Headington history: People

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Joan of Headington, fl. 1660

Joan of Headington was notorious in seventeenth-century Oxford for keeping an alehouse in Headington which doubled up as a brothel (almost certainly the White Hart). It was well outside the jurisdiction of the university proctors, but near enough for members of the University to visit fairly easily via Headington Hill and Cuckoo Lane.

Anthony Wood (1632–1695) sometimes stopped at her alehouse when he went for an afternoon walk during the time that he was aged 25–33, but his diary entries are brief and simply outline his expenses:

  • 1 December 1657: “To Joane of Hedington for puddings, 6d
  • 25 January 1657/8, “M., spent at Joan of Hedington with Mr. <Zephaniah> Crescet, 1s.
  • 21 January 1663/4: “Th., at Jone’s of Hedington with Mr. <John> Curteyn, 2d.
  • 18 October 1665: “W., at Jone of Hedington’s with Mr. <John> Curteyne and <Peter> Nicolls, 2d.

One assumes that Wood would not have visited a disreputable inn unless he himself wished to avail himself of the services offered, and after a 25-year gap in the diary, he makes another, more interesting, entry about Joan. On 25 July 1690 (after remarking on the paternity of an illegitimate child, and of another woman called Joan who he claimed would have been jealous if he had married anyone else) he writes:

Jo<an> of Hed<ington> will not have him because full of issues; I used to cary lobsters and crabbs there. This told by my sister two dayes before.

This also implies that Joan may still have been alive in 1690.

The surviving records of St Andrew’s Church start in 1678, and there were six women called Joan buried there after that date: Joan Berkill (1684), Joane Clarke (1709), Joan Day (1710), another Joan Day (1711), Joane Boastall (1715), and Joan Carter (1719). One of them is likely to be the eponymous Joan of Headington, who lived opposite the church.

Joan of Headington: The poem

Mrs Alicia D’Anvers wrote burlesque poem, Academia: The Humours of the University of Oxford (London, 1691), in which the hero visits Joan in this section:

And so that very Night he runs
To honest Joan of Hed----tons,
Who brags an after-harden’d Sinner;
As to a Book an Introduction’s;
To Vice, so she and her Instruction’s;
And since the Doctrine of her School’s
Practis’d, and follow’d so by Fools,
For pray, in all our Modern Hist’ries,
Look me a Fool without a Mistress,
Whose Part’s to set the Gins, and bait ’um,
And the snar’d Ideot’s Part, to treat ’um,
So Scholars, who do all by Rules,
Without Example, won’t be Fools,
And dedicate their ready Monies,
To please, and to divert their Honies;
Not, that they’re given all to whoring,
Some are for honest downright roaring;
And quite another sort of Fellows,
Love nothing but a noise, and Ale-House.

Joan of Headington: The play

Dr William King (1663–1712), a Doctor of Civil Law at Christ Church, wrote a play called The Tragi-Comedy of Joan of Hedington, which was published in his last book, Useful Miscellanies, in 1712. The original printed version can be viewed here, and is set in St Andrew's Road (which was then called High Street, Headington).

Full version of play in PDF format

There is a chance that Joan, who was presumably quite a young woman forty years earlier, was still alive at the time, but King writes:

… it is hoped that time has so far buried some of [the facts] in Oblivion, that now it may seem a Fable, and that a Murder, like that of Hanging up of Joan, would never be attempted to be committed by a persion of Breeding, in so polite a Town as that of Hedington….

The scene is set thus:

The place for the performance of the action is comprehended in the small vicinage of Hedington, in which everybody sees every body, and every Body knows every Thing; and its leading character is a country woman and an honest parishioner of Hedington of a calling which though discommendable yet has been made use of in all ages.

King describes Joan thus:

A Country Woman, and an ancient Parishioner of Hedington, of a Calling which though dishonourable, yet has been made use of in all Ages; she seems Spirituous, and, if her employment would suffer her, nor disinclinable to pursue Virtuous Counsels, at least she despises the more vile Practices of others of the same Profession.

In this play, Mother Shepherd, the keeper of another Headington ale-house (possibly the Black Boy), comments of Joan, “She does not keep a civil House, and is a Disgrace to the town, for Gentlemen dare not come to my House to drink, for fear they should be thought to go to Joan’s”.

Mother Harris, another Headington whore (“one of the same Calling with Joan, who though she pretends to more Gentility, yet has not the same Plainness and Sincerity as the former”) says to Joan, “I’d have you to know I scorn to let such pitiful Rogues come into my House as you have to deal with”. Joan replies,

I’d have you know I have as good Customers come to my House as any Woman in Hedington…. I am a better woman than yourself, I have been an old Parishioner here, and gone to Church, and all the town know I have been honest in my calling, and to be abused by such a Gossip as you, that are come to pass off your Pocky Ware in our Parish.

Mother Harris replies, “No more Pocky Ware than your self”, and Joan says, “You lye, you Whore, I’ll tear your eyes out”, and a fight between the two women follows. Joan wins, and Joan announces that she has got rid of the “Upstart, Tawdry, Pocky Whore”, and

I will reign Mistress of this Place alone,
And be the Topping Dame of Hedington.

Mother Franklin, who is a respectable beerhouse keeper, mentions that Joan had beaten her in a similar fight previously.

In the next scene, Mr Atson (a scholar), Father Clerkenwell, and Joan all go upstairs together at the White Hart, and Atson asks Joan to “bid your Husband burn us a pint of Brandy”. No sooner have they gone than she is up the stone stairs again with another scholar, Mr Cole, who decides to have his brandy afterwards. (Joan was recommended to him by a “Mr Hopman, of Cripsy”.)

Mr Cole is sweet on Miss Frances Harris (despite the fact that she is a whore or “jilt” like her mother). His good friend Mr Pindar (another scholar) decides to avenge Mrs Harris’s treatment by Joan by hanging the latter from a beam in her chamber. Fortunately Joan’s husband manages to cut her down just in time to save her life.

King describes his play as being “in imitation of Shakespear”….

© Stephanie Jenkins

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