Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


John Caldecott Cavell (1813–1887)

Mayor of Oxford 1865/6, 1877/8, and 1879

John Caldecott Cavell was born in Bardwell, Suffolk on 12 January 1813 and baptised there two days later. He was the son of Charles Cavell and Sarah Caldecott, who were married in Suffolk by licence on 26 January 1808.

On 9 April 1835 at St John the Baptist Church in Summertown, John Caldecott Cavell (22) married Sarah Elliston of Summertown. Sarah, who was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, was the sister of Jesse Elliston, a young man of 29 who owned a draper’s  shop at 12 Magdalen Street (opposite St Mary Magdalen Church). To celebrate his sister’s marriage, Elliston made Cavell a partner. The shop was thenceforth known as Elliston & Cavell’s and was eventually to become Oxford’s biggest department store. (This original shop was demolished to make room for a new shop in 1894, seven years after Cavell’s death.)

John and Sarah Cavell had two sons, who were not baptised as infants, as they were a Baptist family who attended New Road Baptist Church:

  • John Elliston Cavell (born in Oxford in 1838/9, reg. first quarter of 1839)
  • Frederick Cavell (born in Oxford in 1840, reg. third quarter, and died near the end of 1841).

The 1841 census shows John Caldecott Cavell living with his wife Sarah and two young sons (John aged 2 and Frederick aged 2 months) over Elliston & Cavell at 12 Magdalen Street, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Also living over the shop were his business partner/brother-in law Jesse Elliston (then aged 37), as well as 16 junior drapers, two apprentice drapers, and five female servants. Meanwhile Mrs Harriet Delf, Jesse Elliston’s sister, was living with a girl called Ellen Haill (probably the daughter of her sister, Mrs Rebecca Haill) and two servants in Summertown. (Harriet and Jesse Elliston were born in Ipswich on 31 May 1804 and 3 March 1806 respectively, the children of William & Mary Ann Elliston, and both were received into Stoke Green Baptist Church there.)

Cavell’s second son Frederick had died as a baby, and so the 1851 census shows Cavell (38), still described as a draper, with his wife Sarah (35) and their surviving son John (12) living over 12 Magdalen Street. Also upstairs lived 32 members of his shop staff (22 drapers’ assistants of both sexes, one draper’s apprentice, two draper’s clerks, a draper’s cashier aged only 13, two draper’s porters, one draper’s waiter) and three house servants. Meanwhile Jesse Elliston, who also described himself as a draper, was a bachelor living in Summertown with his sister Harriet Delf (46), his nephew William Elliston (18), and two servants.

On 26 July 1853 Cavell’s business partner Jesse Elliston dropped dead at the age of 47 after walking back to his home in Summertown, and his death was announced in the Ipswich Journal. He left Acacia Lodge in Summertown to his sister Harriet Delf.

His first wife Sarah Cavell died at the age of 40 on 12 February 1856, and her funeral was at St Mary Magdalen Church on 18 February, followed by interment at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery

Within a few years (probably in the Blything district of Suffolk in 1859), John Caldecott Cavell had married his second wife, Harriet Delf, the widowed sister of Jesse Elliston, wno was nine years his senior. (She was the sister of Cavell’s first wife, and until 1907 it was illegal in the UK for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.)

Cavell became an Oxford Town Councillor in 1860.

At the time of the 1861 census John and Harriet Cavell were living over Elliston & Cavell’s at 12 Magdalen Street with 19 shop assistants, two shop clerks, one housekeeper, five servants, and three porters.

Cavell was made an Alderman in 1868, and was elected Mayor of Oxford for 1865/6.

He and Harriet continued to live over the Elliston & Cavell shop, and the 1871 census again shows a large number living in the staff quarters: 19 assistants, two clerks, three draper’s porters, a houseboy, and a housekeeper, cook, and three housemaids.

Cavell was elected Mayor a second time for 1877/8, and following the death in office of James Grainge, he undertook a third short term as Mayor from April 1879.

Cavell was a supporter of the Boys’ High School that opened in George Street in 1881, and took the chair at the first public meeting in the Town Hall in furtherance of it. W. E. Sherwood, in his book Oxford Yesterday (1927), was probably thinking of him when he wrote the following words:

One of our well-known Aldermen, now dead, once told me that he had to begin work at thirteen, just about the time when Magdalen School was revived, and that he shed tears to think how he was handicapped in life compared with the boys whom he saw in its playground. Happily, his ability and ambition stood him in good stead, and he lived to be one of those who were most active in starting the Boys’ High School, which in later days gave so many boys just the help which he lacked.

At the time of the 1881 census Cavell (68) and Harriet (77) were once again living over the old shop, which had been extended to include 11 Magdalen Street next door and 1 & 2 Friars Entry. Also lodging upstairs were eighteen draper’s assistants, three draper’s porters, two draper’s clerks, a draper’s houseboy, a dressmaker, a housekeeper, a cook, and three housemaids.

