Category Archives: General interest

Leisure and Entertainment in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford

On January 12th Liz Woolley gave us a most interesting and wide-ranging talk on Leisure and
Entertainment in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford.

She began by explaining that the need for this resulted from the movement of people from rural to urban employment which led to a more regulated working week. She cited the fact that the population of Oxford doubled between 1801 and 1851. In addition Bank Holidays were introduced in 1871 and by 1879 the weekend was a recognised fact. Improved wages also gave people the money to take advantage of the leisure occupations that were offered.

One of the driving factors was the aim to provide alternatives to the public house and the
consumption of alcohol. The Temperance movement was active in this as was a more muscular
Christian influence.

The idea of rational recreation time was a recognised early 19th century development, with the
added benefit of self improvement alongside entertainment. Physical activities included a large and well-equipped gymnasium built in 1858 by Archibald McLaren on the corner of Alfred St and Blue Boar Lane. Football clubs appeared including Oxford City in 1882, and skating was a popular winter activity on Port Meadow, as was horse racing in warmer weather.

Open air spaces were also important, the Parks being developed in the 1890s, and places for
swimming in the river were popular, the first being at Tumbling Bay in 1853 although exclusively for men in the early days. Other river-based amusements included trips on Salters steamers and small boats for hire including punts. Rowing later developed into a more competitive sport with the opening of rowing clubs.

Public baths were a very important feature of life at this time, because they gave people the means to keep themselves and their clothes clean, and people could also relax in the Turkish baths. There had been a serious outbreak of cholera in the 1850s, so this was a useful way of combating dirt and disease in a crowded city.

In addition to physical activity intellectual pursuits were catered for . Circulating libraries were the forerunners of public libraries, the one in Oxford opening in 1854. Literature was produced for working people, and lectures and evening classes were also available.

There was a conscious aim to keep young men occupied and off the streets, which led to the
opening of working men’s clubs. The YMCA in George Street and Temperance Hotels like the one in Queen Street which opened in 1888. Theatres and cinemas were another source of
entertainment. The Ultimate Picture Palace cinema (1911) and the Phoenix cinema (1913) still
operate today. The `New Theatre opened originally in 1886 and housed a popular music hall. The Oxford Playhouse started life in the defunct premises of the Big Game Museum situated opposite Brown’s Restaurant in St Giles.

We saw some delightful pictures taken by Henry Taunt of the crowds enjoying St Giles Fair. This
became an important occasion for family and friends to meet, and special trains were laid on from other cities for people going to the Fair. The attractions on offer included freak shows, bioscopes, pugilists, lady wrestlers and a menagerie. It also saw the first steam-driven ride in 1866 and electric lights in 1882.


Local Oxfordshire talks – January 2017

Information provided by the OLHA (

3rd – Henley – Richard Fortey “On Lambridge Wood”. Old Kings Arms Barn (entry from Kings Road car park), 7:45pm.

3rd – Hook Norton – Gill White “Embroidered with woodbine and eglantine: Elizabethan textile furnishings”. Baptist Church Hall, 7:30pm.

11th – Woodstock – Julie Ann Godson “The Water Gypsy: how a Thames fishergirl became a viscountess”. The Oxfordshire Museum, Park Street,  7:30pm.

12th – Banbury – Jane Humphries “History from Underneath: Girls’ Lives in Early Industrial Britain”. Banbury Museum, Spiceball Park Road, 7:30pm.

12th – Didcot – Martin Buckland “The Wilts & Berks Canal – the Past, the Present and Coming Soon”. Northbourne Centre, Church Street, 7:30pm.

12th – Wootton & Dry Sandford – Liz Woolley “Leisure and Entertainment in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford”. Wootton Community Centre, 7:30pm.

16th – Goring Gap – Alan Turton “The sieges of Basing House in the Civil War”. Goring Village Hall, 2:30pm.

16th – Kennington – Graham Clifton “Church bell restoration”. Methodist Church, Upper Road, 7:45pm.

18th – Bloxham – Stephen Barker “Oxfordshire in fifty objects: the exhibition”. Jubilee Park Hall, Brickle Lane, 7:30pm.

18th – Littlemore – AGM and Anni Byard “Archaeological Treasures of Oxfordshire” (to be confirmed). Giles Road Community Centre, 7:30pm.

19th – Abingdon – Nick Barton “Gatehampton Farm and the Thames Valley at the End of the Last Ice Age”. Northcourt Centre, Northcourt Road, 7:45 pm.

20th – Finstock – John Leafield “Putting Finstock on the map: From Gough to Google, a brief introduction to mapping from prehistoric time up to the earliest maps of Britain”. Village hall, 8:00pm.

23rd – Oxfordshire Family History Society – Liz Woolley “Child labour in nineteenth-century Oxfordshire”. Exeter Hall, Oxford Road, Kidlington, 8:00pm.

