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“As regards Eynsham I can only confirm that poor old town is the most Godforsaken hole in England”.
A wandering churchman, Oxford Times 28th October 1876
That does seem a little harsh doesn’t it? He’d obviously never been to Carterton! I suppose he could have just been having a bad day when he visited, but perhaps he was offended by Eynsham’s barmy history of strange crimes and physical violence? It certainly is an interesting past, as you’re about to find out…
Eynsham is full of… WEIRD CRIMES
Every town in this country has seen its share of cunning criminality and dastardly deeds, but Eynsham seems to have experienced a uniquely bracing mixture of weird wrongdoings. For example, in 1872 a man from North Leigh named George Cox was basically murdered by an elephant not far from Eynsham. Kind of.
George worked for an elderly lady, Mrs Lord, who he would drive about in a horse and cart. One Wednesday he dropped her off in Eynsham, and set off for Oxford to buy some bricks. When he was a few miles from the town he passed a troupe of exotic animals who had just been shown at St Giles Fair.
Upon seeing an elephant, his horse became completely terrified, and as George tried to calm the animal down, he was knocked to the floor, which grievously injured him. He died several days later, and a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ was returned by the authorities. Personally, I think it’s obvious that it’s all the elephant’s fault.
When elephants weren’t committing murder most foul, Eynsham locals were setting things on fire. In December 1865 a homeless man named William Edmonds in Eynsham was arrested for having “unlawfully, maliciously and feloniously set fire to a stack of straw”. In 1872 a local shoemaker named Joseph Keys was taken to court for setting fire to a shed, “with intent therby to injure Samuel Druce”. The motivations for these crimes have been lost to history. Presumably they had their reasons.
Of course, stealing is an easier crime to explain – who doesn’t want free stuff? Eynsham has seen plenty of theft, including some hilarious petty incidents – in 1874 Mr Frank Day ended up in court for stealing money from his own mother’s house. A slightly more honourable form of robbery is poaching, when you venture into a private forest to find yourself some dinner. A folk song was collected in the town in 1923 chronicling this noble tradition, known as the Eynsham Poaching Song. It begins:
“Three Eynsham chaps went out one day,
To Lord Abingdon’s Manor they made their way;
They took some dogs to catch some game,
And soon to Wytham Woods they came.”
They’re quickly rumbled, although the last verse seems to imply they got away with it:
“Over hedges, ditches, gates and rails,
Our dogs followed after, behind our heels;
If he had catched us, say what you will,
He’d have sent us all to Abingdon Jail.”
The most infamous Eynsham-based crime took place in December 1927, when two armed men, Frederick Browne and William Kennedy, held up Eynsham Train Station.
They were on the run after killing a policeman in Essex a few months earlier, and as they had previously lived in the town, must have been drawn to its familiarity. Their robbery of the train station wasn’t particularly fruitful, as they only managed to steal some tobacco and a typewriter before they made their escape.
They were eventually arrested after another month of dastardly criminal antics, and were both sentenced to death, which made them famous throughout the country; if you visited Madame Tussauds between 1928 and 1965 you would literally have been able to see their waxworks.
For me though, the strangest Eynsham crime happened in April 2016, when the Eynsham Cellars wine shop was robbed by a man wearing a knitted elephant mask. Was this a deliberate reference to the elephant murderer of 1872? Is there a shadowy elephant-centered crime cabal at the heart of Eynsham’s history? Perhaps we’ll never know.
Eynsham is full of… FIGHTING
As amazingly strange as it seems now, in years past soldiers have tried to kill each other around Eynsham. Perhaps traffic on the A40 has always been as maddeningly bad.
It goes back a long way. In the 6th century, when invading tribes from Germany were warring with the native Britons, an Anglo-Saxon warlord, Cuthwulf, fought a battle that captured the town, then known as ‘Egonesham’.
After the Norman invasion of 1066, the prosperous abbey in Eynsham seems to have received an angry kicking from the victors. A chronicler records that,
“Eynsham Abbey has been laid waste at the Conquest, and its brethren had fled, frightened of the enemy.”
A fair amount of fisticuffs have been associated with all-out rioting. In 1296 locals rioted during a religious fair, and killed four scholars from Oxford. In 1398 Eynsham men were involved with an uprising in Bampton, led by John Milford, a weaver from Cogges, which plotted to kill King Richard II. In 1615 the owner of Twelve Acre farm, Sir Edward Stanley, tried to take over common land for his private use, which resulted in rioting and “fence breaking”. The issue of public grazing land being enclosed for use by rich landowners was a recurrent problem, and caused unrest again in 1696 and 1780.
