Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


John Towle (1796–1885)

Mayor of Oxford 1856/7

John Towle was born at Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire on 13 May 1796, the son of the farmer William Towle.

He came to Oxford in about 1818, and his first job was acting as servant to a Mr Wells at Christ Church. He then became a seller of stockings, and on 30 September 1822 was matriculated as a privileged tradesman by the University, with his job description dignified in Latin as “tibialium mercator”.

Ten years later in May 1832 he bought his freedom of the city so he could work for town instead of gown: at this point he was living in All Saints parish. In about 1834 became a paper maker at Hinksey Mill near Redbridge, and later also took over Weirs Mill, near the present Donnington Bridge: both mills were then situated in Berkshire, in the parish of South Hinksey.

On 22 September 1828 at South Hinksey church John Towle (described as being of St Aldate’s, Oxford) married his first wife Mary Ann Drewitt (who was living at South Hinksey, but had been born at Wolvercote in 1802). They do not appear to have had any children.

In January 1836, under the new scheme following the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, John Towle was elected to the council as one of the representatives for the South Ward, but had to retire later the same year because he was not on the burgess list, as he lived at Cold Harbour, Grandpont.

In 1837 Towle contested the South Ward, and the result was a tie between him and Mr Walsh, and the latter was elected by the casting vote of the Alderman. In 1838 he was again unsuccessful.

In November 1839 he was again elected as a representative of the South Ward, but this time as a Liberal rather than an independent radical.

At the time of the 1841 census, Towle and his first wife Mary were still listed as living at Grandpont.

In 1844, after hearing that the GWR was coming to Oxford, Towle built a house called Paisley House on the line of the proposed embankment (where Go Outdoors shop is now, almost opposite the Redbridge Park & Ride, in what was then part of South Hinksey in Berkshire). This house had a timber framework, but the walls and roof were made of paper, and he lived here until his death. For more information about this house, see the South Oxford Community Centre page about it.

On 28 August 1846 his apprentice, also called John Towle and probably his nephew of that name, was admitted free.

Towle disliked pompery, and at the Town Council Finance Committee meeting held on 15 June 1848 it was reported:

The only bill which occasioned any discussion was that for two cloaks for the sergeants, which Mr. Towle and others contended were unnecessary.

Mr. Towle gave notice that when he should be called on to serve the office of Mayor he would not go to church with cloaks and cocked hats, but would walk to church like a sober man. (Laughter.) He hoped that in future the parade of cocked hats and cloaks would take place but once in seven years, or when April fools' day fell on Sunday,

In October 1849 the Weirs Paper Mill burnt down when a workman cutting rags by the light of a candle in the rag room went upstairs to get more supplies. The damage done to the stock and machinery was estimated at over £700, and the loss was not covered by the insurance. (Full details of the fire can be found in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 27 October 1849.)

At the time of the 1851 census Towle was home at Paisley House, but his wife was away, and his 28-year-old niece, Eliza Towle, was staying with him.

Towle was re-elected on to the council in 1851.

On 29 September 1852 John Towle and Thomas Barton announced that they had that day dissolved the co-partnership carried on by them at Hampton Gay Mills

In 1853 Towle was elected an Alderman: He and Isaac Grubb (also elected that year) were Oxford’s first nonconformist Aldermen.

In 1853 Towle elected an Alderman, and 1856 Mayor of Oxford (for 1856/7), but on taking up office in October 1856 he refused to go the the University Church to swear the traditional oath to the Vice-Chancellor to observe the rights of the University, and it appears that on St Scholastica’s Day (10 February 1857) he refused to perform the traditional humilating ceremony (which in any case came to an end under the next year's Mayor).

On 4 July 1857 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported on a picnic Towle gave for councillors and their families in the hayfield in front of his residence near Hinksey Mill.

At the time of the 1861 census, Towle was listed at Hinksey Paper Mill, South Hinksey with his wife, Mary, and they had one servant.

In 1868 his pamphlet Town drainage and the utilization of sewage matter was published by the Oxford Chronicle Company

His first wife Mary Ann Towle died at the age of 68 near the beginning of 1870.

In 1871 Towle was a widower of 75, still living at Paisley House, Coldharbour, South Hinksey and described as a magistrate, and a paper maker employing four men and five boys. His unmarried niece Miss Mary Watson (50), who was born in Nottinghamshire and was described as a farmer, was staying with him, and there was one servant.

In 1875, at the age of 79, he ceased to be an Alderman and a councillor; but in that year and again in 1877 he unsuccessfully contested the West Ward.

On 18 October 1879 at Habergham Eaves, near Burnley, Lancashire, the widower John Towle (85), married his second wife, the spinster Mary Watson (60), the daughter of the farmer John Watson. She was born in Scarrington, Nottinghamshire, eight miles away from his own birthplace, but was then residing in Habergham Eaves. (It seems likely that she was the “niece” (perhaps first cousin once removed) called Mary Watson who was staying with him in South Hinksey in 1871.

At the time of the 1881 census Towle (85) was living at his Abingdon Road home with his second wife Mary (63). He was described as a millboard maker employing six men, and they had one servant.

Towle was the oldest magistrate on the City Bench, but seldom took part in latter years. Shortly before his death he was still riding his white pony around the streets of Oxford. On 16 September 1882 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported how Towle attended a public meeting in Gloucester Green on the “State of the City”, and spoke on a variety of subjects while sitting on his pony:

He declared, amidst great laughter, that the ratepayers of Oxford were plundered more than any other people in the kingdom, and it was their duty to alter such a state of things. Speaking of the reservoir, erected by the Corporation on Headington Hill, he termed it a “fountain,” which had caused a large amount of money to no purpose, and said he would not sleep in St. Clement's for fear it should burst, for all that the property in this neighbourhood was worth. His audience at length got impatient, and Mr. Towle was asked to stand some beer, but continuing, he referred to the Salvation Army, and said by their work they had nearly closed the City Court. Naturally, Mr. Towle's scheme of drainage was not allowed to pass unnoticed, and then the present system of the election of Aldermen was condemned.—A man in the crowd called for three cheers for Mr. Towle, which were feebly given.—He assured those present that it was very gratifying to an old ma like himself to find how much he was respected, and then rode off.

John Towle Close

† John Towle died on 18 February 1885 at his home in Cold Harbour at the age of 89. He was buried at the Wesleyan Chapel in New Inn Hall Street in a brick vault by the side of the pathway where his first wife had been buried.

His second wife Mary Towle died at Paisley House, South Hinksey on 24 February 1889 and she was buried with her husband.


John Towle Close off Wytham Street in south Oxford is named after this Mayor and the road has a city council black plaque (right) instead of a street sign.

See also:

  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 21 February 1885, p. 5d (obituary)
  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 28 February 1885, p. 5e (funeral)
  • 1841 Census: Berkshire (South Hinksey), 20/01/3
  • 1851 Census: Berkshire (South Hinksey), 1688/382
  • 1861 Census: Berkshire (South Hinksey), 733/51
  • 1871 Census: Berkshire (South Hinksey), 1264/69
  • 1881 Census: Berkshire (South Hinksey), 1284/72
  • John Towle and his paper house (Local History in South Oxford)
  • Robert Sephton, “John Towle, maverick mayor of Oxford, 1796–1885”, in Oxfordshire Local History, vol. 5 no. 2, 1997/8

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 31 March, 2022

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