Oxford Crime and Punishment

The Morse Bar at the Randolph Hotel, which features heavily in the popular TV series
The Morse Bar at the Randolph Hotel, which features heavily in the popular TV series

Whether you're looking at factual or fictional crimes, Oxford has a long rap sheet. The setting of numerous detective series and the location of many historical crimes, Oxford has plenty of stories for budding sleuths to uncover.

Fictional Crime

Many crime writers have chosen Oxford as the backdrop for their fictional detectives' exploits. Famously, Inspector Morse investigated crimes of both the town and gown sides of Oxford, first in Colin Dexter's long-running book series, and then in the incredibly popular Morse TV series. Morse was so successful that it sparked two spin-offs, Lewis (following the career of Morse's loyal sidekick) and Endeavour (telling the story of Morse's early career, and crime in 1960s Oxford).

Dexter wasn't the first crime author to set a story in Oxford, however. Dorothy L. Sayer's 1935 novel Gaudy Night, featuring her beloved protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey, is set in a fictional Oxford college, Shrewsbury College, based on Sayers' own alma mater Somerville. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin features amateur detective and Oxford professor Gervase Fen, who has to solve a murder taking place in the mysterious toyshop of the title. Credit for the first mystery novel set in Oxford often goes to An Oxford Tragedy by J.C. Masterman, published in 1933, which features a lot of the tropes that would become familiar in stories like Dexter's - for starters, an unpopular academic is found murdered in his college.

Oxford and Oxfordshire have also been a popular filming location for crime series, even when they are not specifically set in the city or county. The TV series Bad Girls was filmed at Oxford Prison, and many episodes of Midsomer Murders were filmed in various Oxfordshire villages.

Oxford Castle and Prison

Oxford Castle first became a prison in 1230, and carried on serving as a prison for hundreds of years, finally closing in 1996. Over the years, it was home to several famous and notorious prisoners, as well as some significant events in UK law. The Black Assize of Oxford was one such event. In 1577, multiple deaths occurred in Oxford, affecting around 300 people - including the Chief Baron and the Lord High Sheriff. The deaths were believed to be connected to the Assize Court, which had met earlier in the year, and were caused by "gaol fever", or typhus. It is believed that an infection of typhus broke out in the prison during the long waiting period that led up to the meeting of the Assize Court, as a result of the poor conditions in the prison, and was passed on to the court officials by the prisoners they saw during their deliberations. There is an alternative explanation, though - legend has it that one Rowland Jenkes, who had been imprisoned for treason, put a curse on the Assize.

In 1752, Mary Blandy was hanged at Oxford Prison. Blandy had been convicted of murdering her father with arsenic. In her defence, she claimed that she believed the poison was a potion that would make her father approve of her relationship with her fiancé, William Henry Cranstoun. Blandy argued that Cranstoun, who was already married but had told her he was seeking an annulment, had sent her the "potion" and told her to put it in her father's food. Blandy's case was of particular forensic interest, as the court heard expert testimony on arsenic poisoning by Dr Anthony Addington, the first time this had happened in the UK legal system. Even today, there is debate amongst historians and true crime fans as to whether Mary Blandy knew that she was poisoning her father, or had been duped by Cranstoun.

Today, Oxford Castle and Prison is a museum, with plenty of exciting events and exhibitions for children and adults alike. There's even a Jailbreak Escape Room and regular murder mystery evenings, so you can see whether you'd make a good detective (or criminal!)

Despite its bloody history and its portrayal in fiction, Oxford is a very safe city - the most common crime that takes place here is bicycle theft. Have a look at Daily Info's page on Bikes and Cycling in Oxford to pick up tips on how to keep your bike safe.


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