Article MT059

"A Very Celebrated Banbury Character"

Reconstructing Working Class Biography:
the case of William 'Old Mettle' Castle


One truism of research is that individual members of the working class rarely leave much of a mark on the pages of history; and the farther back in time, the less possible it becomes to flesh out such lives.  A small number left behind diaries or, more rarely, autobiographies, some of which have survived into the modern era.  For the past four hundred years most, though by no means all, were registered at the date of baptism, marriage, baptisms of children, and burial.  And, since 1841, the vast majority have been chronicled in the decadal censuses.  Such entries in civil and ecclesiastical records freeze a few moments in time and space for posterity, but the minutiae of day-to-day existence remain largely undocumented.

Once in a while, however, a working man leads such an unusual and colourful life that he features in a great number of contemporary and posthumous sources.  One such life - that of William 'Old Mettle' Castle - is placed under scrutiny in this piece.  The situation offers a rare opportunity for the historian to allow the primary sources (given here verbatim, retaining original spelling, indention, punctuation, etc) to convey their own story in a reasonably coherent manner, with merely a minimum degree of commentary and interpretation.

As it happens, our subject leaves fewer impressions than most in those official sources which are the lifeblood of the historian.  He died mere days before the taking of the first detailed nationwide census; leaves no trace of personal schooling or religious conviction (if such existed); apparently never married or produced children; as a non-householder had no right to vote, even after electoral reform; nor left a will.  Yet from the less conventional (and more vibrant) evidence which survives, many revealing insights into the social, criminal, political and cultural life of a north Oxfordshire market town during the first half of the nineteenth century, as reflected in the experiences of one inhabitant, are laid bare.

There is certainly a suggestion that he may have worked the canal barges before the accident which crippled him (source 13); although elsewhere the accident is said to have occurred in 'early childhood' (source 6), which would make such employment unlikely, or at the very least limited.  And one source speaks of him being at 'a considerable distance' from Banbury (source 4), and another, ambiguously, in a 'distant part of the county on a boating expedition or something of the kind' (source 6), both referring to the year 1818 or later.  But, while allowing for the obvious paucity and bias of sources, from the locations named we may observe that Castle's life was played out almost entirely within a few miles of Banbury itself.

He resided variously in the village of his birth, Adderbury (three miles to the south), from 1793 to probably 1799 and beyond, presumably in a cottage; on an 'old boat' moored at Neithrop (half a mile west of the town centre), around 1830, and Grimsbury (a mile just east of north), in 1841.  He was also said to have slept at times in lodging houses, barns and 'hovels' (source 14).  He was active in the role of fool to morris dance sets based at Adderbury, Bloxham (also three miles to the south) and Kings Sutton (four miles south-east).  In that capacity he would have travelled with the dancers to various villages - almost certainly including Souldern (seven miles south-east) - for the club feasts and other festivities, but all this would have occurred probably within, say, ten miles of Banbury.  Castle's known criminal activities extended as far as Shutford (four miles west), and as a result he made his longest recorded journeys, on two occasions (in 1830 and 1831), to Oxford gaol and assizes, a distance of some twenty-three or four miles.  Other than Grimsbury and Shutford (this latter on the same parallel), all of these locations lie to the south of Banbury, and no firm evidence survives to indicate that Castle ever travelled further northwards.

At this remove it is almost impossible to imagine the physical context of existence prior to 1841, especially in what was essentially an insular and parochial community, albeit one on the threshold of drastic social transition.  C R Cheney, in the Introduction to Shoemaker's Window (pages xi-xii, source 15), written in 1948, gives some flavour of the period:

Herbert shows us Banbury before the Reform Bill, Banbury before the railway came to it, Banbury unpaved and unlighted, its streets encumbered with piles of timber and other odorous obstacles and bisected in some places by channels of filthy water across which foot-passengers made their way on stepping-stones.  But because of these features we must not suppose that life was stagnant in the little town.  The borough with its adjacent hamlets contained between five and six thousand inhabitants when George Herbert was born [1814], and the population was steadily growing.  Even if the North family interest usually determined the votes of the eighteen or so electors to Banbury's parliamentary seat, elections were occasionally contested and excited popular interest, even disorder.  Although no railway touched Banbury until 1850, there was an impressive time-table of regular coaches and wagons which maintained contact with the larger towns of the West Midlands and with London.  Already in 1825 a scheme was set on foot for paving and lighting the streets and Herbert has a good deal to tell of the execution of this work.
Although the following primary sources contain a degree of repetition, each represents the state of knowledge of that particular author: some from personal observation, even first-hand interaction with Castle himself, and some from the oral tradition.  By conflating multiple accounts it is often possible to arrive at an apparently more accurate historical reality.  Each piece additionally reflects the prejudices and perceptions of the commentator.  Some are sympathetic towards Castle's unconventional lifestyle, others are condemnatory.  A very few, including George Herbert, saw through the lunatic image Castle fostered around himself, to the native intelligence and guile beneath.

