Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


James Hughes (1817–1895)

Mayor of Oxford 1864/5, 1869/70, 1883/4, 1884/5, 1886/7, and 1889/90

James Hughes was born at Charndon near Twyford in Buckinghamshire on 9 November 1817, the son of the farmer James Hughes senior and Joanna Lambourn, who were married at Twyford on 8 August 1811.

He was five times Mayor of Oxford, and presented the city with the mayoral chain that is still used; and he was the co-founder of Oxford’s well-known high-class grocery business known as Grimbly Hughes.

James Hughes

In 1840 Hughes (aged 22) teamed up with another young bachelor, Owen Grimbly (24) to found a grocery business in Oxford at 56 Cornmarket Street.

The 1841 census shows Owen Grimbly and James Hughes, both described as grocers, living over their shop with Martha Grimbly, four independent people, four workers in their shop, two apprentices, and four servants.

On 18 April 1850 Hughes married Mrs Jane Skinner, née Wood at St Martin’s, his parish church at Carfax. Born in Lyme Regis, Jane was the daughter of a leather seller, John Wood, and was a widow with a five-year-old son (Henry J. Skinner). The couple had two sons:

  • James Hughes junior (born in Oxford on 18 January 1851 and baptised at St Martin’s Church on 26 February)
  • Herbert Hughes (born in Oxford in 1853 and baptised at St Giles's Church on 17 June).

At the time of the 1851 census James (33), described as a grocer employing thirteen men, still lived over the shop at 56 Cornmarket Street, this time with his wife Jane (36), their first son James (two months), his stepson Henry Skinner (6), and his sister Jane Hughes (22). They were looked after by a cook, housemaid and nursemaid, and also living with them over the shop were nine members of the business staff (namely five shopmen, two apprentices, a grocer’s porter, and a candle-pounder). Meanwhile his partner Owen Grimbly (35) was living at Wolvercote with his wife and his baby niece, looked after by five servants.

The Grimbly Hughes grocery shop suffered a fire in 1857. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 7 November that year reports (p. 4f):

Messrs Grimbly, Hughes, and Dewe, in again expressing their gratitude to their Neighbours, Members of the University, and the Public generally, for the assistance rendered them in extinguishing the alarming Fire which occurred on their Premises on Friday, Oct. 30, beg to give notice that they have resumed their Family and Retail Business at No. 56 Corn Market, and the Wholesale at the Warehouse lately occupied by Messrs. Lowe and Heydon, No. 27 Saint Aldate’s (opposite Christ Church).

Hughes was appointed a member of the Oxford Corporation in 1859, and in his 36 years of public service was one of the four Liberal leaders who dominated the council, serving six times as Mayor.

By the time of the 1861 census, James Hughes (43) was still described as a grocer but no longer lived over the shop but had moved to Park Town, where he lived with his wife Jane (46) and his children James (10) and Herbert (7), plus two servants. His stepson Henry (16), who had now taken the surname Hughes, spent census night with them, but was already employed as a midshipman.

In 1863 there was another massive fire on the west side of Cornmarket, and this time the Grimbly Hughes shop was almost completely destroyed. The front page of Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 16 September that year reads:


Messrs Grimbly, Hughes, and Dewe, with feelings of the deepest gratitude, earnestly return thanks to their numerous friends and inhabitants of the City for the great assistance rendered by them in removing Stock and endeavouring to extinguish the fire, which consumed a great part of their Premises on the morning of Sunday last.

The shop was rebuilt with a Venetian Gothic front, and luxurious mahogany and marble counters were installed. An advertisement on the front page of Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 22 October 1864 announced that the brand-new shop at 55 and 56 Cornmarket would be opening on the following Saturday.

In 1863 Hughes, while living in Park Town, had a fine new house called Woodlawn (designed by William Wilkinson) built for himself on the corner of Norham Road and Banbury Road, and was to live there for the rest of his life.

WoodlawnAbove: Hughes’s house Woodlawn, now the Cotswold Lodge Hotel at 66A Banbury Road

In 1864 Hughes was elected Mayor of Oxford (for 1864/5), and the end of the year, he was elected an Alderman by the Conservative and Liberal members of the council. Five years later in 1869 he was elected Mayor a second time (for 1869/70): the reason that he was chosen this year was (according to his obituary) because the Royal Agricultural Show would then be held in Oxford.

At the time of the 1871 census Hughes (63), described as an Alderman & JP and wholesale provision merchant, was living at Wood Lawn with his wife Jane (56) and their son James (20), who was a law student, plus four servants (a cook, an upper general servant, a housemaid, and a coachman).

Hughes was a “Birmingham League” candidate, who supported the idea that local authorities should provide schools free of religious dogma, in the School Board elections of 1871,

His son James junior was married in 1875:

  • On 24 August 1875 at Trinity Church, Paddington, James Hughes (24), described as a solicitor of 7 Eastbourne Terrace, Paddington, married Rosa Pontin (22) of St Lawrence, Reading, the daughter of the deceased hotel keeper George Pontin, who was born in Newbury, Berkshire .

By 1881 James Hughes (63) and his wife Jane (66) lived alone in this large house with their parlourmaid and housemaid. Their son Herbert was still single and was working as a solicitor, living at 106 Whitham Road, Nether Hallam, Sheffield with a boarder and two servants.

In 1883 Hughes was elected Mayor a third time (for 1883/4), and presented the council with the gold mayoral chain and pendant that is still used today: details below. At the end of his term he was elected Mayor again straight away (for 1884/5). In 1884 Hughes was largely instrumental in obtaining a special Act of Parliament for improving the Oxford water supply.

His younger son Herbert was married near the beginning of 1884:

  • In 1883/4 in the Kensington registration district, Herbert Hughes married Laetitia Burkin Young.

