18 April 1822 – 23 April 1900 (aged 78)
Edward Oxford (19 April 1822 – 23 April 1900) was the first of seven people who tried to assassinate Queen Victoria. After Oxford was arrested and charged with treason, a jury found that Oxford was not guilty by reason of insanity and he was detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure in the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum and later, in Broadmoor Hospital. Eventually given a conditional release for transportation to a British colony, he lived out the remainder of his life in Australia.
Edward was born in Birmingham in 1822. His father died when he was seven. His mother was able to find work and support the family, which meant Edward was able to attend school both in Birmingham and the Lambeth area of London, where the family moved when he was about 10.
At the time of the attack, he was barely eighteen years old, unemployed and living with his mother and sister in lodgings. On 4 May 1840, he bought a pair of pistols and a gunpowder flask and began practising in shooting galleries in and around London. On the evening of 9 June he showed several witnesses what appeared to be a loaded pistol; when he was asked what he planned to do with it, he refused to say, other than stating that he had been firing at a target.
At about 4:00 PM on 10 June 1840, Oxford took up a position at Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace. The Queen, who was four months pregnant with her first child, was accustomed to riding out in a phaeton with her husband, Prince Albert in the late afternoon or early evening, with no other escort than two outriders. When the royal couple appeared some two hours later and drew level with him, he fired both pistols in succession, missing both times. He was immediately seized by onlookers and disarmed. Oxford made no attempt to hide his actions, openly declaring: “It was I, it was me that did it.”
He was immediately arrested and charged with treason for attempting to assassinate the sovereign. When he was taken into custody at the police station he asked if the Queen was hurt; he was informed she was unharmed.
Oxford’s trial at the Old Bailey was postponed until 9 July, after a thorough investigation was made of both his background and his possible motives. In spite of his earlier admissions, no bullets could be found at the scene, so that the Crown could not prove that the pistols were, in fact, armed and that he could have harmed anyone. Oxford later claimed that the guns contained only gunpowder.
Oxford appeared to be oblivious for most of the proceedings. The jury acquitted Oxford, declaring him to be “not guilty by reason of insanity”. Like all such prisoners, he was sentenced to be detained “until Her Majesty’s pleasure be known”. In effect, this was an indefinite sentence and the source of the asylum term “pleasure men”. Oxford was sent to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Bethlem, Southwark, where he remained as a model patient for the next twenty-four years.
He occupied himself by drawing, reading and learning to play the violin. He also learnt French, German and Italian, acquired some knowledge of Spanish, Greek and Latin, and was employed as a painter and decorator within the confines of the hospital. When he was transferred to Broadmoor Hospital in 1864, the notes taken on his arrival describe him as “apparently sane”. He still claimed the pistols he fired at the Queen were not loaded with anything other than powder, and that his attack was fuelled not by a desire to injure her, but purely by a desire for notoriety. There are a lot of rumours about why Oxford may have attempted to assassinate the queen, one prominent one being that he was under instruction from a political faction called Young England – which he alleged included the King of Hanover and Lord Palmerston among its members.
While it was clear to the hospital’s governors that Oxford was of sound mind and no longer a threat to society, George Grey, the then Home Secretary, ignored the request to order his release. It is possible that since he had been the Judge Advocate General at the time of Oxford’s trial, he could have been reluctant to discharge a prisoner he once had such a vested interest in incarcerating. It was not until three years later that a new Home Secretary offered to discharge Oxford, on the condition that he leave for one of the Empire’s overseas colonies, and, if he returned to the United Kingdom, he would be incarcerated for life.
Oxford lived out the rest of his life in Melbourne, Australia. Oxford landed in Melbourne with a new alias, John Freeman. Under the pseudonym “Liber” he wrote articles for The Argus about the city’s slums, markets and racetracks, and these became the basis for an 1888 book, Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life. He died in 1900, the year before the Queen passed away.