In the following biography, those clarifying and contextualising primary sources which do not mention Castle by name (excepting those which unambiguously refer to him anyway) are italicised; with further commentary by the present author additionally in square brackets.  Bibliographic details of the most important primary sources are listed at the end of the piece, where each is ascribed a number which corresponds to those given in square brackets after each quote.

A Life:

Wednesday, 30 January 1793

The real name of this eccentric person was William Castle: he was of an Adderbury family, and born about the year 1789. [6]

[William Castle was baptised at Adderbury on Wednesday, 30 January 1793, the son of John and Ann Castle.  It was frequently the case that baptism occurred two or three weeks after birth, although longer and shorter periods are recorded.  William Castle was therefore probably born in early January.  At the date of their marriage on Saturday, 3 November 1792 John was aged 22, a weaver living in Adderbury West, and Ann (née Gunn), aged 29 and living in Adderbury East (the village straddles the main Oxford Road).  It is a well documented fact that, during this period, individuals often did not know their exact age and date of birth; and also that the older one gets the greater the likelihood of mentally adding extra years.  The disparity of the year of birth given in the 1841 source quoted above - 1789 - and the more likely 1793, clearly stems from the general belief that Castle was '52 or 53' at the time of death (source 7).] [Adderbury parish registers]

Tuesday, 10 September 1799

[The burial of John Castle, presumably William's father (although generally before 1813 ages at the time of death were seldom entered in burial registers, so identification cannot be confirmed beyond any doubt) is recorded at Adderbury on Tuesday, 10 September 1799.  Although he later occasionally mentioned a brother in response to questions about why he acted the fool, there is no evidence for any siblings in the official sources.  If, as seems likely, the widow and child were left alone and unprovided for, this goes some way towards explaining Castle's subsequent rambling and independent existence.  Both parents would, however, have possessed an extended local family network, and it was usually the case that relatives would take in those who found themselves in such hardship.] [Adderbury parish registers]

probably 1800 - 1820

In his early childhood he experienced an accident which occasioned such deformity of his legs as to render him incapable of hard and steady labour. [6]

An accident, which happened to him in early life, had injured his legs so much as to render him incapable of hard labour - to which he never professed any very strong attachment. [4]

Another source says that Old Mettle was a canal boatman and that he became lame because his leg was caught between two barges. He then earned a living by selling sulphur matches. [13]


Mettle's chief fame arose, however from his being put forward, by the people of Banbury, as the candidate in opposition to the Guildford interest, at all the elections which occurred between 1818 and 1831; but, in the latter year, Mr. Easthope, and, subsequently, Mr. Tancred, were set up in Mettle's place...In 1818, Mettle was the opponent of the late lamented and beloved Hon. Frederick Sylvester North Douglas. [6]

BANBURY. THE BOROUGH. - There lives a person who, many years ago, was a frequent mock-candidate for the honour of representing Banbury in Parliament. This person is Mr. Mettle. We well remember the time when poor Mettle used to climb upon the Town Hall steps, and harangue the gaping multitude after this fashion: - "Gentlemen, you shall none of you do no work when I go to Parliament, and you shall all have a half-peck loaf for fourpence." The eloquence of Mettle was usually received with unbounded applause; but unfortunately his benevolent views lacked discernment in one particular - for Mettle could never point out the way in which those persons who were to do no work could come by the fourpences to buy their loaves with. Just such a scheme is that of the Whigs and Mr. Tancred, for ruining the town and trade of Banbury, and then mocking the people with the offer of cheap bad bread, which they could find no fourpences to pay for! As the scheme of Mettle, and that of the Whigs and Mr. Tancred, are thus identical, we submit to the public that, in common justice, Mettle, as being the original inventor, ought to have the credit of it: and though he was formerly but a mock-candidate, his prior claims being considered, we think he ought now be brought forward as a real candidate for Banbury. The fictitious estate in Yatesbury might surely do for Mettle as well as it has done for Mr. Tancred. Besides, there is something in Dean Swift's witty advice concerning his countrymen. "If," he says, "we are to have blockheads, at least give us leave to have our own blockheads." A blockhead, Mettle may be, and very likely is; but, upon the witty Dean's own shewing, if Mettle were to contend with Tancred, he oufiht [sic - ought] to win in a canter. [3]

[This is a typical piece of contemporary political satire.  There would certainly never have been any serious intention of putting Castle up as a candidate for Parliament.  For a similarly pitched response see the entry for May 1841, below.  Castle's candidacy between 1818 and 1830 would have had many psychological and social aspects.  Among the former was legitimate political expression by the disenfranchised which was sanctioned, even encouraged (see quote immediately following), by the establishment.  And among the latter was cultural diversion - or having a damned good time - consisting of parades, dressing up - even if simply wearing favours of ribbons or 'deal shavings' - and plenty of free beer.  Although none is mentioned in any of the primary sources for Banbury, political rallies and elections often during this period featured one or more bands of music playing through the streets.]

