A school day at Oxford Castle Unlocked

Date Posted: 17/12/2013

Birds eye view of Oxford Castle Unlocked.

Children on a school trip to Oxford Castle Unlocked can explore over 1,000 years of history and discover the story of Oxford Castle, which has been used as a place of imprisonment for over 800 years.

Situated in the centre of Oxford, the site was always a castle with a prison at its heart and has been a place of incarceration since Norman times, right up until the closure of Her Majesty’s Prison Oxford in 1996.

Oxford Castle Unlocked offers school groups the chance to learn about real people and events from the sites’ turbulent past: the first Oxford teachings, the owners, visionaries, activists and inmates.

People like Marshall William Smith, the King’s prison keeper, who in the 1600s made Oxford Prison as feared and as notorious as Colditz; Mary Blandy a convicted murderess, who became an 18th-century celebrity; Jack Ketch, the public executioner and the man on whom the Punch & Judy hangman character was modelled; and Anne Green, who survived her own hanging and narrowly escaped being anatomised by an Oxford medical student in 1650.

The attraction offers a 40-minute guided tour with a costumed character from the castle’s history, exploring the Saxon stone-built St. George’s Tower, the atmospheric crypt, the preserved prison wing and the archaic man-made mound.

School groups can combine a tour of the historic castle site with a workshop tailored to the visit. Taking place in the Key Learning Centre, next to the castle, workshops offer a mix of activities including evidence handling, role play, literacy development and practical problem-solving.

Suitable for KS1 to KS5, sessions can be linked to National Curriculum History, Geography, Citizenship, Literacy, Design Technology, Art and more.

Example workshops

Mary Blandy: Villain or Victim?: Suitable for KS3 and KS2, students can sift through, question and analyse the evidence to decide if infamous poisoner, Mary Blandy, deserved her fate and notoriety in a retrial of the case that scandalised the county in the 18th century.

A cell at Oxford Castle Unlocked

Pictured: Cell Corridor at Night (Credit Mark Bassett).

Linking with the guided tour of Oxford Castle Unlocked, students can analyse the original evidence and actual events to present the case for the prosecution or defence and put Mary back on trial.

Stand and Deliver!: Suitable for KS3, this workshop develops students’ creative skills using artefacts and the true story of famous highwayman Isaac Darkin to devise and perform a group poem about the criminal, who was executed at Oxford Castle in 1761.

They will piece together his story and gain a chronological overview of his many antics and exploits across the country. 

Using Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman students will then develop an array of verses relating to points in Darkin’s life. Groups will rehearse their verses using a variety of performance techniques, before performing the complete poem as a class.

Victorian Child Prisoners: Discovering what Victorian prison life was like for inmates as young as seven, KS3 students will investigate the prison system through the historic buildings, actual case studies, object handling and role play.

Pupils will also get the opportunity to take on the role of a child prisoner in the session using original documents and develop a role card, creating their defence.

This workshop can be part of a whole day Citizenship programme allowing pupils to re-enact Victorian children on trial with the Museum of Oxford and then explore the consequences at Oxford Castle Unlocked.

Example itinerary

School visits to the site are all individually tailored to meet the groups’ needs, and times vary depending on the topic and group size. An example itinerary may run as follows:

10am Arrive at Oxford Castle Unlocked. There is a coach drop-off point on New Road and coach parking close by. The group will be met by the learning and access officer who will facilitate the day. Bags and coats can be dropped off at the Key Learning Centre.

Exterior of Oxford Castle unlocked

10.20am Climb the ancient mound of the 11th century castle and take in the spectacular views of the city’s dreaming spires and the historic castle quarter.

11.15am A snack and comfort break can be taken in the castle courtyard or Key Learning Centre dependent on weather.

12.30am Take the tour of the castle and learn about the secrets and history of Oxford’s past accompanied by one the site's costumed guides.

1.30pm Take one of the many educational workshops on offer in the Key Learning Centre, suitable for the groups’ Key Stage and current school topics.

2.30pm Finish for the day and coach pick up from the drop-off site.

All teachers booking a school trip to Oxford Castle Unlocked will receive a free Teachers' Pack with essential visit information and ideas, devised in collaboration with practising teachers.

For further school trip information, and to book, contact:

0845-070 6255

School Travel Organiser's Guide