Truncheon from England, Europe. Collector not known. Purchased by the Museum from Thomas James Carter in 1898.
Police forces have traditionally made use of non-lethal weapons such as a type of short club known as a truncheon. This example is made of wood, painted black with a gold crown and ‘VR’ visible on one side. The monogram is that of Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina) and it is recorded that this object was used by a volunteer Special Constable in a series of Bread Riots in Oxford in 1867.
The Museum purchased this truncheon from Thomas Carter (1832-c.1909), a geologist and fossil collector from St. Clements in Oxford, who may have witnessed the riot first hand.
Due to its use in the 1867 Bread Riots, this truncheon is a significant remnant of Oxford's history and the exclusivity of England's law-enforcing bodies. Yet it can also be seen to represent larger issues: the centuries old tensions between locals and the University ('Town and Gown') and moreover, the enduring and widespread phenomenon of food riots in the British Isles. Such riots were a form of working class social protest, which only truly ceased in the 20th century with the development of intensive policing and the use of Trades Unions as alternative vehicles of collective class action.
Economic (i.e. food- or wage-related) stimuli for rioting and unrest had long coloured the clashes that arose between Oxford's locals and the influx of wealthy young men arriving to study at the academic community that had been established in the city in the 11th century. In the 13th century, conflicts between the townspeople and the students hastened the establishment of primitive halls of residence, which were soon succeeded by supervised, endowed houses, known as Colleges. From an architectural point of view, this tension was reflected in the lightly fortified design of the college buildings: small and intimate, high-windowed, stone-built and gated.
Singular events in the city's history serve to underline this unhappy relationship. The Headington Riots of 1727 were sparked off when three locals prevented three students from tying a live cat to the tail of the bull at a bull-baiting event. The students were beaten unconscious and reports tell that, in an act of retaliation, several hundred students descended on Headington the following day and smashed every window in the (then) village, broke into houses, stole property, and beat thirteen people unconscious. Only the intervention of the Proctor of Magdalen College pacified the affair (Diary of Thos. Hearne, 6th April 1727). Another incident, this time a victory for the townsfolk, occurred in the 1850s when Isaac Grubb, a Nonconformist firebrand and one of the city's most prominent corn dealers and bakers, became Mayor. Having stated that his work had never had anything to do with the University, Grubb made a direct challenge to the University's authority by simply refusing to honour the University's 500-year-long demand for the Mayor to annually abase himself before the Vice-Chancellor.
Despite the University's elitist social reputation of the university, the architectural facades of the city centre, and the current price of housing and cost of living in the city, Oxford has never been a fundamentally wealthy town. In fact, it has been a place where great wealth and great poverty have lived cheek-by-jowl for almost a millennium. Shoeless slum children were a regular sight in poorer areas in the 1930s and even today, homelessness and begging remains a significant problem.
Yet poverty was particularly severe in the city and county as a whole in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were two main reasons for this. First, the country-wide enclosure acts of the early 19th century had denied the rural poor many of their longstanding economic feudal rights - such as grazing, gleaning, fowling, hay-cutting and river fishing - thus plunging them into poverty. Second was the bias towards University-driven employment for the working classes in Oxford. Not only did this work dry up during the students' summer intermission but students often defaulted on the credit that shopkeepers allowed them. In fact, the low rate of agricultural wages in Oxfordshire and the surplus of labour in Oxford itself combined to make wages there about the lowest in England. In 1794, the state had to provide more than a third of the city's entire population bread for 11 weeks or more under the Poor Law and in 1800, cavalry intervention was necessary to quell the townspeople's intimidation of local farmers in the hope of reducing corn prices. Social and political discontent was heightened by a series of cholera epidemics that spread throughout the city in 1832, 1849 and 1854, reflecting the unsanitary nature of much of the housing.
A particular problem for the townsfolk was Oxford's lack of heavy industry compared to that of Coventry, Reading and other nearby towns of similar size. In 1865, the hopes of many poor townsfolk were raised and then dashed, when plans to site the Great Western Railway's workshops in the town promised more than 1,500 new jobs. The University opposed the plans, as it was felt that such developments would alter the city too greatly and damage the reputation of the University. Consequently, the GWR placed its main workshop in Swindon, which grew significantly as a result. This disappointment of the Oxford townsfolk over this episode was quickly followed by the equally depressing revelation in November 1867, that Isaac Grubb, the aforementioned 'champion of the people' against the excesses of the University's dominance, was in fact selling his bread to the University colleges in larger quantities, and at lower prices, than he sold it to the struggling townsfolk from his shop-front. During the 19th century, outbreaks of violence had been particularly common in Oxford around Guy Fawkes Night (5th November), so this combination of factors seemed destined to come to a head in an explosive fashion. Thus the riots that followed had several historical precedents, but their newly vehement nature can be appreciated as a timely expression of working class frustration.
As had occurred in 1800, the local militia were mobilised, comprising hundreds of Special Constables, and Grenadier Guards (cavalry) were deployed from Windsor to break up the fights between townsfolk and students. The royal insignia emblazoned on the Special Constables' uniforms and weapons (such as this truncheon) were important. They represented an institutional permission for these volunteers to wield the same powers of arrest and action as their regular counterparts. Yet moreover, they endowed the wearer/user with an element of moral accountability as a defender of 'Queen and Country', as well as signifying to the transgressor that he or she ought to yield to this greater authority. Evidently the people of Oxford were not easily bowed, and the civil forces had to be supplemented later in the month when further rioting broke out. Only when the town's Corporation's forced bakers to reduce the price of a loaf of bread by a penny several weeks later was the uprising finally suppressed and the people pacified.
All in all, the 1867 Oxford Bread Riots are one of several shameful episodes in the history of the University's unbalanced relationship with the townsfolk of Oxford, as well as one of the last examples of traditional agrarian protest in Britain. More specifically, this weapon symbolises the formal, military suppression of the traditional forms of proletarian protest that characterised Britain's post-Napoleonic era. Such suppression ultimately led to the excessive miseries of Victorian industrial life, the critical writings of Marx and Engels, and the emergence of a formalised and determined Trades Unions movement.