At a former period he was a remarkably popular person at the Borough Elections; and he has sometimes been sent for from a considerable distance on these occasions. No candidate was, at these times, suffered to be chaired, except in company with Mr. Mettle, with which honour the said candidates, of course, expressed themselves to be most exceedingly delighted and gratified! [4]

November 1819

On the death of that gentleman [Frederick Sylvester North Douglas] in 1819, Mettle was a second time a candidate for Banbury, in opposition to the Hon. Heneage Legge. Mettle's colours were deal shavings, which the ladies of the Banbury Rads most industriously made up into favours. [6]

In November, 1819 the Hon. Heneage Legge was elected in the Tory interest and was chaired through the streets with the usual distribution of favours and beer. [18]

Friday, 10 March 1820

The death of George the Third caused another election within two or three months; on which occasion Mettle's supporters had increased so vastly in numbers and violence, that a riot ensued...On this or an after occasion, Mettle, who was in a distant part of the county on a boating expedition or something of the kind, was considered to be out of all possible reach of getting to the hustings on time; but he was sent for express, brought by coach more than a hundred miles, and, just before the poll, was borne into the town in triumph on the shoulders of his friends. [6]

On Friday the 10th inst. being the day appointed for the election of a Member of Parliament for this borough, a large concourse of people assembled, and it being generally understood that the usual practice of distributing beer and ribbons to the populace was to be discontinued, the persons assembled soon began to shew strong symptoms of disapprobation, by hissing, groaning, &c. and many of them paraded the streets with favours, made of deal shavings, in their hats. Whilst this was going on, a party proceeded to the White Lion Inn, and took possession of an old chaise, in which they placed a poor half-witted fellow, nick-named Mettel, and drew him to the Mayor's house, crying "Mettle for ever!" - "No Legge!" A few stones were thrown through the Mayor's windows. The chaise was then placed in front of the Town Hall. [1]

The Hon. Heneage Legge was elected Member of Parliament in this year. There was a great row at the election. When the Corporation went into the Town Hall to complete the election the crowd collected round the building and became exceedingly riotous, sending a shower of stones at the Town Hall windows. It had been intimated that there would not be so much beer given away as formerly, which enraged the mob. The Corporation tried to mend matters by offering beer, but this peace offering they then refused to accept. Bloxham, the sheriff's officer, put his head out of window holding a jug in his hand, and called out "Plenty of beer! plenty of beer!" but a shower of stones made him speedily withdraw. Two men then appeared carrying a large tub of beer slung on a pole; this the mob poured down a drain in the Market Place. The pebbles with which the Market Place was paved were turned up and used as missiles, the windows of the Town Hall being completely smashed. The mob threatened to pull the Town Hall down, with the Corporation inside it, and began picking at the pillars which supported it. The Rev. T.W. Lancaster, the Vicar of Banbury, who was a member of the corporate body, climbed into a sort of cock-loft under the clock, this did not bear his weight, and he went through, but happening to bestride a joist, he sat there with his legs dangling through the ceiling. One by one the members managed to steal away. Mr. William Walford got out and was walking across Corn Hill when half a brick, part of the Town Hall, hit him in the back, and he managed to get into the Plough Inn. Many others were hurt, and much rioting continued all day and night. [9 /pages 18-19]

In March following Parliament was dissolved and Mr. Legge had to seek re-election. He announced on this occasion he could not afford the expenses attached to the usual demonstrations and the election must proceed without them.
        This Disappointed and angered the populace and they proceeded to demonstrate accordingly.
        They obtained a post chaise and put old Mettle in it. This was a well-known character, who sold home-made matches in the town, clad in a collegian's cap and gown. They paraded him as their elected member, stopping at the Town Hall in the Market Place where the Council was proceeding with the election of Legge.
        They surrounded the Town Hall and became exceedingly riotous. The Council tried to mend matters by offering them beer and two men appeared carrying a large tub full of it which the mob poured down a drain. The pebbles with which the Market Place was paved were torn up and every window of the Hall was broken. They began to pick at the pillars supporting the Hall in execution of their threat to destroy it.
        The Councillors were in a great state of alarm and tried to escape. The Rev. T.W. Lancaster, the Vicar of Banbury, climbed into a little chamber beneath the clock, but the lath and plaster would not bear his weight and he fell through and would have crashed into the hall but he happened to bestride a beam with his legs dangling through the ceiling. Mr. W. Walford, the Town Clerk, was struck by a brick in the Cornhill and just managed to reach the Plough Inn.
        Meanwhile the crowd had been drawn off by their mistaking Mr. Timothy Cobb, the banker, for the member, to whom he bore some resemblance. They chased him up Butcher's Row to the bank in High Street which he managed to reach, while Mr. Legge got to the Red Lion and escaped in a chaise... [18]

circa 1823 or 1824 we lived in the London Yard and our house at the back was in the churchyard, I was a great deal with Briner and old Mettle. When Briner got old he employed old Mettle to dig the graves, so you will see now how it was that I knew so much of these two curious characters. [15 /page 8]

[George Herbert was born in 1814, and aged 9½ when living in London Yard].

