|This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.|
Oxford was born in Birmingham in 1822, the third child of Hannah Marklew and George Oxford. His father worked in the city’s jewellery trade as a gold chaser, but died when his son was aged seven.
Hannah moved her family to London a few years later and on leaving school the young Oxford went to work as a pot boy at his aunt’s public house.
By the time he was 18 Oxford had quit his job at the Hog-in-the-Pound pub on Oxford Street and was effectively living alone in Lodgings in Hounslow as his mother was visiting relatives in Birmingham.
In May 1840 he bought a brace of pistols for £2 and began practising his aim in various shooting galleries in Leicester Square, the Strand, and the West End. Then a week before the attack he visited a friends shop to buy fifty copper percussion caps and to ask where he could obtain some bullets and threepence worth of gunpowder.
On the afternoon of 10th June, Oxford was in position on a footpath on Constitution Hill near Buckingham Palace, knowing that the pregnant Victoria was in the habit of taking a carriage ride with Prince Albert and just two outriders. When the couple appeared he fired both pistols in succession, missing both times.
Oxford was immediately seized by onlookers and disarmed making no attempt to deny his actions, saying ‘It was I, it was me that did it’.
He was charged with treason and his lodgings searched and it seemed he was leading a Walter Mitty life. Among his possessions was a locked box containing a sword and scabbard, two pistol-bags, powder, a bullet-mould, five lead balls, some of the percussion caps he had bought.
There were also documents relating to an imaginary military society called ‘Young England’ complete with a list of made-up officers and correspondence. Its rule book stated that members were to be armed with a brace of pistols, a sword, a rifle and a dagger.
Oxford appeared at the Old Bailey on 22nd June, but the trial was postponed while his background and possible motive were investigated. The crucial point was that no bullets were found at the scene and so the prosecution could not prove that the guns had been loaded or that Oxford had been in a position to harm anyone.
When the trial resumed in July, various family members and friends testified that Oxford had always seemed of unsound mind, and that both his grandfather and father were alcoholics who had exhibited signs of mental illness. His mother said that her son was not only prone to fits of hysterical laughter and emitting strange noises, while eminent pathologists and physicians testified that due to “brain disease” or other factors, such as the shape of his head, Oxford was either a mental imbecile or simply incapable of controlling himself.
The jury acquitted him, declaring him to be ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ and he was committed to the Bethlem asylum in Southwark. He was to remain there for 24 years and was considered a model patient. Oxford spent his time drawing, learning to play the violin and became fluent in French, German and Italian.
He was transferred to Broadmoor Hospital in 1864 where he maintained that he had never meant to harm the Queen and that he had done what he had done purely to gain notoriety, the nearest to an admission of motive.
Oxford was eventually declared sane and discharged, on condition that he left the country for one of the British colonies and he lived the rest of his life in Melbourne, Australia, under the name of John Freeman.
He became a house painter and joined the West Melbourne Mutual Improvement Society.
In 1881 he married a widow with two children, become a church warden at St James and wrote newspaper articles about the city’s slums, markets and racetracks, under the pseudonym ‘Liber’ for The Argus, which became the basis for an 1888 book, Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life. Oxford died in April 1900.
As mentioned at the start of this post, Victoria was unimpressed with her judicial system and believed that if Oxford had hanged then it would have deterred any future regicides.