A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1979.
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The earliest town hall seems to have been in Queen Street, opposite St. Martin's church, where an upper room was still called 'oldyeldhall' in 1312. (fn. 1) In 1229, however, Henry III had sold to the burgesses, for use as a court room, a house on the east side of St. Aldate's Street, part of the modern town hall site. (fn. 2) The house, which had belonged to a wealthy Jew, was substantially repaired or rebuilt in the later 13th century, and an oratory was made in 1363. Two rooms or cellars beneath the hall were leased as taverns from at least 1323. (fn. 3)
In 1541 the city obtained the lease, and c. 1562 the freehold, of an adjoining house to the south; (fn. 4) the property had belonged to the Domus Conversorum in London, a house for converted Jews, annexed to the mastership of the Rolls since 1377. (fn. 5) The house became the lower guild hall, although the name Domus Conversorum was used on occasions. Regular repairs and alterations were made to both halls in the 16th and 17th centuries, notably when the county assizes moved there from the castle after the Black Assize of 1577; in 1604 a new window was inserted in the lower hall to improve the light and air of the court room. (fn. 6) Before 1606 a row of shops and a house were built along the street front of the halls, and in 1611 the lower guild hall porch was rebuilt to match the shop fronts. (fn. 7) The upper hall was a rectangular stone building c. 60 ft. long, 31 ft. wide, and c. 43 ft. high above ground; it had a leaded roof surrounded by battlements which were renewed in 1672. The main hall, on the first floor, contained three or four late-13th-century twolight transomed windows; on the ground floor were chambers or offices, and below them a 13th-century vaulted cellar of three bays by two. The lower guild hall was of two storeys, with store-rooms on the ground floor and a hall above, and a steeply pitched slated roof. (fn. 8)
A council house with a lower hall and chamber beneath was recorded in 1474. (fn. 9) It probably stood on the same site as its successor, built in 1615, adjoining the north-east end of the upper hall and forming the north side of the guild hall courtyard. In 1558 two rooms below the council chamber were occupied by the town clerk, but after 1563 one was used as an audit house; the city treasure was placed there in 1581. (fn. 10) The new buildings of 1615 were arranged similarly, with the town clerk's office and audit house beneath the council chamber. In 1619 new stairs were built, and the council house enlarged. (fn. 11)
A new town hall was in prospect in the early 18th century, and contributions amounting to c. £1,300 were made by Thomas Rowney (d. 1727), Benjamin Sweet, James and Philip Herbert, Sir John Smith, and Francis Carter. Plans were drawn up in 1746, but it was not until 1751, after the younger Thomas Rowney (d. 1759) had agreed to meet all further costs (c. £1,000), that the upper and lower halls were demolished and a single hall, designed in the Italian style by Isaac Ware, begun. The ground floor comprised an open corn market, separated from the street by an arcade; above was an oblong hall (c. 130 ft. long, c. 30 ft. wide), divided into two court rooms by rows of pillars. The principal staircase, leading up from the centre of the east wall of the corn market, projected into the courtyard behind. North of the hall was a grand jury room, with an office for the clerk of the county below it. The hall was opened in 1753 with a Venison Feast. (fn. 12)
In 1790, partly to provide more room for the traditional balls after the Oxford Races, George Spencer, marquis of Blandford, paid for the replacement of the pillars dividing the hall by 'handsome sliding partitions with circular doors'. (fn. 13) Between 1815 and 1817 further changes were made, apparently to designs by Thomas Wyatt: the work included wainscotting, restoration, and perhaps making a new court room recorded in 1817. (fn. 14) The county courts moved to the new county hall in 1841, and shortly afterwards the city repaired and enlarged the town hall, creating offices, including a post office in the former corn market below the hall, and building a town clerk's office in the courtyard. The work was completed in 1844 at the expense of Alderman Charles Tawney, who refaced the west front and placed a statue of the younger Thomas Rowney in an ornate niche, provided for that purpose in the original west front, but empty since 1751; Rowney's arms were placed on the blank face of the pediment above. (fn. 15)
The 17th-century council house was incorporated into the 18th-century town hall. The council chamber was used not only for council meetings but also by the paving commissioners, guardians of the poor, and charitable societies. (fn. 16) The audit room beneath was refurnished in 1784 by the mayor, John Treacher, but in 1811 the surviving 17th-century furnishings, including an elaborate oak chimney piece, were put back, and the remains of the city armoury arranged on the wall. (fn. 17) The room continued to be used as the mayor's parlour until 1892.
