John Caldecott CAVELL (1813–1887)
His first wife Sarah CAVELL, née Elliston (1815/16–1856)
His second wife Harriet CAVELL, formerly Mrs Delf, née Elliston (1803/4–1886)
St Mary Magdalen section; Row 17, Grave D51

Cavell grave

BORN JANUARY 12, 1813 / DIED FEBRUARY 5, 1887.

John Caldecott Cavell was born in Bardwell, Suffolk on 12 January 1813 and baptised there two days later. He was the son of Charles Cavell and Sarah Caldecott, who were married in Suffolk by licence on 26 January 1808.

On 9 April 1835 at St John the Baptist Church in Summertown, John Caldecott Cavell (22) married Sarah Elliston of Summertown. Sarah Elliston and her brother Jesse had both been born in Ipswich, so may have known Cavell when they were in Suffolk. Jesse was made a freeman of Oxford in 1830 and was then able to trade in the city as a draper. To celebrate his sister’s marriage, Jesse Elliston (29) made Cavell a partner in this shop, which in 1839 was at 13 Magdalen Street and 1, 2, & 31 Friars Entry, and it was renamed Elliston & Cavell. (In 1894, seven years after Cavell’s death, the original shop was demolished to make room for a fine new shop that was Oxford's biggest department store, called Debenham's from 1973.)

John and Sarah Cavell had two sons, who were not baptised as infants, as they were a Baptist family who attended New Road Baptist Church:

  • John Elliston Cavell (born in Oxford in 1838/9, reg. first quarter of 1839)
  • Frederick Cavell (born in Oxford in 1840, reg. third quarter, and died near the end of 1841).

 On 26 September 1840 Messrs Elliston and Cavell announced in Jackson’s Oxford Journal that they had refitted their late premises (13 Magdalen Street) adjoining their present establishment (12 Magdalen Street), and on 9 April 1842 there was an advertisement for a forthcoming auction of “Shop Fittings, Counters, Desks, Drawers, Rails, Shelves, Doors, Sashes, Frames, Gas Pillars, Pipes, &c. in the Shop and Premises formerly occupied by Messrs. Elliston and Cavell, opposite Magdalen Church, Oxford”, adding that the shop, house, and premises were to be let.

The 1841 census shows John Caldecott Cavell living with his wife Sarah and two young sons (John aged 2 and Frederick aged two months) over Elliston & Cavell at 12 Magdalen Street, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Also living over the shop were his business partner/brother-in law Jesse Elliston (then aged 37), as well as 16 junior drapers, two apprentice drapers, and five female servants. Meanwhile Mrs Harriet Delf, Jesse Elliston’s sister, was living with a girl called Ellen Haill (probably the daughter of her sister, Mrs Rebecca Haill) and two servants in Summertown. (Harriet and Jesse Elliston had been born in Ipswich on 31 May 1804 and 3 March 1806 respectively, the children of William & Mary Ann Elliston, and received into Stoke Green Baptist Church there.)

The 1851 census shows Cavell (38), described as a draper, with his wife Sarah (35) and their surviving son John (12) living over 12 Magdalen Street. Also upstairs lived 32 members of his shop staff (22 drapers’ assistants of both sexes, one draper’s apprentice, two draper’s clerks, a draper’s cashier aged only 13, two draper’s porters, and one draper’s waiter) and three house servants. Meanwhile Jesse Elliston, who also described himself as a draper, was a bachelor living in Summertown with his sister Mrs Harriet Delf (46), his nephew William Elliston (18), and two servants.

On 26 July 1853 Cavell’s business partner Jesse Elliston dropped dead at the age of 47 after walking back to his home in Summertown, and his death was announced in the Ipswich Journal. He left Acacia Lodge in Summertown to his sister Harriet.