I come now in order of the church officials to the Dog-whipper whose name was Briner. ["An official formerly employed to whip dogs out of a church or chapel. Locally retained, as an appellation of a sexton or beadle." O.E.D.] His office was to attend in front of the church to see to the chiming of the bells for church and the winding up of the clock and chimes and the digging of the graves, attending to the churchyard, lighting the fires under the church for heating purposes, etc. [15/page 41 & footnote 1]

Saturday, 10 June 1826

In 1826, on two different occasions, Mettle was the opponent of the Hon. A.C. Legge. [6]

GENERAL ELECTION - On Saturday last the Hon. Arthur C. Legge was unanimously re-elected for the borough of Banbury. The Hon. Member was chaired amidst the acclamations of the surrounding multitude, and the day passed off with the greatest good humour and hilarity. [Jackson's Oxford Journal, 17 June 1826, 4]

June - September 1827

When the small pox raged at Banbury in 1827, Mettle was the constant and fearless nightly burier of the dead. [6]

I will endeavour to describe the fair which took place when that dreadful calamity fell upon the town, and the small-pox came upon us. It was at a Twelfth Fair. This was as large a fair at this time as was the Michaelmas Fair, but was a pleasure fair entirely, and there were a lot of shows and other amusements. In one of these shows was a camera obscura: this was quite a new sight at fairs and obtained a large amount of patronage, but in another part of this same show was a man dead with the small-pox, unknown to the people who visited it, and this was how so many caught the disease, not only in the town but in the neighbourhood. [15 /pages 113-114]

According to the Parish Register of 1827, 73 persons died of the small-pox in that year.  The infection was brought into the town at the Holy Thursday Fair-not Twelfth Fair which was, and still is, a horse fair.  Michaelmas Fair was a hiring fair, or "mop", and has been also a great pleasure fair up the present day. [15/page 114, footnote by the editor, written 1948]

[The epidemic raged through the town between June and September.]

probably 1820s or 1830s

One of the most remarkable characters living in Banbury sixty years ago was a man named William Castle, who always went by the name of "Old Metal." He was a born comedian, full of oddities of speech and drollery. His name was a terror to children to whom he was known as "the Bogieman." [12]

"Old Mettle" was a well-known character. He lived in a lodging house and frequently wore a college cap and gown. He was a very odd-looking man, with his mouth always half open, and one of his legs very much bent; and made his living by splitting wood into matches and dipping the ends in brimstone. These he hawked about the street, carrying a bundle of them on the end of a stick over his shoulder, and sold a penny worth or halfpenny worth to his customers. He frequently rested himself upon people's door-steps. One day when on ours, with his matches by him, I recollect my father asking him why he made such a fool of himself, when he looked up at my father with his usual vacant smile, and said,-"Why, sir; I beant sich a fool as I looks. I've got a brother as works 'ard for his livin', and nobody never gies him half a pint, but they gie me lots every day. [9 /pages 14-15]

Mettle had a way of living by his wits, and, so that his crooked stumps would but carry him from village-wake to village-wake, where he might amuse the gaping crowds around him by playing the fool, nobody was so happy, nor anybody so independent, as he! So long and so well did Mettle ape the fool, that most persons considered him for years as really being a fool. His ostensible trade, when not engaged at merry-makings, was that which Mettle himself would dignify by the appellation of "carver and gilder," although many persons would confer upon it an humbler name. When he was believed to be a fool, it was a very common thing for persons to try to play tricks upon him...Another person one day told Mettle that he was a fool. Mettle replied, there was always one fool in every family, but it was his brother, and not he, that was the fool of his family, for his brother went to work! [6]

"Old Metal" again was another celebrity. You speak of him as a "born comedian". The late Mr Cadbury [James Cadbury, a member of Banbury Corporation], I have been told, once said to him "Friend, though art a greater k than f". Most folks would agree with that. The man was originally a canal boatman; his leg was once caught between the tow-rope of two passing barges, and so severely lacerated that he was lamed for life. He then started as a brimstone match vender, a collector of trifles of "old metal", and a buffoon generally. Mrs John Cheney Sr. has an excellent portrait of him painted by our much-esteemed old friend, her late husband. [13]

[The final sentence here refers to a painting by John Cheney in 1840 - oil on canvas, approximately 7 x 11 inches - which now hangs in Banbury Museum.  A handwritten sheet of paper slipped into the frame alcove at the rear of the canvas - the text of which immediately follows this note - states, however, that the artist was Joseph Scarcebrook.  Prior to Castle's death, Cheney - a local printer - had an engraving made of the painted image, and printed copies for sale, and perhaps the engraving was the work of Scarcebrook.  Another source - see below - ascribes the painting to one Mr.  Levy.  Janet Blunt of Adderbury possessed a copy of the lithograph, which she sent to Cecil Sharp (source 14).  It is reproduced here.  On Monday, 28 April 1986 I interviewed Frederick and Winifred G. Wyatt in their home at Adderbury.  She had been maid to Janet Blunt, and after her death had rescued the manuscripts relating to dance and song collected by Blunt during the first quarter of the twentieth century - before relatives burned everything they considered worthless - and posted them directly to the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London.  She showed me an original painting - on wood, about 9 x 12 inches, lacquered and fading with age into an overall brown, and very similar to the copy in Banbury Museum - on which the lithograph Blunt sent to Sharp was based.  On the rear of the painting, in Blunt's handwriting, was the legend: 'This picture was given to Miss Janet H Blunt of Adderbury Manor.  Oxon by Mrs Joseph Welch senior of West Adderbury...Old Metal was the fool of the Morris [illegible word] side in which William Walton.  His [illegible word] was George Castle.']

