Banbury’s History of Prudes, Drunkards and Murderers

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Banbury’s a nice place to be, right? It’s full of friendly people, lovely parks, and fun events like the Old Town Parties.  Don’t be fooled though, Banbury has hosted a millennium of strife, warfare and some horrible, horrible murders.

… and drunk people. Lots of drunk people.

Banbury is full of… RIOTOUS BEHAVIOUR

The people of Banbury have never hesitated to stand up for themselves, a trait which has had some riotous results. There were some medieval moments of communal outrage, but the town seemed to be at its most bad-tempered in the 16th and 17th centuries. The oddest incident was probably in 1589, where townsfolk (understandably) kicked off when religious Puritans destroyed the town’s May Pole in an attempt to prevent the annual May Day celebrations from occurring.

This picture would have made made Puritans angry apparently

May Day celebrations are outrageous (according to stupid Puritans)

People did riot about slightly more serious issues; in 1667 townsfolk rioted against the new ‘hearth tax’, which taxed people based on how many fireplaces they owned. This was actually one of the less dangerous responses to the tax in Oxfordshire; a large portion of Churchill, a village near Chipping Norton, was burnt to the ground when a baker tried to knock through the wall between his oven and a neighbour’s chimney to avoid the tax. It was harder to avoid tax in those days — you can’t really move a fireplace to an offshore bank account.

The 19th century was a tumultuous period too; rioting about food prices reached Banbury in 1800, and locals rioted again in 1820 when the local MP refused to provide funds for the town’s traditional local entertainments. That’s obviously fair enough, but it’s a little hard to empathise with the riots of 1826, where Banburians kicked off about local funds being spent on planting trees. Seriously?

Trees are outrageous (according to stupid Banburians)

Planting trees is outrageous (according to stupid Banburians)

The final recorded public disturbance in the town was part of the Swing Riots. The Swing Riots were caused by the introduction of new agricultural machines, which farmworkers believed endangered their traditional livelihoods. In the summer of 1830 labourers started to smash machinery in Kent, and the riots soon spread throughout the country, which included the Neithrop area of Banbury. Things got seriously out of hand, and the 14th Light Dragoons had to be rushed to the town to reassert order.

Banbury is full of… IRREVERENT DRUNKARDS

Of course, to start a riot you need enough people willing to kick up a fuss, and as those sitting in judgement at the town’s petty courts could attest, there have been plenty of individual troublemakers in Banbury throughout the years.

During the 19th century, the courts sat through endless cases involving drunk and disorderly boatmen from the canal, fining and imprisoning them accordingly. Edward Neale’s case in 1877 was pretty typical — he was fined 11 shillings for being drunk, while another canal worker, Richard Pearman, was sent to prison for seven days. Why just a fine for Edward and a week in prison for Richard? Apparently being drunk on Bridge Street was a more heinous crime than being drunk along the canal. Keep that in mind.

Banbury Drunk 3

In 1834 a boatman was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and hard labour for the “crime” of leaving his wife, while in 1873 Mr John Hone was only fined a few shillings, despite being charged with being drunk, riotous and “assaulting P.C. Bagnell in the execution of his duty”.  Sentencing obviously didn’t always fit the offence.

It wasn’t all to do with drunkenness, many cases stemmed from straight-up criminality. Mr Thomas Tapin appeared in front of the Judge twice for theft — first in November 1873, when he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, and then again in October 1877, after just being released!  He was sent down again, this time for seven years, and after that we hear no more of him. Presumably he turned over a new leaf?

A new leaf

A new leaf

As troublesome as Banbury’s boatman seemed to have been, Banburians with both feet firmly on land garnered plenty of court time as well. Townspeople are recorded beating each other up after nights out at the pub, setting up illegal fishing nets and letting horses wander unattended into roads and lanes. Two men were even taken to court for “exposing their persons, using bad language, and bathing by Banbury Bridge.”

