22 June 2024

A Gothic ‘castle’ by
a bridge in Oxford holds
hidden stories of student
folly and misbehaviour

Caudwell’s Castle on Folly Bridge is a pretty Gothic folly standing on an island in the Rver Thames in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

A recent summer afternoon walk through Christchurch Meadow and by the banks of the Thames and the Cherwell in Oxford brought me to Folly Bridge. There are Punts close to the bridge, Salters Steamers are nearby, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began as a story told on a boating trip from Folly Bridge, and the Head of the River, a public house beside the bridge, has views of the bridge and the river.

The former bridge and ‘Bacon’s Tower’ were drawn by many artists, including the 12-year-old JMW Turner, before a new bridge was built in 1824-1827, designed by Ebenezer Perry (1779-1850), and the toll house was rebuilt in 1844.

But the truly eye-catching building on Folly Bridge is Caudwell’s Castle at No 5 on Folly Bridge, a pretty Gothic folly standing on an island in the Thames. It was built in 1849 for Joseph Caudwell (1809-1893), a wealthy but eccentric Oxford accountant and money-lender.

Caudwell was born at Harwell, south of Oxford, into the Caudwell family of Drayton Manor, near Abingdon. He lived a sad and isolated life, and before he could enjoy his new home for long, he found himself targeted by student pranksters and then arrested for attempted murder. He was subsequently convicted of perjury, fined one shilling and transported for seven years.

Caudwell’s Castle was originally known as North Hinksey House, and has also mistakenly been called Isis House. Caudwell may have first planned the house as a folly to echo the name of the bridge. It stands on the same island in the River Isis that once housed ‘Friar Bacon’s Study.’ The mediaeval philosopher and astronomer Roger Bacon (1214-1292) once lived in the tower, and it was this earlier building – and not Caudwell’s Castle, despite its appearance – that gave Folly Bridge its name.

Caudwell built his house on the island beside Folly Bridge in 1849, and decided to adorn it with follies, riotous brickwork, metal and stone statues and crenellations. The rooftop statue of Atlas was once bent beath the weight of a globe, but the globe has not survived and Atlas now stands with a look of permanent surprise.

Caudwell’s Castle and Folly Bridge on an island in the Rver Thames in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The house is built in red and grey brick, with battlements, and wrought iron balconies, it has Coade stone statues in niches that add an ecclesiastical flavour to its castellated appearance. It is a three-storey in parts, and four storeys in other parts. There are sash windows, glazing bars, French windows and much decorative brickwork, and the faux battlements means the roof is not visible from the street.

Caudwell tried to make his castle appear more secure, if not foreboding, placing cannons in the forecourt, pointing out across the river. But the castle and its defences were not impregnable and Caudwell thwarted a number of attempts to breach his defences.

Those students were undeterred until one night when a dramatic student jape backfired. In the early hours of 26 June 1851, Caudwell heard a commotion outside, and opened his bedroom window to see four undergraduates in dinner jackets tying a rope around one of his ornamental cannons, trying to drag it into the river.

Caudwell was enraged. He fired a pistol a pistol at the students and hit one of the miscreants. Caudwell was reported to the police and was charged with having ‘unlawfully and maliciously’ shot at Alexander Henry Ross ‘with intent to do him grievous bodily harm’.

Caudwell’s Castle is built in red and grey brick, with battlements, wrought iron balconies and Coade stone statues in niches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Caudwell was tried at the Berkshire summer assizes the following month. The prosecution argued he was aware the students were only engaged in a harmless prank and that he had no right under law to recklessly endanger the life of another.

Andrew Henry Ross, the student he shot, was an old Etonian and an undergraduate at Christ Church College. Ross and his friends were cross-examined during the trial and described their activities that night, much to the amusement of people sat in the courtroom.

Ross claimed Caudwell fired at him from an upstairs window ‘without any notice or intimation.’ But he admitted 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.

One student described to laughter how he had gone back to Caudwell’s after the incident and thrown stones at a window, before saying he was considering the law as a profession. Another admitted they had made attempts at Caudwell’s lions on a previous occasion, and he had warned he would shoot them if they did not desist.