24th – Enstone – Nina Morgan “William ‘Strata’ Smith, the father of English geology”. The Manor House, Church Enstone, 7:30pm.

24th – Hanney – David Day “The Creation and History of the Architecture of the Pendon Museum Landscape”. War Memorial Hall, East Hanney, 8:00pm.

24th – Sutton Courtenay – Robin Draper “Redcoats to riflemen: the county regiment’s story from 1741”. Village hall, 7:30pm.

25th – Dorchester – Liz Woolley “Children’s Experiences of the Second World War in Oxfordshire”. Followed by AGM. Dorchester Village Hall, 7:30pm.

26th – Museum of Oxford – Tom Crook “The Corruption of Parliament? Has paying MPs led to corruption?”. Museum of Oxford, Town Hall, 6:00pm.

Oxfordshire Castles

This month the Society’s talk was on “Oxfordshire Castles”, given by Trevor Rowley. He gave us a comprehensive and often witty survey of their history.

Castles in the usual sense did not exist in England much before the Norman Conquest. Prehistoric ‘castles’ were defensive areas which were centres of population rather than castles.

After the Conquest William the Conqueror set about consolidating his power. In many county towns, he established ‘Mottes” (earth mounds with wooden fortifications on the top) as centres of control. Later on these Mottes acquired ‘Baileys’, enclosures where followers of the new lords were housed. Power was distributed mainly to those who were allies of William in his invasion of England, and it was they who now owned the castles and hence the power.

By 1250 the whole of England and Wales was covered with ‘Motte and Bailey’ castles. Trevor Rowley then described Oxford Castle. The Motte was built within 5 years of the Conquest, and sited in a position to control the town and areas to the west. It was a ‘motte and bailey’ type of castle, and on the top of the Motte it had a Keep with a stairway down to a well, but there was an anomaly, which still exists – St George’s Tower. Its date is not known. It could be Saxon, and might have been built in about 1050. It was used as a church, and it has a crypt built in the Norman style. During the time of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda it was first held by Matilda, but seized by Stephen, and Matilda had to escape across the frozen river in disguise, and retreat to Wallingford. Medieval kings did not like Oxford Castle. They much preferred “Beaumont Palace”, which had been built just outside the town boundary (near present-day Beaumont Street). Later, Woodstock Palace was preferred. During the Middle Ages not much drama occurred at Oxford Castle until the Civil War, when Charles I had his HQ at Christchurch. After his defeat, the Castle was ‘reduced’, much of its defences were destroyed, and it lay derelict until being converted to a prison, which it remained until recent times. Excavations in the Bailey area have turned up much of interest, including many skeletons. Some of these were the decapitated bodies of executed prisoners.

Wallingford Castle had been an extremely important castle built in a strategically vital stretch of the river Thames. William had failed in his first attempt to take London (after a battle on London Bridge). So he rode west along the river as far as Wallingford. Here he consolidated his political power, negotiating the surrender of Winchester. It was a royal castle until the Civil War, when it saw action and was besieged by Fairfax’s forces. Later, like Oxford Castle it was ‘reduced’. It was a very grand castle, but little now survives. Less well-known castles included Deddington Castle. This castle in the north of the county saw action during the Conquest. It was owned by Bishop Odo, nephew of William. He was the second richest man in the country, and features in the Bayeux Tapestry. The castle was Odo’s HQ, a secure base for Normans in hostile surroundings.

Chipping Norton Castle. This castle was owned by the Fitzalans, and was a centre of defence in the area. The Fitzalans held property on the Welsh border, and in Arundel. Middleton Stoney Castle. There is not much visible here, but in the middle of the park there is a Motte. It went out of use in the 1200’s. Excavations show that there was a Roman farmstead on the site.

Boarstall Tower. Now in the hands of the National Trust. it was built at a time when castles had ceased to be purely military structures, but this was deliberately given defensive-like features, like castellations. All that is left now is the gatehouse.

Broughton Castle. Mainly Tudor. Owned by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, it was built to look as if it was well fortified. The owners were on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War, so it was not ‘reduced’, and continued in the same family’s hands. It is often used in Films and TV series.

Shirburn Castle. Contemporary with Broughton Castle. It was owned by the Lords of Macclesfield, but is now empty due to a dispute. Blenheim Palace and Woodstock Castle. The latter had been a major royal residence, and was used by Henry II to conduct his affair with “Fair Rosamund”. It was situated in the grounds of Blenheim Palace near the bridge over the lake, and was removed when the Palace was built. The stone was used in the building of the Palace.

Trevor Rowley finished with a picture of Highclere Castle, built in the 19th century by the Caernarvon family and partly designed by Charles Barry who designed the Houses of Parliament. It is not in Oxfordshire, but it has many features that may recall the design of medieval castles like Oxford and Wallingford.