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 details below show more clearly the inscriptions, which were recut in 1842, 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, Walton, and Holywell, plus Port Meadow and the meadows west of Osney that were originally held by Headington Manor.

Nicholas Halse, whose name is on the back of the stone, was the outgoing Mayor of Oxford who “rode the franchise” (inspected the city boundary on foot and by boat) on 28 August 1786, and this stone was probably set up earlier that year. It must have replaced an earlier Free Water Stone at this point, 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.

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

Ceremonies at this Free Water Stone, including the “King of the Sclavonians”

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. Those who fished illegally were punished: for example two men fishing between the River Cherwell and the Free Water Stone who were apprehended by Bossom the water bailiff in 1835 were convicted in the city court on 31 August and fined £1 plus costs.

This meant that when the Mayor perambulated the city bounds, he had to make a detour to this stone, and 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. (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.)

Here are some of the ceremonies held at this stone during the perambulation. The detour to the stone and back was made by boat along the River Thames, accompanied by a band.

1831 (Thursday 28 July)

Perambulation of Thomas Wyatt. This report records obstructions to the Free Water, but does not mention the King of the Sclavonians: :

The fineness of the weather attracted an unusual attendance of spectators, amongst whom were large parties of ladies, in open and covered boats, to witness the procession, in house-boats, down to Free Water Stone. The scene was truly beautiful, and the animation was heightened by the skilful performances of an excellent band of music. In the course of the day several fishermen pointed out places where their use of the Free Water had been obstructed, and others drew his attention to water-courses which, from neglect, had grown up: to these representations the Mayor paid very particular attention, and specially claimed the disputed rights.

1840 (Tuesday 18 July)

Perambulation of Thomas Mallam. The King of the Sclavonians appears twice, first here at the Free Water Stone and then at the Hogacre Ditch. Jackson's Oxford Journal reported thus:

A house-boat, containing the Mayoress, her family, and a large party of ladies, headed the procession, and was followed by another, with the Mayor, Corporation, and friends. The band was stationed in a boat on one side, and played some lively airs up the river. On reaching the free water stone, the procession halted while the Mayor and his officers alighted and performed the usual ceremony of placing the mace upon it. At this point an old freeman, upon whom has been conferred the title of King of the Sclavonians, made his appearance, attired in a scarlet robe, and with a gilt crown on his head, and, according to ancient custom, greeted his Worship on his arrival The wine cup was handed round, and the band played the national anthem, on the conclusion of which three cheers were given for the Mayoress and Ladies. The procession returned in the same order to Grandpont, when the Mayor, Sheriff, and several others passed in punts through the arch under Grandpont House, and the Bell Founder’s Arch, which is a short distance beyond. The whole party having re-assembled, moved forwards along the Hincksey meadows, until they reached Hogacre Ditch, where the representative of his Majesty, the King of the Sclavonians, put in his claim for toll, previous to passing over. A silver coin was exacted from all who were competent to pay, and the amount, we understand, was for the benefit of old and decayed freemen.

1843 (Tuesday 25 July)

Perambulation of James Wyatt. Women were allowed to take part in the detour to the stone:

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.

1851 (Thursday 24 July)

Perambulation of George Henry Warburton. The laconic report included:

The procession first halted at the Free-Water Stone, where the usual ceremony was gone through, and the next halt took place at Ferry Hincksey.

1853 (Thursday 22 September)

Perambulation of John Crews Dudley. The King of the Sclavonians is named for the first time as Henry Bell:

[The group] proceeded to Magdalen Bridge, when they crossed the water, and proceeded in a house-boat to the Free Water-stone, where his Worship was received by the “King of the Sclavonians,” Mr. Henry Bell, who was attired in his scarlet robes, and wore his courtly crown. Sundry libations in honour of his Majesty and his Workshop having been made, the party proceeded on their route to Ferry Hincksey….

