Early history of West Oxford Democrats Club

The first owner of Riverside

Charles James Harrison, who built the house which is now the West Oxford Democrats Club, was a hide merchant who owned a Jericho tallow factory.

The West Oxford Democrats building dominates the corner of East and North Streets. But why is it so disproportionately large compared to the other houses in Osney? While researching the history of Jericho I discovered that the proprietor of a notorious Jericho tallow factory was also the first resident of this building. He built it in 1881 and named it Riverside.

Charles James Harrison (1824–89) was born near Worcester in 1824. By 1861, following the death of his first wife, he had moved to Oxford. The census of that year shows him as resident at Park End Place, where he had established a hide and skin brokerage and auction house. In 1862 he married his second wife, Ellen Rebecca Lucas (c.1839–?), the daughter of John Lucas, a London innkeeper. An indication of the financial zeal which enabled Harrison to build Riverside is demonstrated in the extremes to which he went a few years later in order to recoup a debt.

A persistent man

In July 1868, two Brackley fellmongers and leather merchants, the brothers Robert and Thomas Wrighton, failed to pay back to Harrison the extraordinary sum of £1,700. He pursued them to Scarborough, accompanied by a police detective called Alfred Burrows and another man, Henry Hay. There they learned that the brothers had absconded to America. Too bad, most people would probably have thought in that era. But not Harrison, who, again with Hay and Burrows, set off in pursuit across the Atlantic in September. Acting on a tip-off (unwittingly supplied by the mother-in-law of one of the Wrightons) the trio tracked down the guilty men in Michigan, and effected an arrest. Harrison recovered £1,100 of his debt, but later discovered that legally he was allowed to keep only £400, this merely covering the expenses he had incurred in the whole escapade. The balance was required to offset against the much larger sum which was the Wrightons’ total debt to their creditors.

Around this time — the earliest known advertisement appeared in February 1869 —Harrison expanded what was clearly a successful main business as an auctioneer of hides and skin by opening his Jericho tallow factory. Here the animal fat that was a by-product of his main trade was converted into the raw material for the manufacture of candles and soap. It was located at Mount Place, next to the canal, at the northwestern corner of the suburb, with Henry Hay as its first manager.

Riverside

Riverside was built in 1881, following conveyance of the ‘land, hereditaments & premises’ by Mrs Mary Wearing on 25 January 1881. Harrison and his wife Ellen were still living in Wellington Square in April that year (when the census was taken) but presumably took up residence soon after. With them came Margaret E. King, a domestic servant who had worked for the Harrisons since at least 1871, and remained in Ellen’s employ until the 1890s.

Charles James Harrison had only a few years to enjoy his palatial new home. Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported his death at the house in the issue of 6 April 1889. The Park End Street auction firm became known as Harrison & Lucas. The Lucas in question was John Butler Lucas (1869–1914), presumably some relative of Harrison’s wife Ellen. (For more about the Lucas family, who lived in Sunnyside, at the corner of Binsey Lane and the Botley Road, see the entry for Albert James Lucas here.)

The Jericho tallow factory

Ellen appears to have continued to take a direct interest in the business, and specifically in the tallow factory. That enterprise survived an attempt by a large number of Jericho residents to have it closed in 1899 on account of the malodourous and polluting nature of boiling the putrid fat, and it continued to operate until just before the First World War. It remained a sore point, however, summarised in a 1950s collection of oral memories as: ‘What all these old people deprecate with one accord is a Tallow Factory which used to exist at the end of Canal Street and which all agree smelt to high heaven.’ (See my talk in the ‘My Jericho’ series about this ‘Jericho Scrapbook’.)

Ellen Harrison continued to associate with the tallow factory to the end. She had long since moved out of Riverside, having sold the house to Francis Shepherd in 1900 (and moved to Bath). G. Alan Shepherd’s memoir below continues the story.

Mark Davies

For more talks in the My Jericho series search for My Virtual Jericho on YouTube.

The Shepherd residence

An extract from the memoirs of G. Alan Shepherd, who lived on Osney Island at the start of the twentieth century in the house which is now West Oxford Democrats Club. The tailoring business described here is Shepherd and Woodward.

