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In the Spotlight: Edward Oxford

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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.