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“Fiction is strange, but facts more strangely fall,
And Charlbury names eclipse in strangeness all,
Pass we then, reader, thro’ each lane and street,
And mark the curiosities we meet.”
Poem from an anonymous author, 1876
Tourists passing through Charlbury might easily assume that they’d just found another pretty Oxfordshire town, but they’d be missing something. Beyond the exterior of Cotswold stone houses and nice pubs, Charlbury is actually riddled with debauchery and criminality. Fancy learning more?
Charlbury is full of… RIOTOUS BEHAVIOUR
When looking through history books and watching twee BBC historical dramas, it can be easy to view our ancestors as essentially well-behaved and orderly. Perhaps that’s true for some places, but it certainly isn’t for Charlbury.
Flicking through old local newspapers you’ll find a steady stream of Charlburians getting in trouble with the law after having a bit too much to drink. 1868 seems to have been a particularly bad year, with Stephen Coulling, Acton Collison and Henry Franklin all being separately convicted for being ‘drunk and riotous’ in the town. Some took it even further, such as Henry Lane and Augustine Trotman, who were charged in 1874 for drunkenly assaulting each other one evening after a session. In December 1876, Finstockian Edwin Thornett, an ‘old offender’, refused to leave The Bell at closing time, and then tried to assault the landlord on the way out. He was fined and sent to prison for a month. Oh dear.
Of course, people didn’t always have to be drunk to be riotous. In 1693 Charlburians kicked off and took the law into their hands when a man started stockpiling local corn supplies for his own profit. Even more impressively, in 1897 a massive riot sparked off in the town, complete with rotten eggs and a big brass band. Yep, seriously.
In the mid-19th century it had become compulsory for all children to be vaccinated, but due to a lack of hygiene, this could often be dangerous in itself. This led to ten parents in Charlbury refusing to have their children vaccinated, and then ignoring the resulting fines. The police consequently forced their way into the respective houses and swiped various household items to be sold off instead. This caused a bit of a ruckus, as this slightly over-the-top poster makes clear.
When the various items were put on auction in Charlbury, local people did their best to disrupt the proceedings. A brass band turned up and repeatedly played ‘Rule Britannia’, to drown out the auctioneer. One man attempted to make a bid on a table, which led to a raucous punch-up, complete with smashed windows and the hurling of rotten eggs and flour. In the end the auctioneer had to scarper, and eventually the items were restored to their respective families. To really hammer the message home a bonfire was lit and effigies of the auctioneer and potential bidder thrown onto it.
We’re obviously not on board with the anti-vaccination business, but you have to admire their passion!
Charlbury is full of… WEIRD CRIMES
Beyond its history of getting too tiddled and initiating raucous civil unrest, Charlbury has recorded a fascinatingly strange array of crimes throughout history, and in many cases it’s easy to feel a bit sorry for the perpetrator. In November 1872 Mr Richard Harris was fined for “allowing four pigs to stray on the highway at Charlbury”, and in December 1875 George Franklin, only twelve years old, was taken to court for damaging a local holly tree. That seems a bit harsh – I’m sure he didn’t mean any real harm!
Many of the town’s crimes however, are positivity devilish. In 1860 the town’s baker and two of the grocers were fined for using “unjust weighing machine” to cheat their customers. A few years later two local labourers, James Painting and John Maycock, were taken to court for “torturing a tame swan by throwing stones at it.” The swan was produced in Court as evidence and although it appeared, “very much mutilated”, the defendants weren’t convicted of any crime.
Animal cruelty was a bit more common ‘back in the day’. Bull-baiting used to occur on the Playing Close, described in 1820 by Mr Jesse Clifford:
“The bull was chained to a block let into the ground, and its poor face was torn by the dogs, its eyes streaming with blood, when a bucket of brine was thrown into its face. Mad with pain, it broke the chain and dashed away to the turnpike.”
It was eventually captured and led to the slaughter house. Poor thing.
As unpleasant as that story is, there’s an even more horrible event that stands out in Charlbury’s history, one that is essentially impossible to make a joke about. In March 1900, Mary Jane Jones (36), wife of local gardener, Alfred William Jones, used a razor to kill their two children, Lilian Mary (3) and Marjory Alice (9 months) in their bed, before doing the same to herself. Yeah, I know.
An inquest was held at the White Hart Hotel to try and figure out what had happened. A succession of neighbours and relations all gave similar accounts of the family, detailing how Mary Jane was, “universally liked and esteemed, and always appeared devoted to her children.” Several people also gave evidence that Mary Jane had seemed perfect happy and chatty that same morning, and that nothing had seemed amiss.
There was evidence given that she had been worried about the health of the children, but a satisfactory conclusion was not reached, and the inquest finally ruled that she had acted under “temporary insanity.” Reporting on the event, the Oxford Journal wrote that, “Charlbury has been the scene of a sensation such as, happily, this generation has not previously witnessed, and it is to be hoped it may never be repeated.” I quite agree.