This Sketch by Joseph Scarcebrook is a fair likeness of William Castle an eccentric man who lived for many years in Banbury and was well known to the writer and to most of the Inhabitants of the Town both old and young as "Old Metal." this was at the time when the Tinder-box, Flint & Steel were in use for striking a light, and this man got his living by making the kind of matches then used, and hawking them round the Town dressed in the garb as represented, but he did not knock at the doors as most other sellers of matches did, but tied a few on the end of a stick and held them up to the windows & made a funny noise as he went past, the people then either sent or went out to buy the matches they required. [8]

I will now tell you something about old Mettle. He was always supposed to be what the Scotch call "daft," that is, I suppose, what we call "silly," but I know better than that. He was no more daft than I am, but he knew how to make himself appear so. When you knew him well, he could converse with you as well as any one, but old Mettle knew how his bread was buttered and he would make himself appear as big a fool as he pleased. [15 /page 9]

He was fond of obtaining any grotesque piece of apparel - sometimes a cocked hat; sometimes a trencher cap and college gown...and sometimes a lady's curls, surmounted by a straw bonnet and flowers, adorned his face. [4]

Mettle's favourite dress was of the oddest patchwork sort that he could put together. Sometimes he wore a huge cocked hat like a beadle. On another occasion, a straw hat or bonnet of enormous dimensions, which some un-English lady had brought from Paris. On two occasions, and two only, he assumed a graver garb. In one instance, some wag of the University of Oxford gave him a cap and gown, in which Mettle did not fail to go about, and in which he stood for his portrait to Mr. Levy, which was lithographed, and it is now a rare and precious gem in the collections of the curious. [6]

One of Mettle's occasional avocations, at fairs and such like times, was to receive from the beggars and other meagre itinerants such of their children as they could not lug about in the crowd: these he took great care of, laid the quiet ones down on the floor, and took up each squalling one in turn and handled it like a parent. - sympathy with his own class was also deeply shewn by many a halfpenny of Mettle's (too often the last he possessed) being bestowed upon some wretched wayfarer...Yet, possessing these kind qualities, Mettle was, from his singular appearance and habits, made the bugbear of the town and neighbourhood, and every young person of this vicinity, whose age does not exceed twenty-five years, must remember being tortured and ruled in infancy by the parental threat - "Mettle shall have you!" [6]

He was also an enormous chewer of tobacco. This he also used to beg. I once saw him coming up Parson's Street, and he met at the corner of Church Lane Mr. Mallam, and Mr. C. Page used at that time to keep a grocer's and seedsman's shop. Old Mettle met them gossiping at the shop-door, and Mettle says to Mr. Page "Give us a bit of baccie, Master." Mr. Page walked into his shop and took down his tobacco-jar and says, "Open your mouth, old fellow," and he put into his mouth as much as ever he could get in, and Mallam then up with his stick and crammed it in tighter. Such were the jokes that Mettle liked to have played upon him. [15 /page 9]

You know how he used to dress in an old collegian's gown and trencher-cap and go about the streets with a bunch of matches stuck upon the end of his stick, and carry this across his shoulder. These matches he used to make himself. He would beg his wood at any carpenter's shop, and his brimstone for dipping the matches he could always beg of one of the ironmongers, so you see his was all profit. [15 /page 9]

His ostensible mode of gaining a livelihood was by selling matches, but we believe he relied more upon the clearings of pantries of those who were inclined to befriend him, than upon his own exertions. [4]

Ought not to forget Old Mettle who used to be up in the Morn to go his rounds into peoples front gardens in search of his ?daintes [sic - ?dainty] Snails when the boys teased him he would swing round his rod with its line and tail at the end like a Corn Therhers [sic - Thresher's] Flail with such a Whack unto their backs make them squeal Oh Mettle have you been stung by a Nettle or has a Bee settled on your Knee. [17]

"Old Mettle" made + sold, - rush-lights, for his living - he "peddled" all about the district, and lived rather anyhow, in barns + hovels; + at last was found dead on the road to Banbury from here [Adderbury]. This is a bundle of rush-lights he is carrying on his stick - just as he did in his wanderings; but I gathered from old W. Walton that he used to flick the onlookers with a bladder on a cow-tail when he went with the Morris Men as the Fool; but wore this queer dress then...Taplin, of the Dealer's Shop where I got it, said, "He O.M. was a very Celebrated Banbury character in old days-" [14]

[William Walton (1837-1919) was the last leader of the Adderbury Morris Dancers.  His father - also William Walton (1806-1848) - had been leader before him, and it must be this earlier period to which the younger Walton's anecdotes relate, as he himself would have been aged merely four years old when Castle died.]

circa 1830s

Besides this he was foremost at all the merry-makings and would be seen in all kinds of odd coloured garments, which some of the people would be sure to give him at such times, one side of his face would be shaved and the other not, or disfigured in some way with paint &c. He was a very remarkable man & much more might be written of his merry odd ways and drole tricks. he was the laughing stock of all who saw him. [8]

