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Oxymoronic Oxfordshire

Updated: Jan 15

At first glance, Oxfordshire is a county of rogues and miscreants, although it might be more accurate to claim the county is nothing but a collection of places that sound like punishments for the criminally-inclined.

One’s hair may stand on end when one learns that corporal punishment remains legal in England in, and I quote, “certain settings”. English lawmakers, in their bonkers anfractuous manner, made the striking of adults unlawful in 1967 yet waited until 1986 to outlaw the hitting of children: but only those attending state schools. Independent schools only became obliged to snap their rattans in 1998, whereas day care centres and nurseries workers were compelled to withhold their slaps in 2003. One can adduce that the smaller one is, the more deserving they are of violence! Children in part-time educational establishments aren’t subject to these laws whatsoever. Who knew!

In 2005, no less than forty Christian schools took the government to court to demand back their biblical rights to “help form godly character”. They lost and many children whose parents had absolutely-not-on-purpose moved into a prime catchment area no doubt breathed a sigh of relief.

Scotland and Wales have, in very recent years, acknowledged that if one were to strike an adult it would constitute ‘common assault’. It subsequently banished all forms of physical chastisement no matter how minor the being was. However, if that somebody is smaller, younger and residing in one’s own home in England, a bit of whack appears to be absolutely fine!

It used to be the standard that a ‘red hand print’ would be the threshold that delineated abuse from admonishment, but alas, our prosecution service deemed it too lenient. They instead imposed a standard of ‘serious injuries’. Later, six years later to be exact, in 2017, it was determined that a child’s injury must be more than transient and trifling.

So if you are so inclined, feel free to punch a custard dessert in your local bakery, and you'll quickly discover that it's considered more criminal.

I pulled up to photograph the Littleworth sign above in the village of Wheatley to find my attention quickly diverted by a pyramidal structure with a very sturdy, but firmly bolted door. A quick tap and a click had me discover it was a lock-up. A very locked-up lock up. God forbid the average tourist wants to have a peruse because it would require one to commit the crime of ‘breaking and entering’. Instead it stands there doing very little but being a pointy object balancing a ball. Some might claim it serves as a deterrent, but that would be a bit of a stretch.

Typically, lock-ups, where they have survived, are round, hence their name in bygone’s literature as “roundhouses”. Built largely in the Victorian era, these short-stay residences were exclusively occupied by men who were prone to drunken debauchery and petty theft. This one seems to have been quite the popular bed and breakfast, a natural manifestation of the surrounding villages having no fewer than ten inns between them. Occasionally, the lock-up housed more serious malefactors on their way to the assizes in Oxford, but for the most part lock-ups remained a hostel for the hungover.

Ironically, this lock up sits on the corner of Holloway Road. Even more oddly, ‘Holloway’ means sunken road, which is especially wry given the word is most synonymous with London’s former premier prison for women. HMP Holloway, closed in 2016, was the former abode of at least three-hundred Suffragettes; the last woman to be hanged: Ruth Ellis in 1955; and Britain’s most famous female Nazi: Diana Freeman-Mitford.

Better known as Lady Mosley, wife of Oswald, she probably should have been hanged for treason, but for the fact they were chummy with Oxfordshire’s most famous Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Instead, he arranged for them to be interned together in matrimonial bliss in one of Holloway’s private premises, segregating them well away from the ‘proper crims’. Prior to the war, they had ‘lived in sin’ until their wedding at the home of Joseph Goebbels, the act witnessed by none other than Adolf Hitler, another man who seemed a somewhat adverse to marriage.

Hanging was still the mandated punishment for high treason at the time of their gallivanting, it only being abolished completely in 1998. Once upon a pre-Victorian era, the gallows beckoned if one romped with the wife of the king; killed one’s legal superior - be he employer, father or bishop; counterfeited; stole, or hung about with gipsies amongst a myriad of other reasons.

Hence, one might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

In fact, until 1814, men had the ignominious prospect of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Corded to a gibbet by the neck until nearly dead, the condemned man would then be brought down for a disembowelling and penectomy, then, finally, pulled apart by bolting horses. All that just to be certain of his demise.

For women there was the additional crime of matricide. Given the husband was already her legal superior, it seems superfluous for the separate crime to be so titled. But hey ho. Of course, hanging would not be befitting of any maiden, fair or otherwise. Women convicted of matricide, theft, treason, adultery or for generally being found guilty of harbouring a vagina, could not be subjected to such bodily destruction lest the crowd be exposed to their unbecoming nakedness. Instead, they were burnt at the stake.

So if anyone ever asks “What did the Victorians ever do for us?” one can safely answer, “They gave us women enough rope to hang ourselves with," by revoking the law that set fire to us. That's equality for you. Elsewhere, even today, women committing adultery face, in many parts of the world, a very different punishment than that faced by men.

Aside from sparing us the flame, the Victorians did quite the remarkable job of criminalising women. Subsequently, the Victorian-built Holloway gaol was largely populated by women and girls who were dirt poor or somewhat occupied in the trade of prostitution, even if only on a part-time basis.