In 1878 the ground floor of the town hall contained a committee room, a public library, opened in 1854, and part of the post office. On the north side of the courtyard, beneath the council chamber and next to the mayor's parlour, was a court room, presumably in the former office, since the town clerk was housed in a 19th-century building further east. On the south side of the yard was Nixon's school, with another part of the post office, formerly lock-ups beneath it; the east side of the yard comprised a house occupied by the chief of police, and a corn exchange, built in 1861. (fn. 18) All the existing buildings, together with adjacent houses in St. Aldate's and Blue Boar Street, were demolished in 1892-3, and a new hall, designed by H. T. Hare, was opened by Edward, prince of Wales in 1897. The ornate building, 'partaking of the characteristics both of Elizabethan and Jacobean work', (fn. 19) contains much heavy sculptured decoration and stucco. The ground floor is largely taken up by offices; from a lofty entrance hall an imposing staircase leads to the great hall, which contains galleries on three sides and an apsidal end with an organ and space for a large orchestra. On the same floor are an assembly or banqueting hall, a council chamber, described at its opening as 'so funereal in aspect as to remind one of a dungeon', (fn. 20) a committee room, and the mayor's parlour. Opening off Blue Boar Street is a court room; until 1930 the police station was next to it. The public library occupied rooms on the south-west corner of the building until 1973 when it was moved to the Westgate Centre; in 1975 the former library was opened as a city museum. (fn. 21) In 1928 the treasurer's and education departments moved to the City Chambers at nos. 20-1 Queen Street, to which a new building was added in 1961; from 1959 additional office space was rented in St. Aldate's Chambers, opposite the town hall. (fn. 22)
The city plate-room, under the north end of the town hall, is a cellar, probably of 15th-century date, of three bays with quadripartite vault and an original doorway in the west wall. It was presumably part of Knap Hall, a house north of the medieval town hall. (fn. 23)
The furnishings of the town hall include a later 16th-century carving of the city arms with supporters and motto. The mayor's parlour contains the 17thcentury overmantle and panelling from the old parlour. Oak panelling from the 17th-century council chamber was re-used in the court waiting room. Among the pictures are a portrait of Queen Anne ascribed to Sir G. Kneller, a portrait of Thomas Rowney (d. 1759) by Adrien Carpentier, and portraits of several other benefactors, including the mayors Richard Hawkins and John Nixon, and Nixon's wife Joan, all ascribed to another mayor, John Taylor. A painting by Egbert van Heemskerk of an election in the lower guild hall in 1687 was given to the city in 1938. (fn. 24)
A bench at Carfax became the traditional meeting-place of the citizens on official occasions. University statutes of 1636 forbade students to loiter near it, (fn. 25) presumably because it was recognized also as a place for informal gossip and debate; the name, recorded in 1561, (fn. 26) suggests an association with begging. The first bench was built by the churchwardens of St. Martin's in 1545; it was a lean-to with a leaded roof, and its timbers were embedded in the east wall of the church. (fn. 27) In 1574 a man was granted the freedom of the city in return for painting the royal arms and the 'beasts and vanes', possibly a weather-cock, on the bench; the back of the bench was panelled, at least by the early 17th century. (fn. 28) In 1578 the bench extended the whole length of the church's east wall and projected some distance into the street. (fn. 29) The city repaired it regularly in the later 16th century, and in 1598 employed a man to clean it and keep away those who ought not to congregate there. (fn. 30) The churchwardens of St. Martin's shared the cleaning costs until 1621, but did not pay for repairs. (fn. 31)
In 1667 the city rebuilt the bench in stone as a rectangular enclosure against the east wall of the church; its east side was formed by an arcade of four round-headed arches supported by plain round pillars, and there was a large window in the north wall, and presumably also in the south. (fn. 32) The demolition of the bench as an obstruction was contemplated in 1711, but only the 'enclosures of the two ends' were taken down to be replaced by arches. (fn. 33) In 1747 it was described as 'a great nuisance, a harbour for idle and disorderly people', and the council ordered its removal. The order was repeated in 1750 and seems to have been carried out. (fn. 34) The bench was replaced by an 'alcove' formed by a ledge jutting out from the church wall; (fn. 35) that too had been removed by 1797, probably in 1784 when the east wall of the church was underpinned. (fn. 36) The site continued to be a general meetingplace and a place where labourers waited to be hired. (fn. 37)