Imagine this, but sexier

Imagine this, but sexier

In April 1869 an interesting case arose when Police Constable William Puffitt was taken to court for two counts of assault. The court was told that Mr George Edwards (a boatman, obviously) and his friends were making a racket in the High Street late on a Saturday night, and refused to move on when “quietly asked” by PC Puffitt. A scuffle ensued, which ended with the Constable dragging George home by the arm. In court, Mr Edwards argued that he had been unjustly assaulted, but the charges were dismissed, with the Bench backing Puffitt and the use of his right fist. That was fair enough, by the sounds of it.

Banbury is full of… MURDERS MOST FOUL

It’s easy to dismiss petty crimes as being — well, petty. But murder? That’s something else entirely.

The 1852 murder of Banbury jewellery shop owner John Kalabergo was a pretty big deal, shocking both the residents of the town and the nation at large. Giovanni Kalabergo had come to Banbury forty years previously from Italy, anglicised his name to John and established himself as a well-respected member of the community. His nephew Giovanni, who took to calling himself William, joined his uncle in 1851 after accepting an offer of a job and a place to stay.

A portrait of John Kalabergo. He looks like a total Don.

A portrait of John Kalabergo

John turned out to be stricter and more demanding than William had expected, which soon rubbed him the wrong way. Rather than just putting up with it, or quitting, he decided on the interesting plan of straight-up murdering him. To be fair, the fact that he was the sole beneficiary in his uncle’s will probably had something to do with it too.

A portrait of William. He looks like a total noob.

A portrait of William Kalabergo

In January 1852 William bought himself a gun and joined his uncle on a normal work-related trip out of town. William’s story — told first to the local Catholic priest and then the police — was that the two of them were walking down Williamscot Hill, where they were set upon by bandits. His uncle apparently resisted and was killed by the men, while William escaped over a steep bank.

William's story.

William’s story.

Doubt fell on the story almost immediately, when it was discovered that nothing had been taken from the older man’s pockets. The police confirmed their suspicions after a search of William’s belongings, which included blood-stained clothing, as well as:

“…a pistol bag containing powder, six bullets of white metal, one leaden bullet, and seven other types of bullets.”

It was a crap plan, but at least he brought enough ammo.

In court, William was sentenced to death by hanging, and so understandably, he made two (failed) attempts to escape. Firstly out of the window of a pub in Wroxham where he was temporarily held, and then from Oxford prison. His subsequent confession and execution were reported on by newspapers across the country, and up to 10,000 people were estimated to have attended his hanging.

Oxford Prison, back in the day when everything was black and white

Oxford Prison, back in the day when everything was black and white

The story travelled across the country and inspired a number of folk ballads. One of them is from the perspective of the young murderer himself, and begins:

“In Italy I was bred and born,
At Oxford town I must die with scorn;
For murdering my uncle as you may see,
Has brought me to the gallows tree.”

Fascinatingly enough, in 1897 there was another Banbury murder that also starred an uncle and his nephew. It’s an interesting story, but is a little too stomach-turningly nasty to write about, even for us. If you’d like to know more, have a read of this.


Before you dismiss historical Banbury as just a motley collection of drunkards and murderous families, it is worth noting that for a very long time Banbury had a reputation for being one of the most puritan, morally judgemental places in the country.

Puritanism was a form of Christianity that was defined by its boring seriousness; Puritans disapproved of decorating churches, enjoying music or doing anything that could be considered remotely fun. Puritanism eventually came to dominate the country for a while after the Civil War, in which time they literally banned Christmas.

Ban this sick filth.

Ban this sick filth.

Banbury was actually enthusiastically boring a long time before the Puritans took over. Banbury’s widely held puritanical attitudes led playwrights and satirists to poke fun of the town as a community of overly zealous goody-two-shoes.  Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), features a character named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan from Banbury and baker of Banbury cakes who had stopped making them because he’d heard they were being put to ‘pagan’ uses.  Two years later, humourist Richard Braithwait entertained the nation with a ditty about a Banbury man so committed to his faith that he kills his cat.