Caudwell said he was acting in self-defence, defending his home from a violent attack. He admitted firing at Ross but claimed he only aimed at his hand. His defence counsel tried to discredit the four students, claiming they took part in a ‘disgusting outrage on society,’ bringing disaster upon themselves. He said they had been ‘luxuriating’ at a cricket supper at the Maidenhead, smoking cigars and drinking beer, and claimed they were set on ‘wanton mischief’ to gratify ‘a morbid and wicked disposition.’

The judge spoke in disapproving tones of the flippant way the students conducted themselves during the trial. But he reminded the jury that no attempt had been made to break into Caudwell’s home or to threaten him or his family with violence.

The jury was sympathetic to Caudwell. After deliberating for an hour and a quarter, the jurors found Caudwell not guilty and he was acquitted.

But Caudwell’s time in court was not over: he was tried the next day on an entirely unrelated charge arising from £65 in unpaid bills owed to Thomas Golding, an Oxford shopkeeper.

Caudwell claimed he was assisting an ex-clergyman, the Revd Charles James, who had fled Oxford some months earlier after being charged with deserting his wife and family. Caudwell said he had helped James find a new position as a curate at Saint Thomas Church, Preston, Lancashire.

But James was in trouble in Preston too. He was found to have seduced and run away with the daughter of his church sexton. When he was tracked down, he was found in bed with both the sexton's daughter and his own 10 or 12-year-old son.

Golding tried to sue Caudwell, who was then charged with perjury arising from an affidavit in which he claimed part of his debt had been repaid. He was convicted of perjury, was fined once shilling and was sentenced to seven years transportation. He eventually died in Boulogne in France in October 1893.

As for Alexander Henry Ross (1829-1888), the undergraduate shot by Caudwell, he later became a barrister, a magistrate and a Conservative politician. He was the son of Charles Ross and grandson of Charles Cornwallis, 2nd Marquess Cornwallis. He was the Conservative MP for Maidstone from 1880 until he died in 1888.

Apollo without his globe and some of the statues in niches in Caudwell’s Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Some local legends claim his house became an upmarket brothel or bordello in the late 1800s, and that the statues are modelled on the sex workers.

Robert Gunther (1869-1940), the historian of science, bought 5 Folly Bridge in 1911. This made the river central to his life, and he was a pioneer of environmental conservation in Oxford.

It is said the actor Peter Cushing and more than one famous author later lived there. However, there is no evidence to support rumours that it was once a base for the Bullingdon Club when Boris Johnson and David Cameron were members, or that this was the venue for the supposed incident involving David Cameron and a pig’s head.

Caudwell’s Castle was divided into flats in the late 20th century. The middle flat, with a long balcony on the side, was owned by a former Conservative MP. A former resident recalls how the floor was so seriously slanted that a ball could roll down it and that the plumbing was a disaster. Other residents included two successful non-fiction authors and the owner of a nearby restaurant and art gallery, while the ground floor was an Air B&B for a time.

On the ground floor below Atlas, the original front door is now bricked up, with a small fenced off forecourt in front of it. Caudwell’s cannons have never been replaced, but it seems the castle was never again besieged.

No 4 Folly Bridge Island was built in 1875 and designed by the Oxford architect George Shirley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The island’s most recent building is an octagonal tower in strikingly bright yellow. It houses three artists’ studios, and from the riverside balconies, there are views of the pleasure boats, the jetties, and the diners on the pontoon at the restaurant below.

Next to Caudwell’s Castle, No 4 Folly Bridge Island was built in 1875 and designed by the Oxford architect George Shirley. It originally had a steeply-pitched roof, but the upper storey was rebuilt and crenelated in 1974.

Last year, on 23 May 2023, the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth unveiled a plaque at the south side of Folly Bridge on the wall of the Folly restaurant to commemorate the boat trip of 4 July 1862, when Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) first told the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Alice Liddell and her two sisters, the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church.

It is the first permanent memorial to Carroll and his book in the city. But, perhaps, more about Lewis Carroll, Alice and that boat in the weeks to come or near that anniversary on 4 July.

A plaque at the Folly restaurant commemorates the boat trip when Lewis Carroll first told the Alice stories to Alice Liddell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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