I was in Oxford just before Christmas when I saw this sign and these ribbons on the railings at the side of the Town Hall on Blue Boar Street. I wondered who Ann Crotchley was and why her death, almost two hundred years ago, was being marked now, in this way.
The story begins close to midnight on Thursday 6th December 1827, with an encounter between Town and Gown, the two worlds of Oxford. A group of undergraduates is carousing in lodgings on either Brasenose Lane or Radcliffe Square. A couple of young women, Ann Crotchley and Harriet Mitchell, pass by a window of the room. Who first calls out to whom first is not known, but Ann asks the young men for some wine. One of them, Houstonne John Radcliffe, tells her that they only have brandy, and passes a teapot filled with it out to her. Ann and Harriet drain the teapot between them and go off into the night.
The two women have a drunken parting later that night. Harriet ends up collapsing in New Inn Hall Street. Ann makes it across the High Street to Blue Boar Lane where she too passes out. She is spotted lying there by a watchman and when he returns later he finds she is badly bleeding. Ann is taken to her lodgings and a doctor is called, but she dies from her wounds the next morning.
So who was Ann Crotchley? On 17th December 1827 the Times reprinted a report from the Oxford Herald, under the heading ‘THE MURDER AT OXFORD’, which began:
We have given the particulars of the evidence respecting the murder of a female in one of the streets of this city. On Wednesday last we saw her mother, a woman of decent appearance, who resides in Hereford, where, for several years, she has worked as glove-maker, in the service of Mr Benbow, of that city. She stated, that in August last her daughter, whose real name is Ann Priest, left her house with a man of the name of Crotchley. They came to Oxford, and took lodgings in St Thomas’s parish, where they lived as man and wife. It appears that he was of a very bad character, and that he is now in Reading gaol. It has been reported that Crotchley was her seducer: on inquiry, however, we find that she had previously been the same at Hereford.
By now, the more sensationalist of the London papers had got hold of the story and were giving it a certain spin. The Oxford Herald report goes on to criticize a certain ‘London newspaper’ (presumably not the Times) for its ‘exaggerated account of the unfortunate deceased’:
The girl was not seduced from her friends and brought to Oxford by a young gentleman. Crotchley, who brought her to Oxford, is a notorious pickpocket, and had once been transported. The deceased had lived for some time at Hereford as a prostitute, and was discharged from the Magdalen about nine months since… the deceased was not “remarkable for her amiable qualities” as stated. On the contrary, she was particularly distinguished for her habitual intoxication. We must also state, in contradiction of the London papers, that she was not made to drink at one of the colleges; it was at her request that liquor was given to her.
Contrary to the present-day conventional wisdom that prostitutes in the nineteenth century were regarded as worthless and expendable, the death of Ann Crotchley provoked outrage in Oxford and further afield. After hearing evidence from Mr Paxton, the local doctor who examined Ann’s body, the Oxford coroner concluded that Ann was murdered. The City Council and the University offered £100 each as rewards for information that would enable the authorities to identify and prosecute the murderer. It should be noted that at this time, the University had far more power over the running of Oxford than the municipal authorities did.
On 24th December 1827, the Times reprinted the latest report from the Oxford Herald, which began:
The minds of the inhabitants of the university and city, and we may say the public in general, have been kept in a constant state of excitement ever since the inquest on Ann Crotchley. The Vice-Chancellor, the Mayor, the coroner, and the surgeons who inspected the body, have received various letters (most of them anonymous) on the subject of the murder, some persons scarcely giving credit to the report of so monstrous an outrage. On Thursday, Mr Wingfield presented himself before the magistrates, and represented the propriety of exhumation, not from his doubting the accuracity [sic] or veracity of the evidence, or the details of the report made by Mr. Paxton to the Mayor, but from a desire to gain, if possible, further information as to the nature of the injuries.
The Mr Wingfield referred to in the report was a prominent medical man within the city, holding the post of surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary, and his request was approved, Ann’s body was exhumed and a further examination carried out. The subsequent report confirmed Mr Paxton’s original findings. The Times quoted from the report:
Within the passage called the vagina, leading to the mouth of the womb, there were most evident marks of two wounds — one on the left, the other on the right side; which wounds appear to have been made either by a blunt and powerful instrument or by a sharp instrument, which had been forcibly moved in different directions after the wounds had been inflicted.
As the outrage over the murder continued to build, the authorities came under immense pressure to find the culprit. A local man named John Williams was arrested and brought before the magistrates. On 26th December, the Times reported that:
The prisoner is a young man, about 30 years of age, of rather a prepossessing and genteel appearance, decently clothed. He is a native of Oxford and worked for himself as a picture-frame-maker. He was, it is hinted, of rather indiscreet conduct, and partook of the usual follies incident to his time of life…Throughout the examination…he appeared to possess all the confidence of innocence, and the testimony, as delivered by the witnesses, produced no visible effect on his countenance.
