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A map of Port Meadow circa 1944, showing Black Jack's Hole

A map of Port Meadow circa 1944, showing Black Jack's Hole

The Legend of Black Jack's Hole

10 January 2023 (Updated 6 February 2024)

Black Jack's Hole is the name of a bend in the River Thames to the west of Port Meadow. Its curious name is inspired by the legend of Black Jack, a goblin-like figure who was said to lurk in the water there, waiting to pounce on unwary bathers.

Black Jack: fact or fiction?

According to The Stripling Thames by Fred Thacker (quoted at thames.me.uk), the river was once considerably deeper here and the current was swift, making bathing here perilous. Anyone foolish enough to swim here was said to be grabbed by Black Jack and dragged down to his underwater cave to drown.

It's likely that this story was concocted by parents to discourage their children from swimming in this dangerous spot. Similar bogeyman figures created by adults to frighten children into good behavior can be found in folklore from all over the country, for example Jenny Greenteeth, a river-hag who was said to pull children into deep water with her long, grasping arms and drown them.

However, there have been unexplained deaths at this spot which surely added to the legend of Black Jack!

The Thames at Black Jack's Hole

The River Thames at Black Jack's Hole

The Death of Alice Titchener

The 2 January 1909 edition of Jackson's Oxford Journal reports the mysterious death of 21-year-old Alice Titchener, whose body had been found in the river at Black Jack's Hole a few days previously.

Alice had gone out to run some errands and do some shopping in Oxford on the afternoon of Monday 26 December and did not return. The following morning a passer-by spotted some of her possessions on the river bank at Black Jack's Hole and reported this to the lock-keeper at Binsey. The lock-keeper dragged the river and Alice's fully-clothed body was discovered.

An inquest took place at Gloucester Green the following day. There were no signs of violence on Alice's body, and a number of her relatives and acquaintances were questioned in order to determine Alice's mental state and whether she may have committed suicide.

All who were questioned stated that Alice was a cheerful women, happy in her position as kitchenmaid at 74 Banbury Road, and had shown no signs of mental distress on the day of her disappearance or at any time before. However, there was a history of insanity in the Titchener family and Alice's father had at one time been an inmate in an asylum.

In the absence of any better explanation as to how Alice met her death, the jury returned a verdict of 'suicide whilst of unsound mind'.

You have to wonder if anyone had considered an alternative explanation relating to the legend of Black Jack!

Medley Bridge, Binsey

Medley Bridge, near Binsey. A short distance down the river from Black Jack's Hole. Credit: "River Thames near Medley Bridge, Port Meadow" by thriddle is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

More victims for Black Jack

Ten years later, Black Jack struck again. The Oxford Chronicle reports the death of 21-year-old Nellie Hubbocks, who drowned in the river on the evening of 14 December 1919. Nellie was enjoying an romantic stroll along the river bank, walking arm-in-arm with a male acquaintance when she strayed too close to the bank, lost her footing and slipped down the bank into the water.

Neither Nellie, her male friend or the two companions who were walking behind them were able to swim and Nellie soon disappeared from view. Her body was discovered by a riverman near Black Jack's Hole at around 2pm the following afternoon.

Another death at Black Jack's Hole occurred in July 1890, when the 15-year-old son of a local clergyman drowned while swimming at the spot. The Witney Gazette and West Oxfordshire Advertiser reported that Reginald Hyslop had taken a punt up from Medley Bridge with group of four friends. The group jumped into the river at their favourite bathing spot, Black Jack's Hole.

They had swam about 100 yards up the river and were on their way back when Reginald's friends heard him cry out for help. Before his friends could get to him, Reginald had disappeared under the water. His lifeless body was recovered by watermen later that day. It was found tangled in weeds in about six feet or water.

At the inquest into his death, the jury were perplexed as to how a healthy youth, who was apparently a very strong swimmer, could have disappeared under so suddenly at a spot where he had swum without difficulty so many times before. They concluded he must have become tangled in the weeds and gave a verdict of 'accidentally drowned whilst bathing'.

Other death's by drowning at Black Jack's Hole

Oxford University student Edward Schonberg drowned after falling from his boat at Black Jack's Hole in February 1886. The Bucks Advertiser & Aylesbury News of 27 February 1886 reported that Schonberg was rowing with a friend when the boat overturned while the two were swapping position. His companion managed to get back onboard, but Schonberg did not. His lifeless body was recovered from the water near Black Jack's Hole around half an hour later.

Various national newspapers also reported the death of Edward Baskerville, aged just 13, who drowned whilst bathing from a punt at Black Jack's Hole in August 1919.

Does Black Jack have another home in Oxfordshire?

A natural spring in Sparsholt Park, on the county's southern border, has a name that is strikingly similar to Black Jack's Hole. This second putative home for Black Jack, known as 'Black Jack's Well' or 'Black Jack Spring', is claimed to have medicinal capabilities, with its water allegedly curing eye ailments.

As Black Jack's Hole at Port Meadow seems to have been named with the intention of discouraging swimming, I was interested to see if Black Jack's Well at Sparsholt was large enough for swimming. Sadly the spring is on private land and I haven't been able to find any photographs of it, so whether the name could have had a similar origin and purpose is unclear.