While we wait for the lifting of lockdown to resume our monthly meetings, we are circulating selected reports of earlier meetings. This one describes some lively goings-on in 19th Century Oxford.
CELEBRATION AND RIOT IN VICTORIAN OXFORD; talk by David Vaisey. October 1983.
David Vaisey, a librarian at the Bodleian Library, had chosen five dates in which celebrations took place. 1814 – End of the Napoleonic Wars; 1856 – End of the Crimean War; 1887 – Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee; 1897 – Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee; 1900 – Relief of Mafeking.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars was marked in Oxford by a gathering of 5,000 people in Radcliffe Square, A meal and drink was provided for appropriate toasts to the war leaders and finally ‘Old England forever’. Records describe the celebrations as being, mostly smoking, drinking and dancing – and women ‘enjoying their husbands’.
March 1856 was the date for celebrating the end of the Crimean War, although three weeks passed before a Public Proclamation of Peace was made. Crowds gathered in Cornmarket and the event was marked by the ringing of church bells. A bonfire was set ablaze, fireworks were thrown amongst the crowds. People began fighting. When it became necessary to quell the fires the public water supply was sabotaged, producing disastrous flooding and subsequent rioting. The water flowed downhill through Carfax and St Aldates.
The celebrations lasted until 2am. How to celebrate officially gave rise to much discussion. Peace had come and the idea of illuminating public buildings and shops was considered – or should food be given to the poor. At this time there was rivalry between the University and the town dignitaries. The Mayor had decided not to support the idea of illuminations but found himself having to agree with the University Vice Chancellor in order to prevent conflict between ‘Town and Gown’. Next day the Mayor drove around the town making public announcements that a meeting would be held in the Star Assembly Rooms at the Clarendon Centre to discuss ideas for celebration. Included would be the suggestion for providing a fountain from which people could drink and could also be used to flush the drains which had been a source of cholera.
On 30th April violence broke out again. People gathered on Magdalen Bridge for the May Morning celebrations, the police were seen as a target, and they finally had to withdraw. Illumination of the city buildings finally did take place using gas street lighting, so it wasn’t impressive.
By 1887 when celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was to be considered, progress in public life and order had been made. Electric lighting had been installed, a Board of Health set up, the Police Force had been established and relationship between town and gown had improved. June 21st was designated as a day of festivity, but public arrangements were postponed because the customary University ox roast in Osney was to take place on that date. It is recorded that a party for 140 people took place in the city buildings and one Tom Cox, then aged 93, stated that he could remember the celebrations for George III’s Jubilee in 1810. Jubilee medals were struck and distributed together with 9,000 Jubilee mugs.
For children, the highlight of the event was a gathering of all the schools in front of St. John’s College. Details for singing four verses of the National Anthem, with strict instructions for paying attention to the conductor, to be followed by organized cheering and waving of white handkerchiefs and looking ‘intensely happy’. The children then paraded along Broad Street to University Parks for a tea party. A fireworks display was held on Port Meadow.
The Diamond Jubilee in 1897 marked also the opening of the new Town Hall. Prince Albert Edward of Wales arrived from Paddington at 9.50am, his horse had arrived at 7.45am. This dual celebration in Oxford’s history included an inspection by the Prince of the Oxford Yeomanry on Port Meadow. He returned by riding along St Giles for a luncheon at the Randolph Hotel. The official opening of the Town Hall and the Acland Nursing Home then followed; his carriage on this occasion was pulled by University students. He then attended an evening entertainment at the Town Hall before leaving for Cheltenham. Extra Metropolitan Police were called in to support the local police with crowd control. However the officers were seen as objects of provocation and were subjected to violence by the crowd. Fierce battles took place around the Town Hall and Carfax.
Children, again were included in the celebration. 6,960 school children over 6 years of age assembled in St Giles in school detachments. Wearing Jubilee medals, carrying flags on sticks, looking ‘intensely happy’ once again specific instructions for singing only three verses of the National Anthem this time, raising three hearty cheers, waving flags whilst marching though Broad Street accompanied by five bands to University Parks where tea was served. 24 cwt of cake and 1000 lbs of bread and butter was consumed. Four steam boilers hired by the Mayor, provided unlimited hot water for tea making. This was ingeniously distributed through long pipes with taps spaced at intervals right through the picnic area.
The year 1900 saw the Relief of Mafeking. A grim siege, during the South African war, had lasted for 217 days. Rejoicing in Oxford had a special meaning at that time as Major Robert Baden-Powell, the hero of that campaign, had joined the army from Balliol College. The Baden-Powell residence was still 29 Banbury Road. In the Parks on that day R E Foster scored a century. Students gathered to sing patriotic songs. 36 bonfires were lit around the town, the largest was in St Giles, measuring 60 feet square and 25 feet high. 30 drums of oil were poured over it, and when ignited it was so hot people had to move away. Sunday was a day of rest, but Monday saw the resumption of noisy celebrations. The police used water hoses to quell the crowds, by 4pm most of the public had gone home. Constables patrolled in groups of 16. R E Foster’s final cricket score reached 169, and the bowler who suffered the most was W G Grace.