Now categorised as “Fallen Women”, and driven by the media's penchant for a good societal shunning, stories of the unfortunates both entertained, enthralled and horrified the reading-avid educated elite. Little wonder the Victorian era saw women's liberty take a turn for the worse.

Elsewhere, in free society, and to avoid a series of near-revolutions threatening to dismantle the once-idealised nineteenth century, property-owning men and male employees who paid rent in excess of ten pounds per annum, were finally granted the vote in 1867. This advancement greatly disappointed the remaining forty percent of the male population who continued to be denied suffrage on the basis of their impoverishment. One can assume this result gave tradesmen and general workers much reason to drown their sorrows. No doubt too it would have poked their ire, for which the inn was happily in service to soothe. They had, after all, campaigned bitterly for ‘one man, one vote’ and lost. Women, of course, had to wait demurely for a further sixty years.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the mensfolk. The Victorians had felt it necessary to repeal a previously existing law requiring men to pay for their illegitimate offspring. From 1834 onwards, unmarried mothers were assigned the sole responsibility of care-taking up until the child made sixteen, including providing for any offspring's financial needs. Unmarried women bore all responsibility for sourcing food, medicine and clothing. Of course our trusted parliamentarians so fit to scrap the so-called Poor Laws which had previously guaranteed them an income, not unlike today’s benefits system, with which to withstand their female circumstances.

The incessant demands of children gave unmarried women the choice of going into a workhouse and being separated from their child; paying a ‘baby farmer’ to bring their children up for them; or finding someone to marry them.

Victorians with education and means, the landed gentry and its gentlemen, supposed those of the female persuasion should assail to the impossibly high bar of “house-angel”, whilst also declaring in law that any child over the age of seven was the property and responsibility of the husband. With that common consensus of the English elite, the mindset then fossilised, and women were forevermore designated to be the sole upholders of social mores and matters of morality. Should any misfortune then befall the woman, rest assured Victorian laws-makers made it somehow her fault.

Victorian reforms thus encouraged women into the state of house-boundness, presumably for their own safety, because what terrible things might befall a woman if she was allowed to exist, think or speak for herself! From then on excursions to visiting other women’s homes for afternoon tea, or accompanying their husbands to the play house, better known contemporarily as a theatre, and not a brothel. Life for a Victorian woman of a husband with means was somewhat humdrum and such scenes of enigmatic idliness were the reserved privilege of upper middle-class women.

Working class women’s employment ‘opportunities’ were typically restricted to that of lady’s maid, seamstress or work-hand in the burgeoning new industry of manufacturing. Being dismally-paid, a fraction of that afforded male workers, female employees might dabble in a little sex work in order to bolster their finances. Earning a quick buck for very little work was a tempting justification, but most women found themselves practitioners of the world’s oldest profession as the consequence of corruption, abuse and exploitation. Working in male dominated environs, or tenured to a household not of their own, women were were seduced or raped, and once their virtue had been obliterated, their marriageability rolled downhill from there.

Not that this flourishing trade in vice and abuse was of any uppermost concern to the upstanding Members of Parliament of the Victorian day. Instead, they were preoccupied by the rampant venereal disease wrecking havoc amongst England's workforce. The same afflictions were similarly hogtying Her Majesty’s military capabilities - and not one decade passed in which wasn't in conflict somewhere across the glob

The Victorian policies had birthed a thriving medical speciality for the treatment of sexually-transmitted infections. The Contagious Diseases Act sprung into being in 1864. If that was not sufficient to curtail these wanton women, a second act was passed in 1866, and a third in 1869. As a result, women could be detained at any moment if she was suspected of having engaged in non-conjugal matters with non-conjugal men on a paid-for basis. It was thus she, not he, who would be locked up for months without trail whilst undergoing treatment. Such respite from the hardships of female life sounds just marvellous until one recalls that penicillin was not discovered until 1928.

Of course, all these matters are heartily in the past. Since the demise of the Victorians, we have had the Elizabethan era mark II. A time period placing men and women on an equal footing with the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. This act has made it illegal for marriage, or the lack of, to be prejudicial to one’s interests and promotes the equality of opportunity. Naturally this has given women untold freedoms. Freedom from and freedom to! Freedom of the city too!

Prior to Victorians passing the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, only those designated “Freemans” could conduct business within the boundaries of the city of Oxford. Unless he was a privileged tradesman having matriculated from its world-renowned university, other workers earnings were restricted to city limits. To be a Freeman, one had to be the son of a Freeman or in apprenticeship to a Freeman to obtain a licence to trade. Even today, contemporary Freemans are the beneficial owners of council meadows and rivers surrounding the city’s boundaries, giving them sole use of its pastures for their cattle and horses, and the right to fish without permit in the River Thames. There's probably a few free shindigs to be had too.

So, it’s odd to read that in October, 2008, thirty-three years after the passing of the act, twelve women were finally granted the Freedom of the Oxford City. They were the first women to be fully admitted in eight hundred years. A few had previously been accepted as apprenticeships, but never a daughter nor daughter-in-law.

I guess hangovers are not just things endured by drunks.

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