Felicia SKENE (1821–1899)
Prison reformer and friend of the poor
34 St Michael’s Street, Oxford
Born in Aix-en-Provence, the daughter of a Scottish lawyer, Felicia Skene enjoyed a cosmopolitan upbringing in Scotland, France and Greece where she moved in court and diplomatic circles. The family later lived at 28 Beaumont Street and then at Frewin Hall and Felicia became involved in charitable work in St Thomas’s parish and collaborated with Sir Henry Acland during the cholera and smallpox epidemics of 1854.
In 1869 she set up house at 34 St Michael Street and began her notable work at Oxford Gaol. The first woman in England to be appointed Prison Visitor, she pleaded for prisons to be places of reform and believed in individual counselling. She played the harmonium and organ in the prison chapel and would meet released prisoners at the prison gates of at 6 a.m. to provide breakfast and other practical assistance. She rescued prostitutes and promoted the idea of a more liberal regime in penitentiaries.
Whilst enjoying the friendship of such figures as Jowett and Mrs Humphry Ward she kept open house for the destitute. She also befriended undergraduates and took a keen interest in St Edward’s School, helping with interviews, correspondence and sick boys. She devoted time to translating and writing on social problems. Her novel Hidden Depths was a popular success.
She was buried in St Thomas’s churchyard and there is a memorial plaque to her in the cathedral. She was regarded as a local saint by Oxford people of all conditions and was imbued with true humility as demonstrated by her remark in old age: ‘I am like the Martyrs’ Memorial: everyone knows me and no-one is interested in me.’
- Sources: Rickards: Felicia Skene of Oxford (1902); paper prepared in connection with the proposal for the plaque by Richard Symonds
- Picture: Felicia Skene’s former home in 2010
The plaque was unveiled at 34 St Michael’s Street, Oxford on 2 July 2002 by Lorema Goolden, great-great niece of Felicia Skene.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Friend of the poor
Oxford Civic Society