In my progress traveling Northward
Taking my farewell o’th Southward
To Banbury came I, O prophane one
Where I saw a Puritane one
Hanging of his cat on a Monday
For killing of a mouse on Sunday

Even long after the twilight of Puritan political power, Banbury was known as a centre of religious dissension. As late as 1845, the people of Banbury still sounded like an old man demanding that everyone get off his lawn. In a ‘Letter to the Editor’ in a local newspaper, a local’s complaint about a group of musicians can be summed up thusly: “Damned noisy teetotalers!”

Sir, how is it that in your paper we so often see parties fined for being drunk and disorderly but never being disorderly alone.  Now Sir, I would ask where are the police? Why do they do not commit this disorderly teetotal rabble who nightly perambulate our streets?”

There are worse types of teetotalers

There are worse types of teetotalers

Still, at least the support for unorthodox religious beliefs meant there was something for everyone in the spiritual landscape of Banbury. In the mid- 19th century, Banbury had become known for its variety of denominations, with twenty-three different churches in the town at the time. As W T Henderson, a Baptist minister of Banbury in 1857 pointed out, “We pretty well had them all. Indeed, if a man lost his religion, he might well find it in Banbury.”

Banbury is full of… DELICIOUS GRUB

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because the town has a history of rowdiness on the one hand and religious zealotry on the other, that the townspeople didn’t know how to enjoy things in life. In the book Britannia (1610), Banbury was noted for its cakes (which it still is today) and its cheese (which seems to have been forgotten).

Banbury cakes are similar to eccles cakes, though Banbury cakes involve puff pastry and eccles cakes shortcrust. The Banbury cake is much older, with origins going back to the 13th century when spices and dried fruits were brought back by the crusaders. The Banbury cake as we know it though, has been made in the town since about the mid-16th century.

The Crusades were a fair enough price to pay.

The Crusades were a fair enough price to pay.

Walter de la Mare immortalised the cakes as a reward for good behaviour in his poem “The Cupboard”, the last verse of which states:

And when I’m very good, my dear,
As good as good can be,
There’s Banbury Cakes, and Lollypops
For me, me, me

Banbury cheese was a thin but strong cheese made in the area from the 15th to the 18th century.  Now mostly forgotten, it was well known enough in its time to be used in Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ as a word meaning “thin”, with the character of Bardolph referring to Abraham Slender as “You Banbury Cheese!”

Abraham Slim. A bonafide Banbury Cheese.

Abraham Slim. A bonafide Banbury Cheese.

Banbury’s foodie credentials are obviously still in place; the town is currently home to the largest coffee processing plant in Europe.

Banbury is full of… WAR

Banbury happens to be in a bit of a strategic hotspot, as it straddles several major transportation links, meaning the town has been a centre of martial activity for a long time. The town’s first battle happened over one thousand years ago in AD 913, when Vikings and Anglo Saxons battled it out nearby. It probably looked really, really cool.

Vikings vikinging


Things also got spicy in 1469 during the Wars of the Roses, when the Battle of Edgecote Moor slashed and bashed its way to a climax six miles away from the town.

Banbury’s most important role though was during the English Civil War. The town was a key base of operations for Oliver Cromwell, and it is said that the Globe Room of the Ye Olde Reindeer Inn was actually his command centre for a time.  Part of the town’s strategic importance came from Banbury castle, owned by the Fiennes family — the same family that eventually gave us the actor Ralph, and the explorer Ranulph.

The head of the family at the time was a man named William Fiennes, a committed enemy of the King even in the years running up to the war. He was so cunning and proficient at outwitting Charles’ advisors that he earned the nickname, ‘Old Subtlety.’


William and Ralph Fiennes. Can you see a family resemblance?

The family obviously threw their weight behind the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and declared the castle against the King. They tried to fortify it in preparation for a siege, but after the first engagement of the war, the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, King Charles marched to Banbury and quickly captured the castle, along with its supply of 1,500 guns.

