Bocardo Gaol (and the replacement City Gaol)

The Bocardo in 1770Bocardo and the North Gate of the city in 1770, just before they were demolished
Drawn by N. Calcott and engraved by Orlando Jewitt
Viewed from the north end of Cornmarket, with St Michael's Church on the left

Until 1876 the Town Gaol of Oxford was quite separate from the County Gaol at Oxford Castle for the rest of Oxfordshire,

Bocardo in Cornmarket was the Town Gaol from about the thirteenth century to 1771, By 1239 it beside the North Gate of the city of Oxford, which spanned Cornmarket immediately to the north of the present St Michael’s Street and St Michael-at-the-Northgate Church. Hence Cornmarket was known as North Gate Street until 1536, when its name changed after a covered area was erected there to facilitate the selling of corn.

The first known instance of the use of the name Bocardo is in 1391.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishops Latimer and Ridley (the Protestant martyrs remembered on the Martyrs' Memorial) were kept in Bocardo before being burnt at the stake in 1555–6.

Thirty-four years later in 1589, Father George Nichols and Father Richard Yaxley (two of the four Roman Catholic martyrs remembered on the plaque near the site of the former Holywell Gallows) were also imprisoned there prior to going to London to be interrogated.

In 1626 Dr Barker's house was described as “late Bridewell”, and on 23 May 1630 it was reported that the city had tried to buy the remainder of Edward's Ward's lease of a messuage he held at the Northgate. It appears to have eventually succeeded, as the Oxford City Bridewell built in c.1635 next to the City Gaol. It must have been just to the north of the city gate, as it was described as “without Northgate”.

By the seventeenth century Bocardo extended over the North Gate itself, as shown in the above engraving.

Some of the prisoners in this gaol were transported. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 5 May 1770 reported: “Tuesday Morning the Transports from both our County and City Goals [sic] were removed from thence, in order to their being shipped off for the Plantations with those from the different Prisons in London and Middlesex”; on 8 November 1817 “On Thursday last Jacob Josephson and Elias Brown, two convicts under sentence of transportation, the former for 14, and the latter for 7 years, were removed from our city gaol to the hulks at Woolwich”; and on 1 March 1823: “On Wednesday last William Mason and Phillip Wadkin, under sentence of transportation for life, were removed from our city goal [sic] to the hulks at Woolwich, until their sentences can be carried into execution.”

The fate of Bocardo was sealed by the Mileways Act of 1771, which stated:

In order to open the Street at the North End of the Corn Market
To take down the North Gate, and so much of the Prison called Bocardo, and such houses and other Buildings on both Sides of the said Street, near Saint Michael’s Church, and purchase such Ground as shall be necessary to widen the said Street.

Bocardo was duly demolished in September 1771.

The replacement City Gaol in Gloucester Green (1789–1878)

After a gap of about eighteen years, Bocardo was replaced by a new City Gaol (still often spelt “Goal”) in Gloucester Green. On 9 August 1786 the city council granted a lease of part of Gloucester Green on trust to Thomas Walker, Esq on which to build a new gaol and bridewell for the use of the city, and it opened in 1789. It is shown on Davis's 1789 map of Oxford:

Davis's map of 1789

Jackson's Oxford Journal of 5 September 1789 reported on one of the first prisoners in this new gaol: “On Monday last Edward Coxhead, of St. Thomas's Parish, in this City, was fully committed to our new City Goal [sic], charged with robbing the Servant of Mr. Thomas, of this Place, Butcher, of a Neck of Mutton as he was returning to his Master's House....”

On 29 June 1796 the city council agreed to erect iron gates at the entrance to Gloucester Green opposite the great gates of the gaol.

The Gossiping Guide to Oxford recorded in 1878 that “the 'white flag' was hoisted upon the edifice in 1871, showing that it was felon-free — a consummation always 'devoutly to be wished'.˜

The following report in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 14 October 1871 describes both the original gaol and the improvements made that year, including the addition of a north wing and the moving of the chapel:

City gaol, JOJ 14 October 1871

The position of the gaol in Gloucester Green to the east of the Cattle Market is shown on the detailed 1876 map of Oxford:

Map showing City Gaol in 1876

The gaol was included in those absorbed by the Government Prisons Bill of 1877, and closed in 1878, allowing much more room for the Cattle Market, which hitherto had been in two sections, one on each side of the gaol. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 1 March 1879 advertised a forthcoming auction of all the materials of the city gaol.

From 1878 to 1996 the prison at the Castle was used by both city and county.

Some mentions of prisoners in Bocardo in Jackson's Oxford Journal

26 May 1753

Reward of three guineas offered for the apprehension of Joseph Taylor, a sieve-maker and lath-render who was waiting in Bocardo to be transported. He was wearing a light brown wig, a dark blue grey coat, a white frock, a double-breasted linen waistcoat, leather breeches, and light grey worsted stockings, and had an iron fetter on his left leg.

16 July 1757

An unnamed person who lied at the Quarter Sessions to try to prevent his relation John Crawford alias Beauty Crawford from being transported. For this “audacious Piece of Villainy he was instantly committed to Bocardo”. Crawford himself had been convicted for stealing about 400 crayfish out of a stew (an artificial enclosure where fish were kept until needed for the table) at Godstow.

30 July 1757

John Jones, due to be tried at the Assizes for horse-stealing, escaped from the city gaol dressed in women's clothes. The woman who brought him those clothes was transported for seven years.

16 December 1758

Mr Haynes, the landlord of the Lamb pub in St Thomas's parish, was committed to Bocardo for threatening to shoot Alderman Ives.

5 January 1760

A gypsy caught leading a horse that he had stolen through Oxford was committed to Bocardo by the Mayor [Isaac Lawrence]

18 July 1761

Thomas Jennings, a cobbler waiting in Bocardo to be transported for seven years for stealing a small quantity of leather from another cobbler, was found to have hanged himself in his “apartment” in Bocardo by a woman who pretended to be his wife and had brought him some tripe for dinner.

26 May 1764

John Smith, a butcher of Oxford who was better known as Flesby Jack, was committed to Bocardo for attempting to murder his wife by stabbing her in the neck at the Blue Posts in Butcher Row [Queen Street]

2 March 1765

Charles Aris (better known as Cagey Aris), a former matross [artillery soldier] was committed to the city gaol charged with stealing a pair of sheets and other things from the Ostler's Room at the Star Inn in Cornmarket.

23 March 1765

Moses Baker, an Oxford silk weaver, was confined to the city gaol for a robbery and murder near Coventry

6 July 1765

Sarah Powell, aged about 15 or 16, was committed to the city gaol for breaking open a chest in the house in St Clement's of Samuel Hornidge and stealing twenty shillings.

24 January 1767

William Hardiman, Thomas Williams, and Richard Baxter were committed to Bocardo after being charged with stealing game fowls from the house of William Carpenter in Brewer's Lane.

18 April 1767

Thomas Hutton, aged about 16 or 17, was committed to Bocardo for having hidden in a house the previous day and then stole nearly £3 from the breeches hidden under the pillow of one member of the family when the householders had gone to bed.


For more information about Bocardo and Oxford's gaols, see
Victoria County History of Oxfordshire
, Vol. 4: City of Oxford: Prisons

Oxford History Home

© Stephanie Jenkins

Cornmarket Home