Posts Tagged 'emigration'

Oxford Martyr 2

Whereas Paul Murphy’s Shooting Victoria, insofar as it tells the story of Edward Oxford, principally concerns itself with the commission and aftermath of the crime for which he was tried, Jenny Sinclair’s A Walking Shadow: The Remarkable Double Life of Edward Oxford (Melbourne, 2012) concentrates its attention on the latter half of his life, which he spent under an assumed name in the company of people who had no knowledge of his past. Murphy, to be sure, devotes two or three pages to this turn of events, brought about by the “deal” offered to Oxford in 1867 by the Home Secretary, Gathorne Hardy, who was in receipt of reports testifying to Oxford’s long-standing sanity: Oxford “could go free if he moved to one of Her Majesty’s colonies and agreed never to return to England”.1 Yet Sinclair, the Australian author of the affectionate When We Think About Melbourne, is better placed to do justice to the contours of the new life Oxford (under the pseudonym ‘John Freeman’) forged in that city in the last third of the nineteenth century, following in the furrow of the work of scholars such as Dr Katharine Haydon in so doing. For his was in many ways an archetypal story of making good in the colonies.
“However much Freeman’s secret separated him from his fellow passengers [aboard the ship on which he emigrated], what he had in common with them was far greater”, according to Sinclair. “…In their uncertainty, hopes and dreams of a new start there was only a difference of degree between him and them…Melbourne was fifteen years into the gold rush, and the potential would have seemed endless, if a little daunting.”2 In Melbourne, where “a man could be taken at face value”, Oxford remained what he had become – “John Freeman: respectable churchman, family man, author” – until his death at the age of 78 in 1900.3 Sinclair even ventures that in his latter years “he might have begun to believe that the years lost to Bethlem were worth it”.
“Had he lived an ordinary life in England, he might have become the urban version of … ‘the poor agricultural labourer of Britain, doomed to work hard, and live sparingly, and always in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty where he will get work from one day to another’. Freeman’s method of emigration might have been a questionable one, but Australia had been kind to him anyway.”4
Oxford had a lifetime in which to repent of the deed which, his Bethlem doctor believed, “probably originated in a feeling of excessive vanity and a desire to become notorious if he could not be celebrated” and did not in any event constitute a serious attempt on the life of Her Majesty.5 There is no reason to doubt Murphy’s judgement (in which Sinclair concurs) that he found incarceration at Bethlem “excruciating”.6 Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that his fantasy-driven ‘publicity stunt’ may have – indirectly – improved his longer-term prospects. In any event, his life in Melbourne – the subject of painstaking reconstruction by Sinclair – amounted to a resurrection from the ashes of what we have previously described as his living martyrdom.
1 Paul Murphy, Shooting Victoria (Pegasus Books, 2012), p. 509.
2 Jenny Sinclair, A Walking Shadow: The Remarkable Double Life of Edward Oxford (Melbourne, 2012), p. 97.
3 ibid., pp. 108, 157.
4 ibid., p. 157.
5 ibid., pp. 70, 79-80.
6 Paul Murphy, Shooting Victoria (Pegasus Books, 2012), p. 509; cf. Jenny Sinclair, A Walking Shadow: The Remarkable Double Life of Edward Oxford (Melbourne, 2012), pp. 78-79.
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In the Spotlight: Edward Oxford

At the outset of this series of posts, we explained that In the Spotlight would feature “people of previous generations who spent time as Bethlem or Maudsley Hospital patients …whose lives became defined … by their achievements rather than by that experience”. In July and August we departed from this principle slightly by introducing patients with noted relatives, and this month we feature someone who was obliged to go to the greatest lengths to distance himself from his time in the Hospital and the circumstances that led to his admission.

On Constitution Hill in 1840, Edward Oxford (1822-1900) laid in wait for Queen Victoria’s carriage to pass, and fired two pistols (whether or not they were loaded was a point of later dispute) in its direction. No-one was hurt, but Oxford was apprehended and put on trial for his attempt on the life of the Sovereign. The jury was presented with copious evidence in support of the defence plea of insanity, and despite the confusing and sometimes contradictory nature of that evidence, returned a verdict of ‘guilty but insane’. Consequently Oxford avoided both prison and the noose, and was instead sent to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum (which was maintained at Bethlem until the opening of Broadmoor Hospital in 1863-64), where he was detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. From the outset, he showed no sign of mental derangement, and employed his time at Bethlem by learning a succession of trades and foreign languages. Put simply (in the words of the scholar F.B. Smith), “Bedlam was his university”.1

In 1867, after Oxford’s transfer to Broadmoor, Her Majesty made her pleasure known courtesy of the Secretary of State: he was pardoned and released on condition of his permanent emigration from the British Isles. Relocating to colonial Australia, Oxford quite literally made an entirely new name for himself as John Freeman, journalist (we may presume for the Melbourne Age or Argus) and author of Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life (London, 1888).

A short biography of Edward Oxford is available online, courtesy of Berkshire Record Office. The Australian author Jenny Sinclair has a fuller treatment in preparation, and a popular history of all the would-be assassins of Queen Victoria is being written by Paul Murphy, a University of Colorado professor. We’ll make blog announcements when these are published.

1 F.B. Smith, ‘Lights and Shadows in the Life of John Freeman’,Victorian Studies, vol. 30 no. 4 (Summer 1987), p. 468.

Edward Oxford