30 October 2023

Carfax Tower and its
clock have survived
from Saint Martin’s
Church in Oxford

The ‘Quarterboys’ hammer out the quarter hour on a pair of 19th century bells on Carfax Tower in the centre of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The clocks went back at the weekend, giving us all an extra hour in bed on Sunday morning. But it means the evenings are going to close in earlier for the next few months.

On Saturday evening on this blog, as I prepared for the annual change of time, I offered a ‘virtual tour’ of a variety of a dozen interesting and curious clocks on churches, colleges, synagogues and towers in half a dozen countries, from Valentia and Villierstown to Valletta, Venice and Vienna.

One curious clock tower I could have chosen to look at is Carfax Tower in the centre of Oxford, with its ‘Quarterboys’ who hammer out the quarter hour on a pair of late 19th century bells.

Carfax Tower at the junction of Saint Aldate’s, Cornmarket, Queen Street and High Street in Oxford, is all that remains of the 12th century Saint Martin’s Church. The tower, also known as Saint Martin’s Tower is a prominent landmark, and Carfax is regarded as the centre of Oxford.

The name ‘Carfax’ derives from the Latin quadrifurcus through the French carrefour, meaning ‘crossroads’. Although the name Carfax is often used to refer to the tower, it is properly the name of the crossroads, and the tower is Carfax Tower, or, more accurately, Saint Martin’s Tower.

The tower is all that remains of the Church of Saint Martin of Tours. The church was the official City Church of Oxford and the Mayor and civic officials were expected to worship there, from ca 1122 until 1896, when the church was demolished.

At least 20 Mayors of Oxford were buried in the church, dating back to Richard Carey in 1349. It is possible that council meetings were held in the church before Oxford had a dedicated city hall.

The Swindlestock Tavern stood on the south-west corner of Carfax in 1355. On 10 February (Saint Scholastica’s Day) a fight broke out between two students and the tavern keeper after the students accused him of selling poor quality beer.

The fight turned into two days of violence between ‘town and gown,’ known as the Saint Scholastica Day Riots, and resulted in about 30 deaths. The legal wrangling that ensued settled affairs in favour of the university, and for 470 years the mayor and councillors had to walk bare-headed through the streets on Saint Scholastica's Day to pay a fine of one penny for every student killed – a total of 5s 3d.

The Mayor and Corporation appointed the Rector and four City Lecturers. Sermons were given by each of four city lecturers in turn, and it was customary for the Rector to be one of the lecturers.

Saint Martin’s was demolished in 1820 after the building had become unstable, but the 13th century west tower was spared, a new church was built, and it opened in June 1822. The new Gothic Revival church had large traceried windows and a large clock facing onto Carfax. Inside, the church had a Corporation Pew for civic officials and, unusually, a Ladies’ Corporation Pew.

Eventually, the second Saint Martin’s Church was pulled down in 1896 when the roads were widened to improve traffic flow. But this remains one of the busiest junction in Oxford and it is also a popular gathering place for tourists and tour groups.

Carfax Tower is all that survives of Saint Martin’s Church, Oxford, after it was pulled down in 1896 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Saint Martin’s Church was demolished, the tower was spared. The civic church was moved to All Saints’ Church on High Street, and it remained the City Church for 75 years. Stone from the church was bought by Windlesham House School and used to build the school chapel. The Mayor’s seat was moved to the new church, then to the Town Hall.

When All Saints’ Church became the library of Lincoln College, Saint Michael at the North Gate, Cornmarket, became the City Church. The 14th-century font from Saint Martin’s Church is also in Saint Michael’s Church.

A solitary gravestone behind Carfax Tower commemorates William Butler, a former Mayor of Oxford, who died in 1865. He was buried in Saint Martin’s churchyard with his wife Elizabeth and their two infant daughters. When Saint Martin’s Church was demolished, the grave was overlooked and remains in place.

The clock on the east side of Carfax is a copy of the original church clock, with mechanical figures called ‘quarterboys’ that hammer out the quarter hour on a pair of late 19th century bells, cast by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough in 1898. The clock’s current dial and surroundings were designed by Sir TG Jackson and installed in 1898. The clock mechanism was replaced in 1938-1939 with an electric one made by Gents’ of Leicester.

The tower also has a ring of six bells: five were cast by Richard Keene of Woodstock in 1676 and one was cast by Keene two years later. The bells are rung by the Oxford Society of Change Ringers to celebrate special occasions.

The tower is 23 metres (74 ft) high, and a climb to the top is rewarded with views out across Oxford. The City Council stipulates that no building in central Oxford may be built higher than the tower. However, this rule was broken when the Blavatnik School of Government was built.

Carfax plays a role in the disciplinary regulations of the University of Oxford comparable to the role of Saint Mary the Great in Cambridge. For example, the university requires some students to reside within six miles (9.7 km) of Carfax.

Carfax Tower is owned by Oxford City Council and is open year-round. The tower is open: October, 10:00 to 16:00; November to February, 10:00 to 15:00; March, 10:00 to 16:00; April to September, 10:00 to 17:00.

An image of Saint Martin of Tours survives at Carfax Tower, a reminder of Saint Martin’s Church in the centre of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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