Locking up children

By | Category: Travel destinations

Isaac Darkin, the highwayman guide

Actually, they were only locked in once and then only for a split second. But that’s what the guides do at the Oxford Castle Unlocked attraction. They also tell the story of the famous prison with gore and murder, mystery and poo all included in a way that has made the Horrible Histories books and television series so popular.

So one of twelve guides – in my case a highwayman who had quicklime poured into his body after he had been hung to prevent university students thieving his body for dissection – led a school outing and me around the castle that became a prison and concentrated on just what the kids wanted, the horrible bits! When one schoolchild stood in the stocks, the guide told of drunks who might urinate on the unfortunate victim as they staggered back from a local tavern; needless to say the kids uttered suitable noises of disgust mixed with barely concealed glee. A few sniggered as they realised they couldn’t follow this old ritual but dearly felt the urge to do so. They heard about Rowland Jencks, a man who had his ears nailed to the pillory and had to wrench them free after his sentence ended but who might have got his own back as he cursed the court when his sentence pronounced. Coincidentally –or not – 300 people died within the space of a few weeks and all had been in court or were connected to it.

the entrance and St George's tower

The school kids lapped this sort of history tour and trotted on to the next tale of slop buckets in the prisons or, in one case, cells where no buckets were provided at all. An ideal place to take the children for a day out you might think especially as the long summer school holiday bear down on us. And you’d be right because the castle/prison is in an area of Oxford where there is quite a lot to do. Away from the colleges which might bore all but the most studious of youngsters, the grounds of the old prison/castle contains any number of restaurants, a garden, a giant sandpit called a beach outside a restaurant called The Big Bang and, from the end of this month, a medieval Punch and Judy Show. The mound is not part of the tour but a small fee opens the gate and you can walk to the top and look down on the west of Oxford.

enjoying the prison gardens today

There’s not that much that remains of the castle. Most was demolished after the civil war when Oxford became the headquarters of Charles I. The prison was expanded and still used as late as 1996. There are some examples of beds that prisoners slept on and walls are festooned with prisoners and their misdeeds including more than one child of school age but did this deter the school party? Not a bit.

some previous unruly school party members?

You’ll see that a Charles Sigwell, a nineteen year old, was given three months hard labour for embezzling one shilling and ninepence and a thirteen year old called Robert Hall was sentenced to prison for 14 days for stealing a leather strap, sentences that seem harsh. But then in Victorian times, the prison was expanded and each prisoner had his own cell which is something that Ronnie Barker never had in Porridge. The tour reveals a mixture of hardship and cruelty as seen from today yet has some features thought enlightened by our standards.

How many kids or parents made knowing looks at each other when told that much of the prison wing is today a hotel! But with better beds. Probably.

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