Eynshamites have also involved themselves in fighty causes around the globe. Local man, Edward Francis Oakeley fought in the Boer War in South Africa, and was present at the Relief of Ladysmith (1899), when the besieged town was famously rescued by British troops.
Of course, when it comes to violence, it was the First World War which wrought the greatest damage on the lives of Eynshamites. 50 names are recorded on the Eynsham War Memorial, for men killed in battles are infamously vast as the Somme, to scrappy skirmishes with the Turkish army in Iraq. There were visible effects back home beyond the empty chairs at the dinner table, as several families of Belgian refugees found shelter in the town, later joined by two wounded Belgian soldiers.
The Second World War had an even more obvious effect on the town, from small inconveniences to some massive shifts in daily life. It brought several locals into contact with the law, with two individuals fined for ‘displaying a light’ at night (thought to attract enemy bombers) and wasting valuable petrol by driving to the cinema.
The most notable changes related to the establishment of an Air Ammunition Depot south of the town, which resulted in a steady stream of large military vehicles between Cassington Road and Station Road. One child, upon being late to school, claimed that, “I couldn’t cross the road because there was a long convoy going by!” which apparently became the standard excuse for tardy pupils.
The military vehicles weren’t a laughing matter though; in 1942 a little girl was killed by an RAF lorry, and in 1945 a 71 year old man was hit by an American ambulance. Grim.
Amidst the troubles and the heartbreak, there were occasional moments of amusement. Robert E. Willis served in the local Home Guard, and used his poetic skill to recount the night where he thought that Eynsham was under attack from Nazi soldiers.
‘Twas on a silent starlit night
When the Nation was at war,
Old Tom Gritt and I was in the Guards,
And we were on patrol,
Way up to the Witney Road us was,
Beyond the ‘Evenlode’,
Invasion in the minds of all
It were a heavy load.
Then all at once we heard the bells .
From over ‘Sow-Leigh’ Way,
And both our hearts just missed a beat,
And a deadly fear held sway.
They marched through the streets of Eynsham, ready to face the enemy.
“An inspiring sight we must have made
To the Fuhrer’s troops should they invade,
For old Tom Gnu was five feet four,
While I was nigh a full foot more.”
Obviously, they turned out to be somewhat mistaken.
“They told us it were a false alarm,
‘Return to your factory, field or farm’
But Tom and I both knew full well
That night we heard the Sow-Leigh bell,
‘Twas us as turned the Nazi might
On that dark and silent starlit night!”
Inspiring stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. A testament to the warlike spirit that burns in the heart of all Eynshamites – right? Um.
Eynsham has a… MASSIVE CHIP ON ITS SHOULDER
We started with a quote claiming that Eynsham was the “most Godforsaken hole in England”. It’s still unclear quite what the reasoning was, but I think it’s fair to say that Eynsham have been underappreciated for a long while.
Perhaps the utopian presence of Witney has overshadowed our poor undervalued town? Reverend John Lopes certainly thought so, and in 1930 he published a hilariously impassioned defence of the town, written in response to a critical letter in the Witney Gazette. It ended with this earnest declaration,
“We are, however, highly honoured by being singled out as the pioneers in our neighbourhood in that fight for individual freedom, based upon the dignity of human life, and for that ordered civic progress which has ever been the peculiar glory of the little towns of civilised Europe and their special contribution to the world’s history.”
All right Reverend, calm down. We get the picture.
Author’s Note: The main source for this article has been the Eynsham Record, the annual journal for the Eynsham History Group. If you’re interested in Eynsham’s history beyond the very narrow insight presented here, I sincerely recommend that you explore their past issues.
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.
If you happened to think this article a source of interest and joy, please like the page on Facebook to keep track of my journeys through various local histories. And, if you’re feeling generously minded, perhaps you’d consider throwing some loose change in the tip jar? Just click on donate below.
- Eynsham Record, Issues 1 – 30
- Gordon E, Eynsham Abbey 1005-1228, 1990
- Graham M, Oxfordshire at War 1939 – 1945, 1994
- Oxford Journal, 07/01/1865
- Oxford Journal 24/02/1872
- Oxford Journal, 21/09/1872
- Oxford Times, 12/04/2016
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
Eynsham’s History of Robbers, Rabbles and Riots29/10/2016
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