William Fiennes soon besieged the castle himself in an attempt to get it back but was chased off by a Royalist force, and the castle remained in the hands of the Crown until the end of the war. In 1648 it was demolished to prevent further use and has since been built on — where Castle Street is now. It hasn’t completely departed from Banbury life, as some of its stone was used to build some local housing.

Don't feel too sorry for the Fiennes family. They still own Broughton Castle.

Don’t feel too sorry for the Fiennes family. They literally still own the nearby Broughton Castle.

The most major conflicts to affect Banbury of course, were the two World Wars. When the First World War broke out, several regiments were billeted in the Banbury area, taking advantage again of its excellent transport links, and between 1914 and 1918, Banbury Train Station saw many thousands of troops both travelling to the fighting, and returning from it. The Red Cross turned the station into an enormous rest stop serving refreshments, which included Banbury cakes. It was a pretty major operation; on some days as many of six thousand meals were served.

Because over 2,000 local men had left to serve in the Armed Forces, many jobs were taken on by local women, which included the National Filling Factory, where bombs were filled with explosives. The factory was immensely important for the war effort and produced over four million shells during the war. It took a toll on the women who worked there though — the chemicals they used stained their skin bright yellow, as well as the skin of any babies they conceived at the time.

A woman working in Banbury's munitions factory

A woman working in Banbury’s munitions factory

Banbury was pretty lucky in the Second World War; whilst nearby Coventry was bombed to dust, Banbury managed to avoid suffering any major damage. That being said, the town was bombed on two occasions. The first was in September 1940, when two bombs damaged the canal’s lock, while the second was a month later when a bomber unexpectedly swooped low across the area, dropping enough bombs to kill six people. There are also reports of a German aircraft strafing West Street and Bath Road with machine gun fire near the end of the war, which seems like an awfully unsportsmanlike thing to do.

Despite the moments of bomb-based danger, large numbers of evacuees were settled in Banbury. A newspaper report recorded the moment one particular flock arrived:

Many of the smaller ones obviously with memories of Sunday school outings fresh in their minds, seemed to expect a glimpse of the sea. One youngster, as he was helped down from his carriage, was heard to ask ‘Is this a seaside town, guv’nor?’”

Some evacuees, probably thinking of some more adorably stupid questions

Some evacuees, probably thinking of some more adorably stupid questions

They were warmly received; one of the local women waiting at the station for a train of evacuees told a reporter:

Our hearts go out to the parents of these children. I know how badly I would suffer if I had to part with my children, and I think it is up to us to make them as happy and comfortable as possible — as compensation for all they have to leave behind”.

This hospitality was even offered up to Americans billeted in the area. In November 1943 Major David Moore, a doctor in the US Army, gave a speech at the Banbury Rotary Club and praised the town’s reception of the American Troops. Aw, shucks.

American soldiers having tea with some Oxford students.

American soldiers having tea with some Oxford students.

This warm spirit must have been infectious, as the girls at the Northern Aluminium Company’s factory regularly managed to find time for a canteen sing-a-long between shifts. The atmosphere also led to a few surprises; one Christmas time a supervisor was suddenly approached by a factory girl, mistletoe in hand, who gave him a resounding kiss that made him, a married man, blush to high heaven. Someone who was there later said, “We saw no more of him for quite a long time!

See, there’s a lot to be learnt from Local History, like how to effectively get rid of your boss.

So what is there to conclude from Banbury’s history? It’s hard to say. I mean, the town seems to have been perpetually dominated by either boringly religious fusspots or drunk, foul-mouthed ingrates. I suppose life in this country can often feel a bit safe and dull, so maybe we should celebrate Banbury for the role its polarising extremities have played in pepping things up? That’s a legacy of which Banbury can be proud.

Deborah Menikoff

Author’s Note: There’s a limit to how much history you can cover in one article — have a read of my blog if you’d like to learn about Banbury’s ghosts or the mysteries of the Banbury Cross.

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  1. I savor, cause I found exactly what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 dayy lengthy hunt!
    God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

  2. I love the way this was written.

    I live in Banbury still and my ancestors are all from Banbury.
    My roots are deep.

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