He is best remembered as the fool of the King Sutton Morrice Dancers. This troupe always came to Banbury for a few days at Whitsuntide, when Old Metal, in a queer, fanciful dress, with his staff, bladder and calf's tail, would keep the crowd at a distance, whilst his ready wit, grimaces, and marvellous powers of contortion kept crowds of grown-up people in roars of laughter. He was fond of appearing in different characters. [12]

"Old Mettle" also used to go with the morris dancers to the clubs, etc. I have seen him with the eight morris dancers in Banbury, all of them in their shirt sleeves, with bells tied by ribbons of all colours on their arms and legs, and wearing white trousers, "Mettle" acting as merryman to the lot, dressed in similar style, and with his face painted. They all danced and each had two white pocket handkerchiefs to whirl about in time with the music. [9 /page 15]

The wit and jokes in use in the village [Bloxham] were of a simple nature, but did good service year after year, and always came up fresh. Probably a new set of jokes, and the disuse of the old ones, would have been resented by the audience. Village tradition tells of a famous "squire" who made a good deal of money by dancing. One of his most telling jokes (among a purely agricultural population) was that he knew plenty of bigger fools than himself, e g, those standing round him, for they worked for their living and he didn't. [10]

The Morris dancers were great in Bloxham until about 40 years ago. Charles Townsend and [blank] were in the last batch.
        They were decked out pretty in Coventry ribbons + had bells on their legs. Besides the dancers were one who played the Tabor (a small drum) + piper 3 notes only: also the "Squire" a clown who made witty remarks and had a stick with a calf's tail at one end + a bullocks [this word crossed out] bladder blown out + having a handful of peas inside: he asked riddles and knocked the boys with resounding bangs over the head with the bladder. Bloxham + Souldern danced against one another at the former place: the crowd was judge, + as may be imagined B won: tho' S had the best dancers B had the best clown + that took the people. Morris dancing took place at Whitsuntide. [10]

B- [Bloxham] was always noted for its Morris-dancers, and with a neighbouring village (S- [Souldern]) some six miles distant, enjoyed a local reputation. These villages danced against one-another at B- one evening in the early summer. The crowd were the judges, and, as may be surmised, B- won the match. For although the S- men danced better than their opponents, B- had the best "squire", + this took the people's fancy. [10]

John Barrett confirmed a/c. said [morris] was danced at "Statute" also. sometimes 8 of them. One Mettal was a great "fool" one of his jokes was that he knew a bigger fool than himself: naming someone", 'cause he works for his livin' + I don't." [11]

The horse-bells remind me of the morris-dancers. The countrymen used to practise their dancing at most of the villages, and at certain seasons of the year used to come into the town and go through their various dances, and then make a collection from the onlookers, and some of them were very clever at it. The men were dressed in their best, and wore white shirts with plaited sleeves and ribbons tied round their arms, and upon their legs were rows of small bells sewn upon strips of coloured leather. These bells were made in the same form as the horse-bells, that is to say they were of a round form with a slot in them, and a round shot to make them jingle as they danced. In size they were about as large as a marble, but the bells upon the horses were as large as a man's fist. In some of the morris-dances, each man carried a white stick about an inch in thickness and about eighteen inches in length, and this stick was used in their dances, sometimes tapping each other's stick together, and at other times one was held over the other's head, one dancer tapped his fellow-dancer with his stick, and at other times they would each have a white handkerchief and flourish in similar form. Their music was of a rude kind and known as the tabor and pipe. Their pipe was a one-handed flute with about four holes - three on the upper side for the fingers, and one underneath for the thumb. This was played with the left hand, and upon the little finger was held the tabor which was tapped by the right hand. The tabor was a small drum something like a tambourine. There was also a clown fantastically dressed who carried a long stick with a bladder at one end and calf's tail at the other for keeping off the boys, and sometimes he would have a handful of flour in his pocket, and if he found a boy very troublesome he used his flour with a handful in his face. This generally caused a laugh, and quieted him. [15 /page 119]


Mettle's last Parliamentary attempt was in 1830, when he was the opponent of Mr. Villiers Stuart. Although Mettle was never elected, he was quite sure to be chaired: and Mr. Heneage Legge will doubtless remember being chaired in Mettle's company, and how Mettle afterwards addressed him for it as "brother." [6]

Sunday, 22 August 1830

W Castle brought in by R Horseman for stealing a Watch from the house of W Smith Neithrop. [16 /page 5]

Monday, 23 August to Thursday, 26 August 1830

[Castle was locked up for a total of four nights.] [16 /page 51]

Thursday, 2 December 1830

William Castle Charles Gibbard & Pitcher brought by Thompson on charge of stealing Fowls from Mr James Golby. [16 /page 6]

Friday, 3 December 1830

[Castle was locked up for two nights.] [16/page 51]

Saturday, 4 December 1830

Castle, Gibbard & Pitcher taken to Oxford [16 /page 6]