Cavell was the long-standing Chairman of the Oxford Building and Investment Company. He resigned in August 1882 when the company was getting into difficulties, and there was a rumour that he had lent the company £10,000 on security of some of their property. When the company went into liquidation in April 1883, some of the blame was assigned to the directors.

Cavell’s second wife Harriet Cavell died at the age of 82 on 29 September 1886 and her funeral was at St Mary Magdalen Church on 4 October 1886, followed by interment in St Sepulchre’s Cemetery.

At one o’clock in the morning on 2 February 1887, Cavell was found lying in his nightshirt in Friar’s Entry, having fallen from the second-floor bedroom window of his home, and he died three days later.

† John Caldecott Cavell died on 5 February 1887 from injuries sustained when he fell from the window.

His son, John Elliston Cavell of Blackheath, reported that his father, who was 74, had been suffering from diabetes, which caused coma and hallucinations, and a verdict of accidental death was returned at the inquest. Full details of the inquest are reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 12 February 1887. These are followed by this obituary:

The late Mr. Cavell’s connection with the Town Council extended over a period of 26 years, he having been returned for the Central Ward for the first time on the 30th of November 1860, when he filled the vacancy created by the death of Mr Nathaniel Castle, which was caused through an accident. He was re-elected in 1862, 1865, and 1868, in which year he was made Alderman. He had previous to this served the office of Mayor of Oxford for the year 1865–6, and was again appointed to the office for 1877–8. He was succeeded by Mr. James Grainge, who died during his year of office, in April, and Mr. Cavell, who was then Deputy Mayor, was chosen Mayor of Oxford for the remainder of the year, his Deputy being the late Ald. Calcutt. Mr. Cavell continued to be an Alderman until the 9th of November last year, when he, in common with the four other retiring Liberal Alderman, lost his gown. In June 1878, on the occasion of the visit of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society to Oxford, he gave an entertainment on a grand scale in the Town Hall. It was through the instrumentality of Mr. Cavell, Mr. Joseph Round, and others that the Volunteer Fire Brigade was projected and established. Mr. Cavell was a Justice of the Peace for the City, one of the Charity Trustees, and for some years acted as Treasurer of the Oxford Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Oxford City Mission. He was a ready supporter of the Oxford Regatta, the Horticultural and Rose Societies, and the High School, and in connection with the last-named he took the chair at the first public meeting in the Town Hall in furtherance of it. He was a generous contributor at all times to any object of a deserving or charitable nature.

At New Road Chapel, of which congregation Mr. Cavell was a member for many years, full and appropriate reference to his lamented death was made on Sunday morning by the Pastor (Rev. James Dann), and the Dead March in Saul was most impressively rendered by the organist (Mr. Wiblin) on the fine instrument to the recent rebuilding and enlargement of which Mr. Cavell was a liberal contributor, the congregation remaining silently seated in their places as a tribute of respect to his memory.

Cavell’s funeral was St Mary Magdalen Church on 10 February 1887, followed by interment in the same grave as his two wives at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery. This report is from the same newspaper:


The funeral of the deceased took place on Thursday, at St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Walton-street. The cortège, consisting of an open car, in which lay the body in a polished oak coffin, having plain massive brass furniture, and three mourning coaches, left the residence in Magdalen-street at half-past two o’clock, the places of business in the immediate neighbourhood and along the route taken by the procession being wholly or partly closed, and the blinds in many private houses being drawn, as a mark of respect, and, preceded by the employés, to the number of about twenty, went along St. Giles’s and St. John’s-road [now renamed St Bernard’s Road] to the Cemetery, where a large number of persons had assembled. The mourners were—In the first carriage: Mr. John Elliston Cavell (brother), Mr. Harry Cavell (grandson), and Mr. Sidney Powell (nephew); in the second carriage: Mr. Alfred Powell, Mr. Edwin Powell, and Mr. Charles Powell (nephews); in the third carriage: Mr. Horatio Symonds (the medical attendant), and Mr. J. J. Bickerton (the family solicitor). The Mayor (Ald. Hughes) followed in his private carriage, and the body was met at the Cemetery by the Rector of Lincoln, the Deputy-Mayor (Ald. Buckell), the Sheriff (Mr. Cooper), Ald. Carr and Jenkin, Councillors C. Underhill, Wheeler, Grubb, Freeman, and Gardener; Messrs. Jason Saunders, Emberlin, G. Brunner, R. Cross, F. Holmes Elliston (nephew of Mrs. Cavell), of Southampton, Augustus Frederick Elliston (grandson of Mrs. Cavell), Burstal, W. W. Robinson, W. Richards, Patey, Taphouse, F. Ryman Hall, H. Hughes, Barling, C. Hill, &c. On arriving at the lodge gate the first part of the Burial Service was read by the Rev. E. Clayton, Vicar of St. Mary Magdalen; in the Chapel the lesson was read by the Rev. Canon A. M. W. Christopher, Rector of St. Aldate’s, and the Rev. E. Clayton concluded the service at the grave. Several beautiful wreaths were lowered with the coffin into the grave, in which already rest the bodies of both the wives of the deceased. A brass plate on the coffin bore the following inscription:—

Born 12th January 1813.
Died 5th February, 1887.