Less than three years later Sarah Cavell, John Caldecott Cavell’s first wife, also died:

† Mrs Sarah Cavell, née Elliston died over the Magdalen Street shop at the age of 40 on 12 February 1856 and was buried on 18 February at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (burial recorded in parish register of St Mary Magdalen Church).

The following brief death announcement was inserted in Jackson’s Oxford Journal: “Feb. 12, Sarah, the beloved wife of Mr. J. C. Cavell, of this city, in the 41st year of her age.”

Around the beginning of 1858 John Caldecott Cavell married his second wife, the widow Harriet Delf, née Elliston, who was nine years his senior and another sister of Jesse Elliston. But this time the marriage had to take place secretly (possibly in Scotland or abroad) as Harriet was of course also the sister of Cavell's first wife Sarah, and until 1907 it was illegal in the UK for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.. On 27 February 1858 Mrs Delf's home, Acacia Lodge in Summertown was advertised to let from Lady Day: it was described as a semi-detached villa residence, with gardens back and front, and coach-house and stabling.

Cavell first became a Councillor for the Central Ward in 1860.

At the time of the 1861 census John and Harriet Cavell were living over Elliston & Cavell’s at 12 Magdalen Street with 19 shop assistants, two shop clerks, one housekeeper, five servants, and three porters.

Cavell was made an Alderman in 1868, and was elected Mayor for 1865/6. He and Harriet continued to live over the shop, and the 1871 census again shows a large number living in the staff quarters: 19 assistants, two clerks, three draper’s porters, a houseboy, and a housekeeper, cook, and three housemaids.

Cavell was elected Mayor a second time for 1877/8, and following the death in office of James Grainge, he undertook a third short term as Mayor from April 1879.

Cavell was a supporter of the Boys’ High School that opened in George Street in 1881, and took the chair at the first public meeting in the Town Hall in furtherance of it. W. E. Sherwood, in his book Oxford Yesterday (1927), was probably thinking of him when he wrote the following words:

One of our well-known Aldermen, now dead, once told me that he had to begin work at thirteen, just about the time when Magdalen School was revived, and that he shed tears to think how he was handicapped in life compared with the boys whom he saw in its playground. Happily, his ability and ambition stood him in good stead, and he lived to be one of those who were most active in starting the Boys’ High School, which in later days gave so many boys just the help which he lacked.

At the time of the 1881 census Cavell (68) and Harriet (77) were still living over the old shop, which had been extended to include both 11 Magdalen Street next door and 1 & 2 Friars Entry. Also lodging upstairs were eighteen draper’s assistants, three draper’s porters, two draper’s clerks, a draper’s houseboy, a dressmaker, a housekeeper, a cook, and three housemaids.

Cavell was the long-standing Chairman of the Oxford Building and Investment Company. He resigned in August 1882 when the company was getting into difficulties, and there was a rumour that he had lent the company £10,000 on security of some of their property. When the company went into liquidation in April 1883, some of the blame was assigned to the directors.

John Caldecott Cavell’s second wife Harriet died in 1886:

† Mrs Harriet Cavell, née Elliston died over the Magdalen Street shop at the age of 82 on 29 September 1886 and was buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery on 4 October (burial recorded in parish register of St Mary Magdalen Church).

On 5 February 1887 it was reported in Jackson's Oxford Journal that on the previous Wednesday (2 February) Cavell had chatted to his housekeeper and had then gone to bed at 10.30pm in a room on the second floor facing Magdalen Street, and that he was broken down bodily and mentally following the death of his wife and the unpleasantness in connection with the failure of the Oxford Building Company. A young man who slept in an adjoining room heard a noise just after 1am and went into Cavell's room, where he found the window open and Cavell lying on the pavement 30 feet below in his night shirt.

He died from his injuries three days after the fall:

† John Caldecott Cavell died on 5 February 1887, and was buried with his two wives at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery on 10 February (burial recorded in parish register of St Mary Magdalen Church).