One of the watchmen who was on duty on the evening of the murder testified that Williams was on Blue Boar Street when it was discovered that Ann had been attacked. He said that Williams had offered him a shilling to carry her back to her lodgings, and had stayed by her side while he went off to get help.
One key witness was a man named Henry Bell, who had been on the jury at the inquest and also happened to be the son of the woman who did Williams’ laundry. Bell took it on himself to examine the clothes that Williams had left with his mother soon after the murder. He testified that there were blood-like stains on the right sleeve of one of the shirts. By his own account, Bell discussed the matter with his father and then took the shirt to the mayor. It was shown to the magistrates during his testimony.
It seems there was some suspicion about Bell’s motives. One of the magistrates, Mr Robinson, questioned him:
What was your motive for showing it to your father?_I did not wish to hurt the feelings of Mr. Williams’s family.
Had you no other motive?_Not as I know of.
What! did not you, then, hear of the reward?_Yes, I did (in a tone of displeasure).
And that had no effect on you?_No answer.
Mary Bell, the mother of Henry, testified next and told the magistrates she had disagreed with her son about the nature of the shirt stains and that she had seen similar stains on Williams’ clothing in the past: ’I said I thought it was colouring that he used in his business, which stained it.’
Ann Barton of the City Arms, a pub Williams had been drinking in on the night of the murder, testified that the next day she had overheard him talking to another man:
As he was going home last he was upset or interrupted by two gentlemen, and he drawed the claret of one, at the same time he turned up the cuff of his coat; it was his right-hand sleeve. At the time that he did it I saw something on his wrist; I was not near enough to discern what it was; it had the appearance of blood at the distance it was. From his having said he had drawn claret, I thought it was blood.
But Sarah Parsons, who also worked at the City Arms, told the magistrates that Williams ‘bared his wrist and showed something red, but it was piece of riband tied around his wrist. I did not see his shirt, but I am quite sure it was not blood; I was nearer to him than any body else.’
Though the evidence against Williams was extremely weak, there was nobody else in the frame for Ann Crotchley’s murder. On 31st December 1827 the Times commented:
Williams, indeed, will probably be committed to trial, but apparently not because there is sufficient ground for the charge against him, but because the magistrates feel under the necessity of doing some thing, and there is a nearer approach to a suspicion of him than of any other individual.
But Williams when came before the Grand Jury on 14th January 1828, they were clearly unimpressed with the case against him and made short work of deciding that he should not be indicted. But it seems that there was still some suspicion attached to the undergraduate of Brasenose College who’d given the brandy to Ann Crotchley and Harriet Mitchell.
What the Times didn’t report, though perhaps some of the other London newspapers did, was that one or two days after Ann’s murder, Houstonne John Radcliffe left Oxford for London and did not return at the start of the next term. The minutes of a college meeting held on 31st January 1828 recorded that:
HJ Radcliffe, having admitted that he gave to Ann Crutchley [sic] on the evening of the 5th of December last intoxicating liquor from one of the Windows of this College; Resolved that being now absent he be not allowed to return till after the Long Vacation.
Was there more to Radcliffe’s flight to London than simple guilt about the liquor he had given the women and the severe disapproval of the college authorities about his irresponsibility? Could Radcliffe, as seems to have been rumoured at the time, have been the murderer? Despite the support given to the investigation, including a generous reward, was the University protecting one of their own all the while? But what would Radcliffe’s motive have been? Besides, undergraduates at this time were subject to a night-time curfew and the gates of the college would have been locked at the time Ann was murdered. Of course, a sufficiently determined man could have climbed out of a window or over a wall, but it still seems improbable.
No-one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Ann Crotchley and the affair was gradually forgotten. Radcliffe was never seen at Brasenose College or in Oxford again. On 19th October 1829, the college was notified that he had died.
There is another mystery, of more recent origin, attached to the death of Ann Crotchley. Which is, what prompted the ribbons on the railings on Blue Boar Street and the apparently sudden public remembrance of Ann Crotchley, almost two hundred years after her murder? The ribbons were the idea of the woman behind the Twitter account, @rememberingac, who attended a Women’s Institute lecture on the story of Ann Crotchley. As she puts it on a Twitter thread:
Whatever the biography, a part of Ann’s story is simple, universally and tragically familiar. She was a woman alone at night in the street, someone stronger than she and with evil intent attacked her and injured her so terribly that she died. In 1827 the night streets could be unsafe for women. In 1969, as I know only too well, the night streets were not safe for women. In 2021 the night streets remain unsafe. I have daughters and granddaughters, in remembering Ann and others I hope that things will change.
The risk, of course, is that Ann Crotchley ceases to be a person and becomes a symbol for the concerns of the present age. Still, a simple act of remembrance like this can remind us of not only the violence committed against women but also the social ties that bind us to the dead as well as the living.
[The factual information in this post was gleaned from the Times archive and from the article ‘A Brasenose scandal’ on the Brasenose College website.]