Shot students at Caudwell's Castle
14 February 2023 (Updated 4 January 2024)
The eye-catching building on Folly Bridge known as Caudwell's Castle was built in 1849 for a wealthy Oxford accountant and money-lender. However, before he could enjoy his new home he found himself targeted by student pranksters and then arrested for attempted murder!
About Caudwell's Castle
The castellated house, topped with battlements and an Atlas statue, stands on the same island in the river Isis that once housed 'Friar Bacon's Study,' the hexagonal defensive tower that first helped defend the city before later providing work and living space for astronomer and alchemist Roger Bacon. It is this earlier building that gave Folly Bridge its name, not Caudwell's Castle, despite its appearance suggesting otherwise!
The house was constructed for local accountant and money lender Joseph Caudwell (sometimes referred to as Joshua Caldwell) in 1849. Caudwell appears to be almost universally described as 'eccentric', though I haven't found much information on the nature of his eccentricity beyond the construction of a conspicuously showy residence and his subsequent trouble with the law.
Caudwell vs Students
If Caudwell thought that his homes fortified appearance would discourage the local students from interfering with it he was very much mistaken. Oxford students have always been a prank-loving bunch, and they seem to have been drawn like moths to the flame to Caudwell's unusual home.
One group of Christ Church students seem to have set their sights on tampering with the ornamental cannons that Caudwell had places pointing out across the river from the terrace of his property.
Caudwell thwarted a number of attempts, but the students were undeterred and returned for their final attempt in the early hours of 26 June 1851. Hearing a commotion outside, Caudwell opened his bedroom window and seen for students in the act of tying rope around one of his ornamental cannons with the aim of pulling it into the river.
Enraged, Caudwell fired a pistol at the students, hitting one in the head, neck and hand. The student was only lightly injured and the four fled, but clearly felt affronted by the response to their prank and reported Caudwell to the police!
Caudwell is put on trial
Caudwell was tried at the Berkshire summer assizes the following month, charged with 'shooting at a gentlemen with the intent of doing him grievous bodily harm.'
Caudwell's defence was that he was acting in self-defence and defending his home from violent attack, as any man had a right to do. The prosecution argued that Caudwell was well aware that the students were only engaged in a harmless prank and that he had no right under law to recklessly endanger the life of another as he had done.
The student who had been shot at was Andrew Henry Ross, Esq., of Christ Church College. Ross and his friends were cross-examined during the trial and described their activities on the night in question, much to the amusement of those assembled to witness the trial.
Ross explained that he had been out for dinner with some friends at the Maidenhead Hotel, and the four had decided to go to Caudwell's garden with no plan other than to overturn his cannons. While there they had also let out Caudwell's dog and chased it up the street, before returning and attempting to remove the bone from the mouth of the lion statues in Caudwell's garden. After failing to do this, they turned their attentions again to the cannons. At this point Ross claimed that Caudwell fired at him from an upstairs window 'without any notice or intimation'.
Ross claimed he had been under medical supervision for his injuries ever since, and was very doubtful if he should every recover the use of his hand. Despite his injuries, from the account given in Jackson's Oxford Journal, it does not appear that Ross or his accomplices were taking the proceedings particularly seriously. Another of the students who was cross-examined got a big laugh from the room by gleefully describing how he had gone back to Caudwell's after the incident and thrown stones at a window, before commenting that he was considering the law as a profession after his degree was completed!
Another of Rosses accomplices admitted that they had made attempts at Caudwell's lions on a previous occasion, and said Caudwell had warned them he would shoot them if they did not desist. When interviewed, Caudwell admitted firing at Ross but claimed he only aimed at his hand.
Caudwell's defence council attempted to discredit the character and conducts of the students, describing in lurid terms their 'morbid and wicked disposition', claiming they had acted in the spirit of 'wicked and wanton mischief' and had perpetrated a 'disgusting outrage on society'. The defence referred to another case where a butler had fired on a burglar and been commended for this actions. Should Mr Caudwell's action not be viewed similarly, he asked?
The Judge summed out the case for the jury, speaking in disapproving tones of the flippant way with which the students had conducted themselves during the trial, but also reminding the jury that no attempt had been made to break into Caudwell's home or threaten himself or his family with violence. If the student in question had been killed, Mr Caudwell would undoubtedly be on trial for murder.
To the great surprise of all present, after deliberating for a hour and a quarter the jury found Caudwell not guilty! I suspect that the lack of seriousness with which the four students took the proceedings probably played a big part in the jury's decision to let Caudwell off.
Caudwell is tried for perjury
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this case is that Joseph Caudwell's time in the summer 1951 assizes courts was not over because he was being tried the next day for an entirely unrelated charge!
According to the prosecution, Mr. Caudwell had approached Mr. Thomas Golding, an Oxford shopkeeper, and persuaded him to put his name (presumably as guarantor) to bills totalling £65, which Caudwell had claimed were for the assistance of an ex-clergyman named Mr. James who had been 'deprived of his sacred calling'.
These bills later 'bounced' and, finding himself required to pay them, Mr. Golding had attempted to sue Mr. Caudwell to get his money back. The element of perjury for which Caudwell was being tried related to an affidavit which he had given, claiming that part of the money had been repaid. The trial lasted some time, with numerous witnesses being called to testify to whether they had or had not seen Mr. Caudwell pay or receive money from various people.
Caudwell himself did not appear in court during his trial, perhaps assuming it would be an open and shut case compared to the shooting incident. If so, he was incorrect in this assumption. The judge sentenced Caudwell to seven years transportation!
A curious coda to Caudwell's case can be found in the arrest of the mysterious clergyman 'Mr. James' who was mentioned in Caudwell's trial for perjury above. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 6 September 1851 reports that the law caught up with Mr. Charles James in Preston, Lancashire.
Charles James had fled Oxford some months earlier after having been charged by city magistrates for deserting his wife and family. James had managed to find a position as a curate at St. Thomas church, Preston, but was soon in trouble there as well. Apparently James was found to have seduced and run away with the daughter of the church sexton!
When Charles James was eventually tracked down he was found in bed with not only the sexton's daughter, but also his own 10 or 12 year old son! Mr James was arrested and put into custody awaiting trial at the next assizes, but I haven't been able to discover what he was ultimately charged with.
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 19 July 1851
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 6 September 1851