Doing Time In Oxford

Being hung was the least of your worries when Oxford Castle and prison were in their heyday. Anne Green survived it in 1752 despite helpfull spectators pulling on her body, pumelling her ribs, and putting her in a coffin. Mary Blandy asked to be hung low down to stop people looking up her skirts, she saved her blushes but still died and now haunts the castle mound. She must be a bit shocked at the huge buidling project fot the new Westgate shopping centre nearby, on my latest Oxford visit the sky was still dominated by giant cranes but the centre is taking shape and should be open by the end of 2017.

Every time I pop back to my roots, I have at least one Tommy The Tourist trip, the castle visit was shoe horned in on the day of my return flight to Tenerife so I paid my 10.75 for the first tour at 10 am when the frost was stinging cold. Empress Matilda, the grandmother of Richard The Lionheart was our character guide for the five of us as we entered the base of St George´s Tower with its nine foot thick stone walls. The Norman conquest of 1066 led to the building of the castle with the earth from the moat becoming the mound. Our informative guide added her story of escaping down to the frozen river and beyond on skates made from animal bones. The cold base of the saxon St Georges Tower made me shiver, and so did the tales of prisoners 10 hour shifts turning a heavy capston wheel. That time span was to become a recurring theme for all punishments and work details once the prison was established.

The 101 steps of the tower were a good wake up call for my hangover and the sight of the chimney of the defunct Morrels Brewery brought a tear to my eye. Back down in the foundations we were stirred by talk of ghosts. A tight passage led us to the prison section and D Wing, a small remaining part of the prison, it closed in 1996 and a large part is now an expensive shopping area and a posh hotel that will cost you an arm and a leg. Talking of arms and legs, Matilda told us of mutilations and robbed body parts at public hangings as we crowded into a cell. It was all delivered with a gallows sense of humour and plenty of relish at the most gruesome parts. The pillary, tall version of the stocks, sounded fun, locked in and dreaming of being pelted with rotten fruit as excrement (don´t ask whose) and rats were hurled at you. Oh and for good measure your ears could be nailed to the back board to keep your chin up.

What heinous crimes could get you banged up? Anything from stealing a back of sugar to having a saucy tongue when talking about the Queen could win you a free holiday. Later prison governors were quite happy for inmates to be used for medical research, and if your thinking this is ancient history, the last Oxford hanging was in 1962. There was an opportunity to pose for mug shots against the inmates wall, these were quickly converted into grainy and aged looking photos complete with your crime and sentence. Talk of treadmills, cranks, and the origin of the officers nickname screw” made me glad I couldn´t be punished for the childhood nicking of sweets from Woolworths Pick and Mix.


The guided tour took just over an hour, once outside I took advantage of the pass for the castle mound (included in the price) treading carefully along the upward spiralling semi thawed track. At the mounds top it was weird to look across to the old Co Op offices I started work in when just a young pup. Public hangings from the grassy peak were the big sporting event of the times with people turning up drunk and lusting for blood and possibly a few bits of bone or fingers as souvenirs. These days it would be endlessly repeated on Sky. Back at the bottom I popped into the Castle Yard Cafe for a warming coffee, they do food as well – as a nice cheeky touch they serve porridge.