapeutic.
Life still looked a bit mean on the turn of the 20th century. In 1899 the Oxford Journal reported that two ‘able-bodied tramps’ who had been admitted to the Abingdon workhouse, refused to dig potatoes or break stones, because of ‘chronic laziness’. They were sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour. In the same week the Reading Mercury reported on an Abingdon man named Frederick Mulcock, who was also sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour for getting drunk and disorderly and ending up lying helpless on the bridge. As a big fan of both chronic laziness and lying helplessly drunk on bridges, these stories certainly make me glad I live in 2015.
Abingdon is full of… BLOODY GREAT BATTLES
They might make for cool paintings, but battles really suck. Lots of people die, and the soldiers who are left are usually so hungry they end up eating everything edible in the area. Abingdon’s geographical importance meant that armies occasionally ended up here, and it has thus experienced more than its fair share of armed violence. I mean, it’s considered highly likely that the town was raided by Vikings in the 9th century, before it was even called Abingdon. That’s what I call a bad start.
After this inglorious introduction to warfare, Abingdon managed to avoid being caught up in the early medieval civil wars, but was briefly in the spotlight in 1471, when King Edward IV encamped his army in the town for a couple of days. This was in the Wars of the Roses, which is the war Game of Thrones is loosely based on, if that helps you picture it.
Abingdon’s menfolk were also involved in a few other medieval wars. In 1523 twenty-five men were sent from the town to fight ‘beyond the seas’ for Henry VIII. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Spanish started to look a bit scary, and ‘great willingness’ was shown by Abingdon’s men in signing up to join the defences. The threat of the Spanish Armada also meant that a series of beacons were built throughout the country, which were to be set alight in the event of a Spanish invasion, and at Abingdon a Mr Eyston was paid to watch the local beacon. If you’d like to see a video of how it would have looked if they’d been lit, please click here (spoiler: Gondor calls for aid).
Abingdon’s main period of military activity though, was during the English Civil War, when King Charles and Parliament battled it out for control of the country’s future. The King made Oxford his capital in 1642, which elevated Abingdon to a position of strategic important. Prince Rupert of the Rhine (the King’s cousin) and several thousand cavalry were soon stationed in the town, and they prepared it for a siege. It’s recorded that Abingdon Bridge was defended by a large gate, seven iron pikes and a couple of small cannons. A camp was also erected outside the town itself to garrison troops.
The presence of the army was not particularly popular, since they chopped down trees, consumed a huge amount of local supplies and spread disease. A lack of pay meant many of the soldiers weren’t that fussed either, and many deserted. The town’s importance shifted with the fortunes of the war, but in the first few months of 1644 Abingdon took a leading role, with King Charles holding several Councils of War in an inn in East St Helens.
The King ordered Lord Wilmot to defend the town, but when a Parliamentarian army approached in May Wilmot decided to scarper with his army in tow. A messenger galloped to Oxford to inform the King of the news, and he received the reply:
“Ride back instantly, command Lord Wilmot to hold the town, at all risks, till I meet him there!”
It was too late though, and from that point onwards, Abingdon was held by the Parliamentarians. This meant that they could undertake raids against Oxford, seriously undermining the Royalists’ position in the area.
The Royalists wanted to grab the town back, and on 1st August 1644 over 1,600 infantry attacked the town’s defences, only to be bloodily repulsed. Six months later, on the 11th January 1645, Prince Rupert himself led an attempt to recapture the town.
In the dead of night he moved various military contingents around to the south of the town, undetected by the garrison. They surprised two sentries on Culham Bridge; they killed one, but the other raised the alarm, and after many hours of bloody fighting, the Parliamentarian troops recaptured the bridge. In their frustration some of the Royalists fell to plundering Culham, and an anonymous letter writer claims they even robbed a bedridden old lady known as Lady Carey, by stealing the rings from her fingers. All in all it was a terrible day for the Royalists, who suffered huge casualties. Many of the fallen just got dumped in the river by the local people.
A great deal more happened in Abingdon during the Civil War, including another battle and a high profile spy, but there’s probably a little too much detail to go into – sometimes Local History is Long. Needless to say, Abingdon suffered greatly during the war, through the economic damage and the presence of disease (and cannon balls).
Life moves on however, and as the 17th century gave way to the 18th, Abingdon men would find themselves fighting across the world in a succession of Imperial wars. With their victories came some new arrivals – in the 1760s some captured French soldiers were kept in Abingdon, with the higher class prisoners being allowed to live freely within the town. This included a French surgeon, who successfully cured a local wet-nurse of syphilis, which was awfully good of him.
One of the more interesting Abingdon warriors was Colonel James Bringfield, who became famous for the manner of his death at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706. He was in the process of helping the famous Duke of Marlborough onto his horse, when a French cannonball smashed straight through his head and between the Duke’s legs. This obviously made a good impression on the Duke, because there’s a bloody great memorial dedicated to him on the wall of Westminster Abbey.