On market days Penniless Bench served as a butter bench. On Sundays and holidays councillors and freemen met there to accompany the mayor to services at St. Martin's. (fn. 38) In 1643 the city welcomed Queen Henrietta Maria there, and in 1687 James II. (fn. 39) Royal proclamations were read at the bench, (fn. 40) and on holidays wine and cakes were served there to the mayor and freemen. (fn. 41) In 1694 it was agreed that on such occasions only those councillors who had attended church in their gowns should share the treat at Penniless Bench and that they should 'sit down in decent order according to seniority and take their treat civilly'. (fn. 42)
Between 1709 and 1713 a new butter market was built on the south-west corner of Carfax with a new assembly room for the mayor and councillors beside it, (fn. 43) and there is no further record of the official use of Penniless Bench. Part of the butter bench was removed in 1773, and the site was sold by the council in 1822. (fn. 44)
There was presumably a town gaol (fn. 45) by 1229 when the bailiffs were ordered to deliver an imprisoned clerk to the bishop. (fn. 46) In 1231 the mayor and bailiffs were ordered to keep clerks arrested in Oxford in the prison until they were delivered to the chancellor of the university. (fn. 47) The gaol occasionally housed prisoners from the county, as in 1259, (fn. 48) when the sheriff was not in control of the castle prison. The gaol was at the North Gate in 1239; (fn. 49) it seems to have been of two storeys by 1293, when the chancellor asked that an extra floor might be added so that felons, women, and minor offenders could be segregated. (fn. 50) In 1305, however, there was still no separate prison for women, and the town authorities were ordered to make two prisons, one for each sex. (fn. 51) In 1306 the top storey of the gaol consisted of a partly floored loft which seems to have been available for lesser offenders. (fn. 52) A separate prison for prostitutes was provided c. 1310, (fn. 53) apparently in a room in the west tower of the gate, later known as the maidens' chamber. (fn. 54) In 1311 the bailiffs demolished the building which had been used as a prison for clerks, and refused to rebuild it. (fn. 55) By 1393 the maidens' chamber was also disused. (fn. 56) Presumably new accommodation had been provided elsewhere in the gaol, for there were no further complaints about the mixing of different categories of prisoners, and 14th-century prisoners included clerks, townsmen committed by the chancellor for breach of the peace, a woman suspected of forgery, and debtors. (fn. 57)
The prison was called Bocardo by 1391; the name is usually considered to be derived from a technical logician's term for a syllogism, and to imply that the prison, like the syllogism, was an awkward trap from which to escape. (fn. 58) It has also been suggested, however, that the name was derived from 'boccard' or 'boggard', meaning a privy, (fn. 59) and referred to its insanitary state.
The prison was much repaired and another storey added at the cost of Thomas Mallinson in 1542 and 1543. (fn. 60) It was repaired frequently, and in 1583-4 expensively. (fn. 61) In 1639 the 'grate looking towards Carfax' was 'turned' under the gate, (fn. 62) the first clear evidence that the prison extended over the gate. In 1651 county prisoners were sent to Bocardo, presumably because the castle prison was damaged or destroyed when the castle was slighted that year. (fn. 63) In 1661 the prison comprised the freemen's ward above the gate on the south with an inner ward to the north of it, and below the wards two begging-rooms; on the west side of the gate, one above the other, were the dungeon, the condemned room, and at the top the women's ward. (fn. 64) Three wards and the dungeon were all mentioned in 1605-6, the condemned room was then called the close room, and a beggar's grate existed. (fn. 65) In 1671 it was agreed to enlarge the gaol, (fn. 66) and steps were taken to recover rooms which the former keeper had added to his own adjoining house. (fn. 67) In 1674, the house adjoining the prison on the west, which belonged to the city, was added to the gaol for the keeper's house, (fn. 68) and a hall was built in 1675. (fn. 69) Keepers complained in 1637 and 1666 that the serjeants were keeping prisoners arrested for debt in their houses, thus depriving the gaoler of his fees, and it was agreed that serjeants might keep freemen for a week and foreigners for three days. (fn. 70) The most famous prisoners in Bocardo were the bishops Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, who were kept there for various periods between 1554 and 1556. Later tradition held that they had been kept in the small strongly barred cell on the west side of the gate later known as the Bishops' Hole, (fn. 71) and an oak door associated with it was in 1977 preserved in St. Michael at the Northgate church.