It is estimated that there were from fifteen hundred to two thousand persons present at the funeral. The flag on the Town Hall flew at half-mast from the time of death to the burial of the deceased, and on Thursday evening a muffled peal was run on the bells of St. Mary Magdalen Church.

His personal estate came to £25,142 0s. 5d. and his only son John Elliston Cavell, descried as a warehouseman of 13 Bennett Park, Blackheath, was his executor.

Cavell’s son John Elliston Cavell

John Elliston Cavell (born in Oxford near the beginning of 1839) was the only surviving son of John Caldecott Cavell.

On 26 January 1860 at St Matthew’s Church, Oakley Square, London he married his firsdt wife Emily Caldecott Powell, duaghter of the late W. Powell of Oakley Square. She was eight years his senior (born in Vauxhall, Surrey in 1830/1) and is likely to have been a relation. They had two sons:

  • Frederick Percy Cavell (born in Park Crescent, Oxford in 1862 and baptised at St Giles’s Church on 3 May)
  • Harry St John Cavell (born in Oxford on 30 May 1864 and baptised as an adult at All Saints, Battle Bridge, Middlesex on on 11 September 1888).

At the time of the 1871 census John was a silk merchant aged 32 living at No. 1 Riversdale in the Woodstock Road with his wife Emily (40) and their sons Frederick (8) and Harry (6), and two servants.

By 1881 John Elliston Cavell, still a silk merchant, continued to describe himself as married, but was living at 45 London Road in Reading with his elder son Frederick Percy Cavell (18), and a companion, Arthur H. James. They were looked after by a housekeeper and three servants. His wife Emily is hard to find, and may have been in an institution. Harry appears to have been away at school. His other son Frederick Percy Cavell died in Reading early the following year at the age of 19 and was buried in St Sepulchre’s Cemetery.

John Elliston Cavell’s first wife Emily Caldecott Cavell died in the Northampton registration district at the age of 53 in 1884, and was buried with her father-in-law and elder son at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (see grave).

John Elliston Cavell was living in Blackheath in 1887, and evidently remarried, because in 1901 when he was a retired draper of 62 he was living with his Islington-born wife Jane (59) at 78 Eltham Road, with his unmarried son Harry (36), a solicitor. He was living at the Chestnuts, Eltham Road, Lee, Kent when he died at the age of 69 on 25 March 1908, and is not buried with his family in Oxford. His effects came to £20,995 0s. 11d.

Cavell's grandson, his only surviving descendant

On 18 June 1902 at Eltham Church in London, the solicitor Harry St John Cavell (38), the sole survivor of the Elliston & Cavell dynasty, married Mary Louisa Powell (36): he was living at The Chestnuts, Eltham Road, Lee, and she lived in Northbrook Court Road, Eltham. They do not appear to have had any children.

They were living at The Cedars in Peaches Close, Cheam with three servants in 1911.

Harry St John Cavell was living at Westdene, Burnham Avenue, Bognor Regis at the time of his death on 9 December 1940. His personal effects came to £19,474 8s. 7d.

See also:

  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 12 February 1887, p. 5ef (obituary and funeral)
  • Oxford Mail, 8 July 1992, p. 8
  • 1841 Census: Oxford (St Mary Magdalen), 891/11/3
  • 1851 Census: Oxford (St Mary Magdalen), 1728/554
  • 1861 Census: Oxford (St Mary Magdalen), 894/12
  • 1871 Census: Oxford (St Mary Magdalen), 1438/15
  • 1881 Census: Oxford (St Mary Magdalen), 1502/29

Elliston & Cavell’s (now Debenham’s)

Elliston & Cavell shop

Above: picture of the shop from an advertisement on back page of Kelly’s Directory for 1914–15. The accompanying text reads:

Carpet Warehousemen,
Milliners, Costumiers, Ladies’ and Children’s Outfitters.

Telephone No. 181 (two lines).
In direct communications with each department.

Telegraphic address: “Elliston’s, Oxford.”

Patterns, Estimates and Designs Post Free.
Experienced Assistants sent to advise.



Although Elliston & Cavell’s was taken over by Debenham’s as early as 1953, the old name survived until 1973. In the 1990s, the shop of 1894 shown in the above engraving was rebuilt by Debenham’s, but they preserved its old frontage.

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 24 November, 2018

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