musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Oxford Castle and Prison

I am a sucker for old churches, castles, prisons and buildings that have that weight of ages hanging over them, and Oxford Castle and Prison really meets that criteria very well. My first real encounter with it was when I spotted the mound on my first trip to Oxford in May 2019. 

I flagged it as a possible target for my next visit and having an extra 2 hours to spend in the city I was able to investigate further. The first surprise is that you cannot just “climb the mound” as it is locked and is part of the Castle and Prison tour. The area behind it is not really visible unless you deliberately walk around the mound, and there you will find the buildings that comprise the former castle and of course the associated prison. The castle has its roots in 1071 when Robert d’Oilly built a “Motte and Bailey” castle in Oxford. A motte-and-bailey castle is a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade.  The mound is really what is left of the motte. I am not even going to attempt to provide a history of the site, it is way too complicated for me, and its easier to read it off the Wikipedia page anyway. 

There is a model of what it may have looked like in the reception area and it may not seem very impressive now, but way back it must have looked like a formidable construction.

Most of the castle was destroyed in the English Civil War and by the 18th century the remaining buildings had become Oxford’s local prison. 

The image above shows St George’s Tower as well as the Prison D-Wing and Debtor’s Tower. Entrance to the building is just behind the 2 people in the image.  The building was formally constituted as a county gaol in 1531 and it was used to house prisoners of war during the Civil War in 1642.  The D-Wing was built in 1795  and the last hanging in the prison was in 1952. A new prison complex was built on the site from 1785 onwards and expanded in 1876; and this became HM Prison Oxford. The prison closed in 1996 and was redeveloped as a Malmaison Hotel.  

I arrived 15 minutes before the 11am tour so decided to take in the mound. The entrance fee is £1 but it does form part of the tour price anyway.  The mound does not seem like much of a climb but it was a scorcher of a day and that winding path was surprisingly steep. The view is not too bad, but I was hoping for a better view from St George’s Tower.

By the time I was done on the mound it was time for my tour and behind the narrow door we were met by a guide wearing the appropriate lags uniform (His name was Michael and he is recommended for his knowledge and hard work).  

Doorway to the staircase of the tower

A short talk about the tower followed, and it was more about the history of the tower and the suffering of the men imprisoned in it. Unfortunately there is nothing really to photograph and even if there was we were too many people squashed into too small a space. The upper area of the tower houses a water tank as well as a viewing platform which is reached by one of those infernal spiral staircases.  

The view from the viewing platform is much better although still not ideal.

From there we went through to the central wing of the prison which looked grim enough without imagining what it must have looked like with almost no natural light and poor ventilation. 

Underneath the building is a Norman Crypt that somehow escaped the various alterations of destruction, and it is one of those places that leaves a lot to the imagination. I would not however have liked to have been in there in the dark.

Then we went upstairs again to hear some tales from the history of the prison in some of the cells. It is doubtful that they were as clean and well tended back then and I suspect the pillory is a reproduction.

The debtors tower was divided by steel bars and it was here where you served out your time until your debt was paid, although how you raised the money to pay the debt if you were beyond bars escapes me. It too is a grim place although I do suspect this is not what the original looked like.

It was in this area where we heard about the story of young Julia Ann Crumpling, aged 7, who was sentenced to seven days’ hard labour at the prison in 1870. She allegedly had stolen a pram from a Mr and Mrs Edmund Smith of Witney, who had left it outside while going into a shop. She would have been housed in the B wing that housed housed women and teenagers.  Did she just make a stupid mistake by taking the pram? or was she really just a rebellious child? and what effect did the sentence have on her? Back in those days prison was not seen as a holiday rest camp and justice was served to young and old. The Victorians believed that prisons should deter people from committing crimes, with the punishment of hard labour dished out to crush inmates’ spirits.  You did the crime you did the time! However, I could not help feel empathy for that bewildered girl who was thrust into this terrible place. I was unable to find any information as to what happened to her after she was released so her future life is a mystery. It is rumoured that a young girl haunts the prison, it may even be her. Strangely enough she has reached out over the centuries and her mug shot still remains to tell us about her.

We went outside onto a small landing that butts onto a former (and more modern) cell block of HM Prison Oxford and which has now been turned into a boutique hotel of all things. There is a window through which you can see the interior of the cell block. Just what would the old lags have to say about that state of affairs?

and the back (or front?) of the hotel.

And then we were done and dusted and I looked over the exhibition in some of the other cells before turning my bows towards the exit. I still had a lot of ground to cover on this day and time was marching.

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