The following report on the funeral appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 12 February 1887:


The funeral of the deceased took place on Thursday, at St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Walton-street. The cortège, consisting of an open car, in which lay the body in a polished oak coffin, having plain massive brass furniture, and three mourning coaches, left the residence in Magdalen-street at half-past two o’clock, the places of business in the immediate neighbourhood and along the route taken by the procession being wholly or partly closed, and the blinds in many private houses being drawn, as a mark of respect, and, preceded by the employés, to the number of about twenty, went along St. Giles’s and St. John’s-road [now renamed St Bernard’s Road] to the Cemetery, where a large number of persons had assembled. The mourners were—In the first carriage: Mr. John Elliston Cavell (brother), Mr. Harry Cavell (grandson), and Mr. Sidney Powell (nephew); in the second carriage: Mr. Alfred Powell, Mr. Edwin Powell, and Mr. Charles Powell (nephews); in the third carriage: Mr. Horatio Symonds (the medical attendant), and Mr. J. J. Bickerton (the family solicitor). The Mayor (Ald. Hughes) followed in his private carriage, and the body was met at the Cemetery by the Rector of Lincoln, the Deputy-Mayor (Ald. Buckell), the Sheriff (Mr. Cooper), Ald. Carr and Jenkin, Councillors C. Underhill, Wheeler, Grubb, Freeman, and Gardener; Messrs. Jason Saunders, Emberlin, G. Brunner, R. Cross, F. Holmes Elliston (nephew of Mrs. Cavell), of Southampton, Augustus Frederick Elliston (grandson of Mrs. Cavell), Burstal, W. W. Robinson, W. Richards, Patey, Taphouse, F. Ryman Hall, H. Hughes, Barling, C. Hill, &c. On arriving at the lodge gate the first part of the Burial Service was read by the Rev. E. Clayton, Vicar of St. Mary Magdalen; in the Chapel the lesson was read by the Rev. Canon A. M. W. Christopher, Rector of St. Aldate’s, and the Rev. E. Clayton concluded the service at the grave. Several beautiful wreaths were lowered with the coffin into the grave, in which already rest the bodies of both the wives of the deceased. A brass plate on the coffin bore the following inscription:—

Born 12th January 1813.
Died 5th February, 1887.

It is estimated that there were from fifteen hundred to two thousand persons present at the funeral. The flag on the Town Hall flew at half-mast from the time of death to the burial of the deceased, and on Thursday evening a muffled peal was run on the bells of St. Mary Magdalen Church.

There was an inquest into his death, and it was decided that it had been an accident: full details of the case are reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 12 February 1887, followed by an obituary (reproduced below).

His personal estate came to £25,142 0s. 5d. and his only son John Elliston Cavell, descried as a warehouseman of 13 Bennett Park, Blackheath, was his executor.

Obituary of John Caldecott Cavell

The following obituary appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 12 February 1887:

The late Mr. Cavell’s connection with the Town Council extended over a period of 26 years, he having been returned for the Central Ward for the first time on the 30th of November 1860, when he filled the vacancy created by the death of Mr Nathaniel Castle, which was caused through an accident. He was re-elected in 1862, 1865, and 1868, in which year he was made Alderman. He had previous to this served the office of Mayor for the year 1865–6, and was again appointed to the office for 1877–8. He was succeeded by Mr. James Grainge, who died during his year of office, in April, and Mr. Cavell, who was then Deputy Mayor, was chosen Mayor for the remainder of the year, his Deputy being the late Ald. Calcutt. Mr. Cavell continued to be an Alderman until the 9th of November last year, when he, in common with the four other retiring Liberal Alderman, lost his gown. In June 1878, on the occasion of the visit of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society to Oxford, he gave an entertainment on a grand scale in the Town Hall. It was through the instrumentality of Mr. Cavell, Mr. Joseph Round, and others that the Volunteer Fire Brigade was projected and established. Mr. Cavell was a Justice of the Peace for the City, one of the Charity Trustees, and for some years acted as Treasurer of the Oxford Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Oxford City Mission. He was a ready supporter of the Oxford Regatta, the Horticultural and Rose Societies, and the High School, and in connection with the last-named he took the chair at the first public meeting in the Town Hall in furtherance of it. He was a generous contributor at all times to any object of a deserving or charitable nature.

