A Brasenose scandal

At about 11.30pm on Thursday 6th December 1827 two young women went to the windows of a Brasenose student's room. One of the women was Ann Priest from Hereford, who was twenty four years old and known in Oxford as Ann Crotchley. Her companion was Harriet Mitchell, whom she had known for only two days. Tradition has it that both were prostitutes.

The only student rooms overlooking the street at that time were on Brasenose Lane and Radcliffe Square, the latter now part of the Lodge and Principal's Lodgings. We do not know the name of the occupant of the rooms, but he was evidently entertaining at the time because seven or eight young men came to the window. Ann Crotchley asked for a glass of wine and one of the undergraduates, Houstonne John Radcliffe, replied that he had no wine but that he would give her brandy if she would drink it. When she agreed he handed out a tea pot filled with brandy. Both Ann and Harriet drank and it was estimated that Ann may have had as much as a pint. She then asked for wine again but none was forthcoming.

We can imagine that H.J. Radcliffe thought little more of the incident and in due course bade his host good night and departed to his own rooms near the Chapel, in the middle of what is now New Quad. He was in his third year at Brasenose, following in the footsteps of his father John Radcliffe, who had been undergraduate, postgraduate and Fellow of the College. John Radcliffe (there is no connection with the John Radcliffe of the Camera, Observatory and hospitals) had resigned his fellowship in 1802, probably in order to marry. He became the (mostly absentee) Rector of Limehouse, one of the College livings.

Harriet Mitchell and Ann Crotchley seem to have gone their separate ways when they left Brasenose, for Harriet later collapsed in New Inn Hall Street and Ann in Blue Boar Lane; unsurprisingly both were drunk. Ann was seen in her drunken state by a watchman who later returned to find her bleeding. She was taken to her lodgings where she was attended by a doctor at eight o'clock the following morning (Friday) and again in the evening. She died on the Saturday morning. A post mortem indicated that she died from internal wounds which a local newspaper, Jackson's Oxford Journal, refused to name 'from motives of delicacy'. The Coroner's inquest declared a verdict of murder and City and University offered £100 each as rewards for information leading to conviction. However, nobody was ever tried for the crime; only one person was found to have been alone with her and there was not enough evidence to convict him.

An unusual feature of the story is that Ann's body was actually exhumed for further examination nearly two weeks after her death. No fewer than six doctors agreed that she died from internal wounds inflicted by a sharp stick. There is a whiff of scandal about the newspaper reports which suggests that accusations of murder by debauched students were flying around and that the University brought pressure to bear for an exhumation to confirm that death was not the result of the brandy.

Meanwhile, what of HJ Radcliffe, the inevitable focus of all the scandal? An examination of the Buttery Books suggests that he left the College either late on Friday night or on Saturday morning, just about the time of Ann Crotchley's death. He did not return at the beginning of the next term. His punishment was decided at the College Meeting on 31 January 1828, when the following entry appears in the minutes: 'HJ Radcliffe, having admitted that he gave to Ann Crutchley 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'.

In fact Houstonne John Radcliffe never did return to Brasenose. His name remained on the books as a member of the College until 19 October 1829, when the College received notice of his death, less than two years after his departure.


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