We apologise for sharing such a depressing story. Please find a photo of a cute puppy below as compensation.
Charlbury is full of… POACHING
When you live near the Wychwood Forest, which is full of various stupid and delicious animals, it can be hard to resist the urge to undertake a bit of poaching. It’s a tradition with a long history; between 1292 and 1296 fifteen local men were caught having a poke about woods owned by the nobility, including the interestingly named Nicholas de Rammesden. It was unfortunate that they were caught; in those days the punishment for poaching a wild boar was to have one’s eyes gouged out, which was widely considered to be something worth avoiding.
Poaching continued through the centuries, often in an interestingly subtle form. In the late 19th century several individuals were convicted for gathering birds eggs from nests, presumably so they could raise the animals for sale or their own consumption. In 1879 local man Caleb Clifford was caught near Littlemore with “two hundred unlawfully obtained partridge eggs” in his possession.
Poaching sometimes had deeply unpleasant consequences. In 1861 two (very drunk) men, from Charlbury and Finstock, were sneaking around the nearby Ditchley Park when they were accosted by two gamekeepers. During their attempted escape the Charlburian, John Hall, turned around and shot one of the pursuers in the heart, killing him instantly. It’s not a surprise that he hit the target; John Hall had previously served as a soldier in the 1st Madras Fusiliers, and had fought at the Siege of Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
John was later seized at the pub in Charlbury where he was staying, and detained in Chipping Norton. He was eventually sentenced to death, although that was shifted to a life imprisonment instead. That’s quite a lot of bother for a few measly pheasants.
If you’re interested in reading a fuller (and even more interesting) account of the event, have a look at this issue of the Charlbury Chronicle.
Charlbury is full of… WAR
The unparalleled ferocity of the First World War took an incredible toll on the male population across Europe, and Charlbury was no exception. Charlbury’s men died in battles across the world, from the now familiar offensives along the Western Front to scrappy skirmishes on the other side of the world. In 1914 Christopher Handel Dyke, of Hazledene Cottage, Playing Close, signed up under-age, when he was just seventeen.
He joined the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and was involved in the attempt to relieve the Siege of Kut in Iraq, where 8,000 British and Indian troops were surrounded by a Turkish Army. The rescue attempts failed, and Christopher was shot dead in April 1916 as his unit attempted to fight its way over the River Tigris.
If you want to read more about Charlbury’s war dead, have a look at this page. It’s a sobering read.
Charlburians were also killed fighting in the Second World War, but the conflict also had a much more obvious impact on the town itself. Charlbury was even impacted by the Luftwaffe in December 1940, when an aircraft dropped high explosive bombs near Dustfield Farm, about 1 mile east of the town. You can see some bomb craters near Ditchley Road on this 1945 aerial photograph.
It wasn’t just the Luftwaffe which visited our skies either. One early-bird local wrote that:
“The most awe-inspiring sight in Charlbury during the war was on D-Day, when fleets of gliders came over in the very early morning. The sun has risen and the sky was red; the gliders, with this background, made a very beautiful and inspiring picture.”
Of course, D-Day didn’t just happen by itself. During the proceeding years of preparation an army camp was established next to the Finstock crossroad, which accommodated British Army troops. Later in the war it was used by the US Army as No. 317 General Hospital, which cared for wounded American soldiers, including some injured during the D-Day landings itself. You can actually see the outline of the camp on the 1945 aerial photograph – apparently there’s still some brick buildings left over in the woods if you fancy having an explore.
A Welcome Club was set up in Charlbury for the wounded American serviceman, which proved highly popular, although the resulting transatlantic relations occasionally took an interesting turn:
‘At one time a slight hitch arose through the Americans seeing the girls home with too much fervour. One of them explained that he “figured it out that a girl would be kind of insulted if you saw her home and didn’t offer to kiss her!“‘
So what can we conclude from Charlbury’s local history? It’s hard to say, but I think the town is a rather good reminder that even if something seems positively charming on the outside, there may be a great deal many secrets lurking beneath. Keep that in mind during your next date!
Author’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about Charlbury’s past then I encourage you take a visit to Charlbury Museum, on Market Street.
Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.
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- Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 30/12/1876
- Graham M, Oxfordshire at War 1939 – 1945, 1994
- Hey L, A History of Charlbury, 2001
- Kibble J, Charming Charlbury, 1999
- Oxford Journal, 17/03/1860
- Oxford Journal, 23/05/1868
- Oxford Journal 19/09/1868
- Oxford Journal, 17/04/1869
- Oxford Journal 23/11/1872
- Oxford Journal 05/07/1879
- Oxford Journal, 03/03/1900