Richard Rose was born in Abingdon in 1740, and went on to have an interesting life. He joined the navy, but was shipwrecked three times, so he ended up joining the East India Company’s army. He seemed to be rather good at his new profession, as he was involving in storming six different Indian forts – on one occasion he carried the Regiment’s Colours (flag), making him a prime target for bullets. During his adventures he was shot in the head and the wrist, but didn’t let that stop him. The Fort of Attur was obviously one fort too many though, as there he was shot in the lung, and slowly died over two months. There’s a memorial to him in the centre aisle of St Helen’s Church. Part of it says:
“This monument of his son’s merit, and his own loss, was erected by his afflicted father. Blessed by nature with a most sweet disposition, he was a dutiful son, a most affectionate husband.”
Abingdon men were also killed in the the First Afghan War, the Zulu War and the Boer War. Abingdonian Sir Francis Carr was even killed by a famous American sniper in the American War of Independence. That’s probably an incomplete list, the records focus on men of status, and there were likely many more men from Abingdon who served abroad, lost to history.
Of course, with the coming of the 20th century came a totally new form of warfare, which would require an unprecedented mobilisation of the population. Dozens of Abingdonians were killed in the First World War, from the battlefields of France, to Greece, Palestine and Tanzania. One attendee of Abingdon School and Radley College, Captain John Theobald Milne, became one of the Royal Flying Corps’ celebrated aces, earning the Military Cross for his efforts. Specifically, it was awarded for:
“… conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty whilst leading offensive patrols. He has shown great determination and courage in attacking hostile formations, although in superior numbers, at close range.”
A couple of months after being awarded the medal he was shot down and killed, aged 22.
The Second World War didn’t decimate the British male population with the same intensity, but again, many Abingdon men served in combat around the world. Some faced dangers that would have been familiar to the soldiers of the Great War, but a new war brought new perils. Local man Clarence Claude Painter actually survived fighting in the First World War in the Oxfordshire and Buckingham Light Infantry, but was arrested by the Nazis with his son Peter on the island of Jersey in 1943. They were both used for forced labour in concentration camps, with Clarence being forced to work in a factory making V1 Rockets. The malnutrition and brutally hard work meant neither of the Painters survived their ordeal.
One major difference between the World Wars was the extent to which civilians were affected. A Home Guard battalion was set up locally, although it was a long time before they were actually given guns. One local recruit recalled some of the early difficulties:
“We received our first issue of rifles. There were only about 4 per 100 men and only ten rounds per rifle. They were rifles which had been immersed in grease for a quarter of a century, and a very considerable amount of which was transferred to our clothes every time we handled them, in spite of the hours of vain effort to remove it!”
The presence of the RAF Abingdon airfield also made the town a target, with bombs falling on the area on several occasions. It was an important airfield for the war effort though, meaning King George VI visited it at one point.
One of the more interesting challenges facing local residents was the presence of evacuees. Some children from London were accused of using “pavements and shop doorways as public lavatories”!
Abingdon is full of… KINGS AND QUEENS
A millennium of death and destruction is a fairly heavy topic, and is pretty hard to make jokes about, so I think it makes sense to end the article on a lighter note – the various moments in which the reigning English monarch has sampled Abingdon’s delights.
The first occasion was all the way back in the year 926, when King Athelstan of the Anglo Saxons met an ambassador from the French King in Abingdon. Henry III became an fan of the town after he attended Abingdon Fair in 1221, and visited several times in his life. King John (boo hiss) also spent a lot of time in the area, since he was pretty good pals with the Abbot of the time, Abbot Hugh – in fact, when King John annulled the Magna Carta he ordered Abbot Hugh to carry out the excommunication of some of the Barons involved. Cute.
Henry IV spent the Christmas of 1403 at the Abbey, and during the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was apparently taken prisoner by his enemies after being betrayed by an Abingdon monk. Henry VII also stayed at Abingdon in 1500.
One of the more interesting royal visits was that of Henry VIII – desperate to avoid an epidemic sweeping London, Henry spent over three weeks in Abingdon with his wife Catherine of Aragon, and the whole court. His stay must have been a great honour, but it’s safe to assume it cost the Abbey a huge amount of cash to feed such a prestigious array of guests for so long! They were probably glad to see him leave.
During the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688, the Dutch King William of Orange landed an army in Devon, with the intention of booting out (the Catholic) King James II. It was a fairly uncertain venture, but as he was passing through Abingdon, he was informed that James had fled, and that the crown was his for the taking, which must have been a moment of delirious exhilaration. To be honest, at this point in the article I’ve actually stopped finding it amazing that a major moment in English history occurred in the streets of Abingdon.
My favourite royal visit though has to be that of the young Queen Elizabeth in 1956, mainly because of the brilliant news reel documenting the day. It has the local morris dancers showing off their ox horns, as well as an impressive display of Abingdon bun-throwing undertaken for Her Majesty’s pleasure. We may have explored some of the real nastiness in the town’s history, but I think that’s a very nice moment of Local History to end on, don’t you agree?
Author’s Note: The main source for the article was the fantastic series of books from the late Mieneke Cox. I feel guilty about the simplicity of the way I’ve hewed through her scholarship here, and I heartily recommend that you track them down – they’re available in Abingdon library.
Falmouth’s History of Sex, Murder and Piracy12/10/2020
Witney: A Nazi Target28/11/2017
Swindon’s History of Bigamy, Battles and Booze26/02/2017
Charlbury’s History of War, Drinking and Homicide23/11/2016
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