The gaol was demolished with the rest of North Gate by the paving commissioners in 1771, and for a few years thereafter city prisoners were housed in the castle gaol. (fn. 72) In 1786 work began on a new gaol and house of correction in Gloucester Green, (fn. 73) designed by William Blackburn. The building was in use by 1789. It was of three storeys and contained three work rooms, four day rooms, magistrates' common room, chapel, 32 sleeping cells, two dark cells, two lazarettos, two hospital rooms, and a surgeon's dispensary; there were five courtyards, and the whole prison was surrounded by a boundary wall 20 ft. high. (fn. 74) In 1818 there were never more than 24 prisoners in the gaol at one time, most of them vagrants. (fn. 75) By 1836 the buildings were considered unsuitable as the plan did not allow for adequate supervision of prisoners; moreover the rooms were damp, dark, and airless. Hard labour was, and continued to be until the prison's closure, by a treadmill which worked nothing. (fn. 76) Three new cells were built in 1837, (fn. 77) and by 1842 the prison was 'greatly improved'. (fn. 78) In 1851 and 1862 inspectors again commented on the 'discreditable state' of the prison, particularly the lack of discipline brought about by the construction of the building which allowed too free association among the prisoners. (fn. 79) Between 1870 and 1872 a new wing was built and lesser improvements were effected up to 1874. (fn. 80) Despite the alterations the gaol was still inadequate, and when in 1877 it was transferred to the prison commissioners under the Prison Act it was at once closed and demolished in 1878. (fn. 81)
William of Bicester and two others, probably burgesses, were appointed to deliver the gaol in 1322 (fn. 82) and the gaol was delivered fairly regularly in the 15th century. (fn. 83) The bailiffs paid part of the cost of suing out commissions of gaol delivery until 1568 when the city took over the whole cost. (fn. 84) After 1591 the bailiffs bore the costs and recouped themselves from the profits of the delivery. (fn. 85) Most prisoners were vagrants or accused of minor offences, but in 1722 there was a murderess. (fn. 86) Freemen prisoners enjoyed special privileges in the freemen's ward. (fn. 87) The vicechancellor's power to commit prisoners continued to be a source of friction; in 1534 the university complained that the mayor released such prisoners, (fn. 88) in 1702 the city complained that the university committed persons accused of offences within the city to the castle gaol. (fn. 89) In 1599 the city paid the expenses of a bookbinder's man imprisoned by the vice-chancellor for keeping his shop open. (fn. 90)
The cost of repairs to the prison in the 16th and early 17th centuries was usually borne by the town, (fn. 91) but in 1639 the keeper agreed to maintain the prison once the council had put it into a state of repair, (fn. 92) and in 1675 the keeper seems to have paid part of the cost of alterations and additions to the gaol. (fn. 93) In the early 19th century the expenses of the gaol were met from fees and a parish gaol rate, but in 1836 the council took over responsibility for the gaol under the terms of the Municipal Corporations Act; (fn. 94) the university paid for the maintenance of the prisoners, mainly prostitutes, committed by the vice-chancellor. (fn. 95) Under the terms of the Oxford Police Act, 1868, the expenses of the gaol were met from a fund to which the university contributed two-fifths and the city three-fifths; the university's contribution was commuted under the Prisons Act, 1877. (fn. 96)
Miles Windsor (d. c. 1625) left £10 the interest to be given to poor prisoners in Bocardo, (fn. 97) but the charity had been lost by 1822 as had the prisoners' share of the interest of £20 left by John Wardell by will proved in 1627. (fn. 98) The prisoners' share, £2 yearly in the charity of Edith Hody and Elizabeth Daniel, created by deed of 1736, was paid by the churchwardens of St. Mary Magdalen's church in the earlier 19th century. (fn. 99) The charity continued to be administered with the other parish charities and its prison branch was included in the scheme of 1936 for those charities. (fn. 100) Francis Burton, recorded of Oxford, by deed of 1791 gave £50, the interest to be given to well-behaved and industrious prisoners at their discharge, and Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, in 1802 added a further £50. (fn. 101) The money was distributed by the mayor and sheriff in 1841. (fn. 102) The prisoners also benefitted from half the interest of the £400 left by Catherine Mather by will dated 1805. (fn. 103) Under a scheme of 1884 the charities of Mather and of Burton and Abbot were administered with the municipal charities; the scheme of 1886 incorporated them with the charities for the county gaol, but their income was reserved for prisoners from the city. (fn. 104)