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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.