1860 (Monday 24 September)

Perambulation of Thomas Randall. Henry Bell once again took the role of the King of the Sclavonians:

About half-past ten the boats started, headed by the City Rifle Corps Band, which played all the way. On reaching the free-water stone, “the King of the Sclavonians,” Mr. H. Bell of Wolvercot, attired in scarlet robes trimmed with fur, and wearing an imperial crown, was found awaiting the arrival of the Mayor. His Worship, attended by the Town Clerk, Sheriff, and Mace-bearer, alighted from the boat, and after paying his respects to “his Majesty”, presented him with a bottle of brandy for his own special use. His Worship and “his Majesty” then took wine together, the Mace was placed on the free-water stone, and three cheers were given for “Prosperity to the City of Oxford”, and the ceremony was concluded.

1863 (Wednesday 12 September)

Perambulation of William Thompson. As in 1843, women were allowed to partake in this part of the perambulation, and Mr Bell of Wolvercote performed as King:

The party … coming back to the University barge, embarked in a barge for the Free Water Stone. A number of ladies availed themselves of the Mayor's invitation to witness this part of the proceedings, and during their progress down the river wine and cake were handed round, the City grace cups being filled with champagne. On reaching the stone, the “King of the Slavonians” — Mr. Bell, of Wolvercot — was in waiting, attired as usual in scarlet robes trimmed with white fur, and wearing an imperial crown, a score or two of his “subjects” surrounding him. The Mayor having alighted, paid his respects to “his Majesty,” whose hoary locks gave him a very venerable appearance, and the Serjeant-at-Mace, mounting the stone and begging for silence, gave “The Health of the Mayor, and prosperity to the City of Oxford,” which was drunk with great cordiality. The barge then returned up the river, when the ladies took their departure….

1871 (Monday 14 August)

Perambulation of Daniel Hanley This was the first perambulation since 1863. John Bossom now took the part of the King of the Sclavonians :

At this point the party were joined by the Mayoress and many other ladies, and all went on board a house boat, and proceeded down the river to the free-water stone, where the usual ceremony took place. John Bossom, a Freeman, sat in front of the stone, wearing a scarlet robe, with a crown upon his head, and was supposed to represent the King of the Sclavonians. The Mayor and many members of the Town Council alighted from the house-boat, and the Mace-bearer stood upon the stone and proposed “the health of the Mayor and Aldermen,” “Prosperity to the City of Oxford,” and “The Mayoress and the Ladies”.

In responding to “The Mayoress and the Ladies,” the Mayor said he was pleased to see them all present that day to do homage to their newly-made “King.”

1874 (Thursday 23 July)

Perambulation of John Galpin. The ceremony at the Free Water Stone followed much the same pattern on 23 July 1874, when was Mayor: They took the tour to the stone on the “Nelson” houseboat (with the Militia Band also on board):

The party having embarked, a pleasant trip was made to the Freewater Stone, where the quaint custom was observed of the Mace-bearer mounting the stone and making a speech, supported by the “King of the Sclavonians,” the gentleman who fulfilled that office on this occasion being Mr. John Cooper, who was attired in his crown and robes of office. Several rounds of cheers followed, the Mayor expressing the wish that the custom might be more frequently observed, and the boat then returned to Folly Bridge, the Mayor having provided a bountiful supply of “creature comforts” on board.

1886 (Thursday 26 August)

Perambulation of Robert Buckell. About 200 ladies were allowed to partake in this part of the ceremony. For the first time the name of the Mace-Bearer who had taken part in the ceremony for fifty years is given: he was William Hosier, the Macebearer and Mayor's Sergeant, who at the time of the 1881 census was aged 66 and living at 36 St Giles' Road with his wife and two of his grown-up children.