On one occasion, and, as far as we know, on one only, Mettle fell into deeper sorrow, and perhaps into crime. He was tried at Oxford on a charge of being concerned, with others, in a burglary at Neithrop: he tried playing the fool in Court, in order to get off, and made most ugly faces at the Judge; but it wouldn't do there - he was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged, at which Mettle grinned worse than before. But here fortune favoured him at last, for a petition from his Banbury friends shewed him to be generally considered an idiot, and then he received a pardon. [6]

About 20 years since he was tried, in company with others at Oxford, for a burglary at Neithrop, and sentenced to die, but was pardoned on the petition of persons who had long known him, and who believed he had been the dupe of designing men. [4]

He was a parishioner of Neithrop, in which place he gained a settlement by sleeping in an old boat, moored by the side of the canal: many amusing circumstances were related at a trial, when Neithrop was saddled with the charge of him. [4]

[Neithrop is actually on the other side of the main Oxford road from the canal, but at this date a stream ran through the village.]

Tuesday, 7 June 1831

W Castle & William Hall brought by D Claridge Charged with breaking open a House at Shutford. [16 /page 10]

Wednesday, 8 June 1831

Castle & Hall taken to Broughton & Committed to Oxford by Mr Wyatt. [16 /page 10]

[Castle was locked up for two nights.] [16 /page 52]

Thursday, 9 June 1831

Castle & Hall taken to Oxford by D Claridge on the Coach at 3 O Clock. [16 /page 10]

OXFORD. Commitments to our County Gaol...James Hall and William Castle, charged with breaking open the dwelling house of Isaac Smith, at Shutford East, and stealing therefrom a gold watch, &c. [2]

Monday, 3 October 1831

Robert Griffin of Shutford brought by D Claridge charged with being with Castle & Hall at the Robbery at Shutford. [16 /page 11]

after July 1832

His favourite trade of aping the fool did not serve him always; his match trade was but precarious, and when the Reform Bill did away with Mettle's popularity, by giving votes to his supporters, they pitifully turned their backs upon him, and set up Tancred instead. In his state of almost destitution, Saturday, with its emptied pantries, was his best friend. He gained a settlement in Neithrop township by sleeping in an old boat that was moored by the side of the canal. [6]


The New Poor-Law was as bad a blow to Mettle as was the Reform Bill; but to send Mettle to the Poor-house would have annihilated all the then popularity of the Whigs - worse than sending Frost to Tasman's Peninsula, or Richard Oastler to the Fleet - and therefore some out-door relief was obtained for him. [6]

Tuesday, 21 April 1835

William Castle alias Mettle brought from the Cage by R Butler on Charge of breaking Mr Grimbly's Windows. [16 /page 35]

[Castle does not appear to have been locked up overnight for this offence, but see below for his punishment.]

Thursday, 23 April 1835

Metal taken to the Office & Ordered to sit in the stocks 4 hours. [16 /page 35]

Tuesday, 30 May 1837

The other instance of Mettle's gravity was when his mother died. The poor fellow, who was a diligent church-goer, thought it right on that occasion to appear like other people; so he begged a common hat, a common coat, waistcoat, and trousers, all of rusty black, with a white shirt, and, for a time, looked almost like a gentleman. [6]

[Anne Castle, living at the time of her death at Adderbury West, was buried in Adderbury churchyard on Tuesday, 30 May 1837, aged 74.] [Adderbury Parish Registers]

Sunday, 4 June 1837

When she died, he succeeded in getting, from one quarter or another, a decent suit of black, and a white shirt, and we recollect seeing him on the following Sunday, returning from Church, for the first time dressed like other people. [4]

probably Friday, 9 April 1841

He had had two fits previously; and had complained of a pain in his head ever since our last fair, when someone tripped up his heels, and he fell heavily on the back of his head. [7]

May 1841

THE NEW CANDIDATE. - In our last number we promised that if the Tories of Banbury remained for another week destitute of a candidate, we would direct them to one: but as it appeared by the Oxfordshire Herald of the same date that they had been successful, and that Mr. W. Metal (erroneously spelt "Mettle" in the Herald) was to oppose Mr. Tancred, on the Tory interest, we did not suppose that we should be called upon to redeem our pledge. Still as the sudden death of the man of their choice (fortune will surely never weary of persecuting them) must have altogether deranged them of their plans, we feel bound in honour to give them some assistance, especially as we have always desired that they should start the best man they could get. There are those of the party who must have felt some doubt of the propriety of supporting Metal, because the speech delivered by him, as quoted in the Herald, shews that he was an advocate for untaxed food, of which most Tories have a greater horror than they have of the starvation of their fellow creatures, and therefore whatever might have been the exertions of the subdistributor of stamps at Banbury, and Mr. Metal's other personal friends and admirers, who from attachment to the individuals might have waived some of their opinions, still he could hardly, from the cause above stated, been generally acceptable to their party. [5]

[This is a satirical response to the piece quoted in the 1818 section, above.]

