Oxford boundary markers: The Free Water Stone (1786)

Boundary stone on towpath

Here / Ende the /
Liberties of /
the City / of / Oxford

Back of Freewater stone

1786 / N. Halse / Mayor
[plus Ordnance Survey benchmark at the base, probably
added in c.1870 when first proper survey was taken]

This stone, known as the Free Water Stone, stands beside the Thames towpath at Long Bridges (Kennington backwater). It marks what was the southernmost point of the city boundary from 1786 to 1881, and is inscribed on both the front and the back. It is Grade II listed: List Entry No 1299959.

The black-and-white enhanced details below show more clearly what remains of the inscriptions on each side of the stone.

Detail from front of stone

Above: The inscription on the back of the stone:
“1786 / N. Halse / Mayor”


Left: The inscription on the front of the stone:
“Here / Ende the Liberties of / the City / of / Oxford

A liberty in this context means “the district outside a city over which its jurisdiction extends”, and the word is also used in the plural in the same sense. Included within the liberty or suburbs of Oxford were the following Manors: Binsey, Medley, North and South Osney (all of which are west of the River Thames and were originally in Berkshire), and Walton and Holywell, plus Port Meadow, and the meadows west of Osney that were originally held by Headington Manor.

Nicholas Halse was the outgoing mayor who “rode the franchise” (inspected the city boundary on foot and by boat) on 28 August 1786.

This stone of 1786 must have replaced an earlier Free Water Stone, which is mentioned by Peshall in 1773 in this description of the Mayor's perambulation. The accompanying map shows that the Mayor had to take a detour in order to make a special visit to this Free Water Stone, as it was then outside the city boundary.

The “King of the Sclavonians” and this Free Water Stone

All the other boundary stones on the Mayor's route marked the edge of the city's land, emphasizing the area within which only Freemen could trade. This stone, however, related to Freemen's rights on the river, and the free waters to the north of this stone were inside the city and could only be fished by Freemen.

Not only did this mean a detour to the Free Water Stone, but also a special ceremony took place here. An elderly Freeman of the city, dressed as the King of the Sclavonians (or Slavonians), would meet the Mayor's party at this stone, whereupon the Mayor would crown him, and the party would drink a toast to him. The Victoria County History of Oxfordshire explains that there was a ritual challenge to authority in the form of a lord of misrule or mock mayor, known originally as the King or Judge of Slovens Hall and later as the King of Slavonia or of the Slavonians, and that he was usually a waterman (as was the case with John Bossom in 1892, pictured here in his robes and crown). (In 1651 the “irregular and profane practices of the lower court, commonly called Slovens Hall” had been prohibited as “dishonourable to so eminent a city”, but were resumed after the Restoration.)

When James Wyatt performed his mayoral perambulation on Tuesday 25 July 1843, Jackson's Oxford Journal reported:

The procession then crossed the Rose Hill road, passed over Aston Eyet [= Aston's Eyot], at the extremity of which King’s large house-boat, “The Nelson,” was waiting to convey the party to the free water stone. A second large house-boat, belonging to Hall, and called “The British Queen,” was on its way to the same spot, and was devoted expressly to the ladies, who were on the deck lending their magic influence towards the brilliancy of the scene, and testifying their respect to the worthy Chief Magistrate, who very kindly and gallantly conceived that they were entitled to some share of the day’s enjoyment. The band stationed on the Mayor’s boat played some lively airs, and the banks of the river were thronged with persons interested in the scene, who had resolved to encounter perils by land and water to see all that is usual and observable on such occasions. On reaching the Free Water Stone the two large boats became stationary, while the customary formalities were duly attended to; for behind the stone was arrayed in his scarlet robes and crown the venerable King of the Sclavonians, who on this day holds his Court at this spot, and claims the right of pledging in a bumper of wine to “The Mayor and Prosperity to the City.” The band then played the National Anthem, and the populace raised three hearty cheers out of respect to the Mayor, after which the party returned in their boats.

Freewater stone in contextThe Freewater Stone in context, looking south with Donnington bridge in the distance

On 4 October 2021 Oxford Lord Mayor Mark Lygo undertook a partial perambulation of the city boundaries for the first time since 1984. Here the Queen of the Sclavonians (Councillor Susanna Pressel) is serenaded at the Free Water Stone by Caroline Butler of the Oxford Waits, who sang a song that was composed by Henry Taunt after he witnessed this ceremony in 1892. The Lord Mayor Mark Lygo and Edwin Pritchard and Tim Healey of the Oxford Waits look on:

2021 inspection

A second Oxford Liberty stone, now missing

John Gilbert in 1886 described an Oxford Liberty stone near Godstow, dated three years later, which appears to be missing today:

In its course this ditch passes through a stone arch under the Godstow and Wytham road, at the west side of a small close known (since the Civil War) as the Sentry Field; at the north end of this close the stream turns eastward, and joins with a ditch flowing round the ruins of Godstow Convent, and at this junction, on the Godstow side, will be found boundary stone No. 12, bearing this inscription— Here Ends the Liberties of the City of Oxford 1789”. From this stone the boundary ditch proceeds round a copse to the point where it flows out of the river under the wooden foot bridge above referred to.

Two other (non-boundary) stones on the Thames towpath in Oxford

Back to list of Oxford boundary stones

Stephanie Jenkins