Meanwhile the houseboat Nelson, which had been moored near Folly Bridge, and on board of which were about a couple of hundred ladies who had been invited by the Mayor to journey as far as the Free Water Stone, was at hand, and by means of punts the party proceeded to board the houseboat. A contretemps almost happened here, as a punt in which were the Mayor, Mr. G. H. Morrell, the Sheriff, the mace-bearer, and one or two others, was within an ace of being swamped, indeed so near was it that there were several inches of water in the boat, and the swamping was only averted by the speedy exit of two or three of the occupants. However, all being safely on board the Nelson, the trip was resumed, the Corporation grace cups being handed round to the company filled with champagne and claret cup, supplied by Mr. C. Forrest of Turl-street. The boat was stopped at the Free Water Stone, and the ceremony of crowning the King of the Sclavonians, or Slovens, was performed, “his Majesty” being represented in Mr. John Cooper, a Freeman, who is in his 86th year, and who has filled the position on many occasions. The King was dressed in a robe and wore a crown, and the Mayor having landed, and Hosier having ascended to the top of the stone with the mace, his Worship tendered his Majesty a bottle of brandy, gin, and rum, and some thick cakes of gingerbread, as the hospitality of the City of Oxford to ancient custom and usage, and he wished “his Majesty” a longer life than he had at present enjoyed, and health and happiness to the last.

This speech was cheered loudly by the vast throng of persons who had congregated, and the bottles having been opened, the King drank “Success to the City of Oxford.”

Hosier having, amid great laughter, told the gentlemen “to fill their glasses,” then from his elevated position said it had fallen to his lot once more to stand on that stone and propose “The health of the Mayor and Corporation of the City of Oxford.” It was something like 30 years ago since he first stood on that stone, and having held office under the Corporation for 32 years they could understand what pleasure it was to him to mount that stone again, and propose to them the health of the Mayor, Sheriff, Aldermen, and Councillors of the City, and its prosperity.

This was followed by the City Band playing “Auld Lang Syne” and “God Save the Queen” from the houseboat, a short speech from the Mayor, and a toast. The customary donation of a guinea was then handed to the King of the Sclavonians.

1892 (Wednesday 17 August)

Perambulation of Frederick William Ansell. The boundary of Oxford it had been greatly extended in 1887, and the the detour to the Free Water Stone was omitted, so the King of the Sclavonians met them in Port Meadow, where the Mayor's party stopped for lunch at 2pm in a marquee near to the Trap Grounds and the railway. He entered the scene after the speeches and a performance by the Police Band of “For he's a jolly good fellow”:

At this point also Mr. John Bossom, sen., attired in the crown and robe usually worn on these occasions by an old Freeman of the City as representing the “King of the Sclavonians,” and who, prior to the extension of the boundary was usually “crowned” on the Free Water Stone, entered the tent, and advancing with becoming gravity and dignity, shook hands with the Mayor and Sheriff; one of the grace cups was handed to “His Majesty,” and he gave the toast of “Health and Prosperity to the Mayor and Corporation of Oxford,” which the company heartily drank; “Three cheers for the King of the Sclavonians” followed, and then a collecting box, bearing the inscription on a silver plate “Ancient Sclavonians of the City of Oxford, 1830” was handed round, the Mayor starting a subscription with a sovereign; what the object of the collection was for was not stated, but a goodly sum was given.

This studio portrait of John Bossom in the robes and crown of the King of the Sclavonians was taken in 1892.

2021 (Monday 4 October)

This partial perambulation by Lord Mayor Mark Lygo was the first since 1984. The photograph below shows the Queen of the Sclavonians (Councillor Susanna Pressel) being serenaded at the Free Water Stone by Caroline Butler of the Oxford Waits, who sang a song composed by Henry Taunt after he witnessed this ceremony in 1892. Mark Lygo and Edwin Pritchard and Tim Healey of the Oxford Waits look on:

2021 inspection

A second Oxford Freewater stone in Godstow Close

John Gilbert in 1886 described an Oxford Liberty stone near Godstow, dated three years later (1879):

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.

A third Oxford Freewater Stone at the top of the Seacourt Stream

JOJ 18 June 1842

This extract from Jackson's Oxford Journal of 18 June 1842 shows that a third Freewater stone was ordered to be put in place at the top of the Seacourt Stream

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

Back to list of Oxford boundary stones

Stephanie Jenkins