Tuesday, 1 June 1841

On the preceding evening he had, in the vocation of fool, accompanied a party of Morris Dancers round Banbury, and seemed, and no doubt felt, in as high glee as he had ever been. [4]

No longer ago than Tuesday sen-night Mettle was as merry as Whitsuntide could make him, parading the streets of Banbury with a troop of morris-dancers. [6]

Wednesday, 2 June 1841

The following morning, while mending his patchwork dress, with the intention of going to Adderbury Club, he fell from his seat and expired instantly. [4]

On Wednesday morning he got up, and began to mend his patchwork that he might go to Adderbury club. He had rested at a lodging-house kept by Mrs. Thorp, and, as he sat by the grate, was also nursing Mrs. T.'s infant. Suddenly he said to a little girl who was in the room - "Take the babby;" and then immediately fell against the grate, the little girl, afraid, fetched her mother; the poor fellow ruttled a little in his throat; the woman sent for the doctor, but before that aid could arrive Mettle was quite dead. A jury sat, and returned a verdict of "Death from apoplexy." [6]

His age was 52 or 53. The surgeon who made the post mortem examination stated, that on opening the head, he found that the death had been caused by an effusion of blood upon the brain, which had probably been accelerated by the exertions which the deceased had used on the preceding day, when in attendance upon the morris dancers. [7]

His "household effects," which consist of a heap of straw, a pocket-knife, a stool, and a table, fall (we suppose) into the hands of the parish authorities. [6]

Friday, 4 June 1841

[William Castle was buried in Banbury on Friday, 4 June 1841.  In the burial register entry his age was given as 52, and his place of habitation at the time of death as Grimsbury.] [Banbury burial register]


  1. Jackson's Oxford Journal, 18 March 1820, 3.
  2. Jackson's Oxford Journal, 11 June 1831, 3.
  3. Oxford University, City, and County Herald, 29 May 1841, 2.
  4. The Guardian [Banbury], 5 June 1841, 4. Also in Oxford Chronicle, 5 June 1841, 4, with identical text.
  5. Oxford Chronicle, 5 June 1841, 4.
  6. Oxford University, City, and County Herald, 12 June 1841, 4.
  7. Unlocated 1841 newspaper cutting, pasted on the rear of the painting in Banbury Museum. Transcribed in Russell Wortley MSS., Centre For English Cultural Tradition and Language, University of Sheffield, G III 5g.
  8. A single sheet of handwritten text - undated, but apparently nineteenth century - slipped into the rear frame alcove of the painting which hangs in Banbury Museum.
  9. Sarah Beesley, My life ([Banbury]: 'Printed for private circulation,' [1892]). She was born Sarah Rusher in Banbury in March 1812.
  10. O.V. Aplin collection, Oxfordshire Archives. Apl.III/iii/3, notes for a proposed lecture entitled 'A vanished Custom', written circa 1894.
  11. Ibid. Apl.III/iii/18, f.1v, dated 19 April 1894.
  12. Thomas Ward Boss, Reminiscences of Old Banbury (1903), 24. Boss was born in 1825, and lived for his first seven years in Oxford, before moving to Banbury.
  13. William Potts MSS., Banbury Museum. Box 28; 990,71,481, typescript of a letter to Mr. [Thomas Ward] Boss, from G. Barrett, St. Kilda, Vic. [sic], 16/17 May 1904, 8.
  14. Janet Heatley Blunt MSS., Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, London. Volume XIX, letter to Cecil Sharp, 1 May 1922.
  15. George Herbert, Shoemaker's Window. Recollections of a Midland Town before the Railway Age, ed. Christiana S. Cheney (Oxford: Blackwell, 1949). Herbert's original handwritten manuscript consists of 190 foolscap pages, written as a series of letters to friends circa 1898 to 1900. He died 21 December 1902.
  16. P. Reynold (ed), Banbury Gaol Records (Banbury: Banbury Historical Society, 1987).
  17. William Potts MSS. Box 28; 990,71,329, commercial exercise book, f.11½. Legend [on f.1] 'Some Reccolections [sic] of Old Banburie over 60 years ago No 1 and Experiences and thoughts By an old Banbury'.
  18. William Potts, A History of Banbury, (Banbury: Banbury Guardian, 1958), pp.203-204. Potts was born in 1868, and thus had no first hand knowledge of Castle. His sources for the election riot include a series of scrapbooks in Banbury Borough Museum (these are apparently no longer in the archive), containing information from Superintendent W. Thompson and Mr. W. Dickason, which he acknowledges, and Sarah Beesley's My life (source 9, above), which he does not. Some of this material was quoted in the article 'Banbury on the eve of reform' in the Banbury Guardian, 26 December 1889, page 6, although this does not mention Castle.

More detailed analysis of the performance of morris dancing, Castle's involvement with various dance sets, and the social context may be found in my 'Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles'.  The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900 (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, for the Folklore Society, 1993); and Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900.  A Chronological Gazetteer (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, for the Folklore Society, 1993).


I am grateful for the assistance of Malcolm Graham and his staff at the Centre For Oxfordshire Studies, Oxford Library; Simon Townsend (Senior Museum Officer) and Chris Kelly (Assistant Curator) at Banbury Museum; Martin Allett at the Centre For Banburyshire Studies, Banbury Library; Malcolm Taylor (Librarian), Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, London; Vera Wood.

Keith Chandler - 1.8.00

Article MT059

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