I was born in Oxford on 10 May 1911 and we lived in a big house called Riverside on Osney Island. The island was 400 yards round on the roadway and ours was one of two large houses — the rest were cottages. We overlooked the new cut of the river which flowed under the road bridge that led to the west. There was a road between us and the river. Opposite was a large tanker yard and the main road bridge looked down on us. Over the stream that swept round the island was a footbridge that came down on our corner. The road to the island came off the main road a couple of hundred yards down.

The house

Our house was tall and the basement stood at ground level. Here were five large rooms and a loo with a passage leading out into the back yard and a stair case leading up to the ground floor, which was in fact the first floor. At the end of the passage was a small laboratory set up by my younger half-brother Bertram. Two of the rooms were stacked with coal and logs of wood and the largest had a cold slab for keeping food and barrels for the wine which we made from the grapes in the greenhouse. Another room had a ping pong table, rarely used, and the fifth had the stove for the greenhouse, with a large pile of slack to stoke the boiler. In the winter my father returning from work would go straight down to this room to stoke up the boiler for the night before he sat down to tea.

The first floor was up two flights of outside stairs to the front door — a largish terrace was halfway — and the front door was most impressive. It led into a large porch and then into the hall, left was the drawing room, with the dining room and stairs on the right, opposite was the kitchen and the scullery with a covered way down to the back door opening onto the road. Straight on was the breakfast room and a lavatory with a door and steps down to the garden. A large conservatory built onto the end of the house came alongside these steps . Below was a backyard which butted on to the row of cottages which stretched down the road some hundred yards to Osney Weir, at the end of the island.

Up the stairs was first a lavatory and the bathroom, with four bedrooms and a dressing room at the top. Mine was on the left, next going clockwise was a huge cupboard which contained my mother’s jams and bottlings, then my younger brother’s room, followed by the dressing room and my parents’ bedroom and finally on the right of the stairs a room for the living-in maid. Above was access to the roof.

The garden

The garden was a couple of acres with a lawn and kitchen garden. My father’s hobby was gardening, and it was well run and had several unusual features, or so I considered as a small boy. First was the tank with a pump for water and this always had minnows and other small fish in it. Then there was the big greenhouse where I was not always welcome. This had the vine which went to making wine and abutted the back of the house. The small greenhouse was used for starting off plants. It had to be opened and shut and I don’t think it was heated. Then there were the cold frames for the chrysanthemums and bedding plants which I dared not touch at all.

Opposite the door of the greenhouse I had a slip of land, almost the size of a large dining table, which was my own garden, and this was never really full. There were two large trees — a pear and a Blenheim apple — both of which produced huge quantities of fruit, much more than we needed. A unique feature was the door into the garden which was connected by a rope passing up through the basement to the kitchen. The kitchen window stood out and overlooked the road which made it easy to see who was ringing the bell. The back door was usually unlocked except at night and led into the yard where a steep flight of steps led up to the scullery.

My first memory of Riverside was in 1914 when I was sitting on a toy horse on the terrace overlooking the main road. A constant stream of mounted soldiers followed by marching men poured across the bridge into the city. They were presumably returning from manoeuvres.

My father

My father, whose name was Frank Shepherd, to me always seemed very old. He was in fact older than my mother. When his first wife died he was left with three sons — Harold, Leeson and the youngest, Bertram, who was about 12 years older than myself. Harold ran a chicken farm, Leeson went to New Zealand and worked on a ranch, while Bertram was still at school before going up to The Queen’s College in Oxford.

My father ran a tailoring business in Oxford. The premises were in the centre of the High Street and the war years were tough years. My father owned the business, having bought out his brother Charles who lived in north Oxford. Frank had worked his way up, starting on the bench, and had worked in London and Edinburgh before moving to Oxford. The family was of lowland Scottish lineage but his parents had moved to Daventry where my grandfather looked after a section of the Grand National Canal at Braunston.

It was here that my father’s love of fishing was born. He was also a middle-distance runner. In his youth he would tour the countryside on his bicycle to enter the local race meetings and his success is shown by the trophies in the house. In latter years gardening took over. He always went on fishing holidays.

Thanks to Chris Willis for the information