At New Road Chapel, of which congregation Mr Cavell was a member for many years, full and appropriate reference to his lamented death was made on Sunday morning by the Pastor (Rev. James Dann), and the Dead March in Saul was most impressively rendered by the organist (Mr. Wiblin) on the fine instrument to the recent rebuilding and enlargement of which Mr. Cavell was a liberal contributor, the congregation remaining silently seated in their places as a tribute of respect to his memory.

Cavell Road off the Iffley Road is named after John Caldecott Cavell.

See separate grave of his daughter-in-law Emily Caldecott Cavell
and his grandson Frederick Percy Cavell

Oxford's Elliston & Cavell department store (later Debenham's)

Although Elliston & Cavell's had been in Magdalen Street since the 1830s, the building that people today remember as Elliston & Cavell's was actually built in several phases after the deaths of the two eponymous partners:

  • 1894: Right side (9, 10, 11, & 12 Magdalen Street next to Friar's Entry): architect Harry George Walter Drinkwater.
    (The turret on the corner and the building stretching down George Street was also built by Drinkwater at this time, but was not yet part of the shop. The city council had bought Nos. 1 & 2 Magdalen Street in 1892 as part of the "George street Improvement Scheme", and half of the site of these two houses was added to the road.)
  • 1913: First extension southwards (7 & 8 Magdalen Street): architect Michael Vyne Treleaven.
  • 1934: 4 & 5 Magdalen Street.
  • 1955: 1 & 2 Magdalen Street. (No. 3 remained a separate shop, Taphouses.)

Below is a full-page advertisement for Elliston & Cavell's that appeared on the back page of Kelly’s Directory for 1899, showing the new building at 9, 10, 11, & 12 Magdalen Street:

Elliston & Cavell, 1899

The advertisement below that appeared on the back cover of Kelly's Directory for 1914–15 below includes the new addition of 7 & 8 Magdalen Street on the left:

Ellston & Cavell's

The 1914 advertisement read:

Carpet Warehousemen,
Milliners, Costumiers, Ladies’ and Children’s Outfitters.

Telephone No. 181 (two lines).
In direct communications with each department.

Telegraphic address: “Elliston’s, Oxford.”

Patterns, Estimates and Designs Post Free.
Experienced Assistants sent to advise.



Elliston & Cavell’s was taken over by Debenham’s in 1953, but kept its old name until 1973.

On 1 October 1998 Oxford City Council granted planning permission to Crest Nicholson Properties Ltd for the demolition of the existing retail premises on the site of 10/11/12 Friars Entry and 1/3/5/7/9 Magdalen Street, except for the façades fronting George Street and Magdalen Street (97/01281/LH). An additional application (97/01282/NFH) related to the redevelopment behind retained façade and reconstructed roof to provide seven retail units at basement and ground-floor level fronting Magdalen Street and Friars Entry, and one food and drink outlet fronting Victoria Court, plus entrances at ground-floor level to the Debenhams department store on the first, second, and third floors, with mechanical plant at roof level, as well as external alterations at first and second floor level to retained façade to George Street corner and communal service yard accessed from Red Lion Square. This work took place in 1999/2000.

The shop closed in 2020 at the time of the third Coronavirus lockdown, and it was announced in January 2021 that it would not reopen. The Land Registry shows that in July 2020 the Debenhams store in Oxford was owned by Glasgow City Council (Strathclyde Pension Fund, c/o DTZ Investment Management (Title No. ON3316): they purchased it in 2011 for £31.6m and now have plans to turn it into a hotel.



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