In 1887 James Hughes was elected Mayor a fifth time (for 1887/8), and on 21 October 1887 he opened a new aqueduct for Oxford, giving a luncheon afterwards at the Town Hall.

When Oxford Corporation was reconstituted in 1889, Hughes was returned as head of the poll in the North ward, and was unanimously elected the first Mayor of the new body (for 1889/90). During this, his sixth and last mayoralty, he proposed the consolidation of the city loans and thus saved Oxford a considerable sum of money each year. As a mark of their gratitude, the citizens presented him with an oil painting of himself by William Carter, and he handed this picture over to the Corporation: it still hangs in the Council Chamber today.

The triennial perambulation of the city boundaries took place at the end of his mayoralty: photograph of his punt on the River Cherwell at the Marston Ferry

Hughes also held many other appointments: his obituary states that “his disposition was decidedly autocratic and he loved power for its own sake”. He was Chairman of the Charity Trustees and of the Gas Company, and a member of the governing body of the Radcliffe Infirmary and of the High School for Boys (of which he was also a benefactor).

† Alderman James Hughes died at Woodlawn on 12 September 1895 at the age of 77, having “succumbed to general bodily ailments, dropsy being the most serious of his complaints”. His funeral was held four days later at St Martin’s at Carfax (which was both his former parish church and the City Church), and he was buried at Rose Hill cemetery (A2/96). A memorial to him was placed in St Martin’s Church (then the city church), and later moved to the south wall of All Saints’ Church.

His effects came to £119,444 16s. 6d., and his executors were his sons James Hughes and Herbert Hughes, who were solicitors, and William Norton, gentleman.

In 1901 his widow Jane Hughes (86) was living at Wood Lawn with her great-niece and their cook and housemaid. She died on 11 March 1904 at the age of 90 and was buried in her husband's vault.

The Grimbly Hughes shop was taken over by Jackson’s of Piccadilly in 1959. When 56 Cornmarket was demolished in 1961 it moved to Queen Street, but it only survived for another two years.

Grave of James HughesThis vault reads: SACRED TO THE MEMORY / OF / JAMES HUGHES, J.P. / ALDERMAN AND
On the other side is an inscription to his wife Jane.

The two sons of James Hughes
  • James Hughes junior (born 1851) was a solicitor living at 5 Cardigan Road, Richmond, Surrey in 1881 with his wife Rosa (26) and their son James C. S. Hughes (4), plus three servants. In 1891 James (40), now described as solicitor to the Thames Conservancy, was living at 84 Holland Road, Kensington with Rosa (36) and their son James (14), who was a naval cadet on HMS Britannia, and their daughters Ethel (8) and Winifred (6). They had three servants: a nurse, cook, and housemaid. In 1901 James (50) was living at 47 Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington, with Rosa (46) and their children Winifred (16) and Noel (7), plus four servants. In 1911 James (60), who was now retired, was living at 214 Cromwell Road, Kensington with Rosa (56) and their daughter Winifred (26) plus three servants. James Hughes died on 4 September 1922 and was buried st St Michael's churchyard, Ormesby, Norfolk (see grave). His wife Rosa Hughes died on 28 May 1931 and was buried with him.
  • Herbert Hughes (born 1853) was living at Eccleshall Bierlow in Sheffield in 1891 with his wife Laetitia and their children Dorothy (6), Constance (4), and Herbert (1), plus five servants (cook, parlourmaid, housemaid, kitchenmaid, and nurse). It appears that the family may have emigrated to the USA.

The mayoral chain presented by Hughes

Back of Lord  Mayor’s chain

Above: The pendant on the gold mayoral chain donated by Hughes reads on the back: “Presented to the Corporation of the City of Oxford by Alderman James Hughes, Justice of the Peace in his third mayoralty 1883 & 4.” The text is partly obscured by the strong hook that ensures the pendant remains attached to the chain.

Below: The chain is still worn by the Lord Mayor. It has the letters of Oxenford alternating with enamelled roses, and the pendant has the Oxford coat-of-arms on the front.

The Lord Mayor’s Chain

The chain and badge was made by the jewellers Rowell & Harris of High Street, Oxford, and their description of it was published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 29 March 1884:

The old English name of the City, Oxenford, has been utilised in the form of links, the letters being of fourteenth century character, carefully executed, from an old plaster casting. Between each letter is introduced an early Tudor rose, beautifully enamelled in proper heraldic colours, and these roses, which are of 22-carat gold, are jointed to the letters by massive solid 18-carat gold links, the whole forming a magnificent chain 36 inches in length, and containing about 40 ounces of solid 18-carat gold. The badge, which is hexagonal in shape, and five inches in length, is a splendid specimen of the goldsmith's art, and bears in the centre the arms of the City (an ox crossing a ford of water, with the supporters on either side). These are surmounted by the helmet and Crest, and at the sides are introduced the civic emblems, the mace and the sword, while the City motto, "Fortis est veritas," enamelled on a scroll in dark blue letters, occupies the lower part of the badge.

See also:

  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 14 September 1895, p. 8c (obituary)
  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 21 September 1895, p. 5g (report of funeral)
  • The Times, 21 1887, p. 5d: “Oxford Water Supply”
  • Portrait of James Hughes in 1889 by William Carter, in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall
    Download information about Council Chamber portraits
  • 1841 Census: Oxford (St Martin), 891/13/8
  • 1851 Census: Oxford (St Martin), 1728/118
  • 1861 Census: Oxford (St Giles), 892/33
  • 1871 Census: Oxford (St Paul), 1436/105
  • 1881 Census: Oxford (St Giles), 1500/8

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 21 September, 2020

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