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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (155) 30 October 2023

Saint George the Martyr Church in Southwark is one of the oldest churches in England dedicated to Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Last Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XXI, 29 October 2023).

Later today, I have an appointment for a check-up and an injection for a recurring condition caused by depleted resereves of Vitam B12. But, before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

Throughout this week, with the exceptions of All Saints’ Day (Wednesday 1 November) and All Souls’ Day (Thursday 2 November), my reflections each morning this week follow this pattern:

1, A reflection on a church or cathedral in Southwark;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside Saint George the Martyr, looking east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint George the Martyr, Borough High Street, Southwark:

Saint George the Martyr, around the corner from the USPG offices on Trinity Street, Southwark, is, historically, the parish church of Southwark, and many people also think of it as the parish church of ‘Little Dorrit.’

Thousands of years ago, the area that is now Southwark was mainly a series of gravel islands on the south bank of the Thames estuary. By the Roman period (43 CE to 410 CE), this area was effectively an extension of the Roman city of Londinium on the north bank of the Thames, and there is archaeological evidence of Roman habitation on the site of Saint George’s Church.

Saint George’s is in the Borough district of south London, and within the Borough of Southwark. It is a Grade II* listed building on Borough High Street, standing at a busy junction with Long Lane, Marshalsea Road and Tabard Street.

Saint George the Martyr is one of the oldest churches in England dedicated to Saint George. According to tradition, Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army and was killed on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in 303 CE for refusing to persecute Christians and for confessing to his own Christianity.

The first confirmed reference to the church is in the Annals of Bermondsey Abbey, which claims that the church was given by Thomas Ardern and Thomas his son in 1122. The date follows the Battle of Acre. when the myth of Saint George was by English crusaders. Perhaps the dedication of the church is related to the involvement of the Arderns. in the Crusade.

The Ardern family gift included tithes from their manor at Horndon in Essex and ‘land of London Bridge returning five solidos.’ This means Saint George’s is the first and the oldest church with this dedication in the London area. This predates by more than 200 years King Edward III’s adoption of Saint George as the patron of the Order of Garter. The statement is also the first reference to London Bridge’s endowment lands.

When Henry V returned from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 he was welcomed by the Aldermen of London on the steps of the church. The ‘Agincourt Song’ was commissioned as part of the celebration. In this battle, the standard with the red cross was used for the first time. In the same year Saint George became the patron saint of England.

The west tower dominates views along Borough High Street from both the north and south due to the curve in the street at this point, where it now meets Great Dover Street.

Originally, a much narrower road to the south of the church called Church Street led into Kent Street (now renamed Tabard Street), the historic route to Dover. Due to the volume of traffic, Great Dover Street was cut through parallel to Kent Street as part of the road network enhancements associated with the new Westminster Bridge and London Bridge route improvements in 1750.

Later, Tabard Street was extended through the churchyard on the north side, leaving the church standing alone on a traffic island.

Inside Saint George the Martyr, looking west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The present church is said to be the third on this site. The first church was a Norman church, and inscribed stones from this church were discovered in the second church.

This first church was replaced at the end of the 14th century by a a church with a three-storey bell tower. It may have been from there they Antonin de Wyngaerde surveyed at least part of his plan view of London, which includes a drawing of the church, but slightly out of position.

The church was heavily renovated around 1629, and this is the church that appears in William Hogarth’s engraving of Southwark Fayre (1733), a year before it was demolished.

A new church was designed in the Classical style by John Price in 1734-1736, partly funded by £6,000 from the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. The major city livery companies and the Bridge House Estates also supported this rebuilding, and to this their arms decorate the nave ceiling and stained glass.

This third church on the site opened in 1736, and this is the church that stands today. The church is built of red brick with Portland stone, and has a copper and slate roof. There is a pediment at the west entrance, supported by Ionic columns. The tympanum displays reliefs of angels, and eight steps lead up to the entrance. The tower is built of Portland stone and has a large spire, with a ball and weathervane at the top.

Inside, there is a gallery on three sides of the nave, with a pair of fluted Ionic columns supporting the gallery at the west end. The original pews were replaced with box pews in 108, but most of these were shortened to their current height in 1855.

The ceiling includes a painting executed by Basil Champneys in 1897, with golden cherubs breaking through a clouded sky and with texts on a ribbon. It was restored in the 1950s after bomb damage during World War II.

The church has a tall pulpit on four Ionic columns, and an octagonal font of grey marble. The original mediaeval font is now in the chapel of the Old Palace School in Croydon, and the present font dates from the late 19th century.

The chancel has three bays. The east window was designed by the stained-glass artist Marion Grant and was installed in 1951 to replace an earlier window destroyed by bombing in 1942.

The central window has an image of the Ascension with Christ in majesty. At his feet are a number of pilgrims and saints, each holding a scallop shell, the symbol of pilgrimage. In the centre of the group is a pelican. It is said the pelican pierces her own breast to feed her young, and so the pelican symbolises the sacrifice of Christ and the salvation of humanity.

The left-hand window shows Saint George trampling down the decree of the Emperor Diocletian. The right-hand window depicts the Archangel Michael destroying the devil, who appears as a dragon.

A second depiction of Saint George the Martyr is found on the south wall. This war memorial window came from Hanwell Residential School when it closed in 1933, and is the only window in the church to survive bombing in World War II.

Saint George the Martyr has two reliefs of the Royal Arms. The main one, on the gallery at the west end, is the Stuart royal arms, below the organ gallery and is said to have come from the former church of Saint Michael Wood Street. The second royal arms are the arms of Hanover and hangs over the main entrance.

On a frieze around the top of the walls are the coats of arms of four London Livery companies – Skinners, Drapers, Fishmongers and Grocers – as well as the arms of the City of London and the Bridge House Mark.

The vestry accounts show that there has been an organ in Saint George’s since 1682. The current organ has some original pipes thought to be made by Father Smith. Although the organ has been modified over the centuries, its original elements make it an exceptional and rare instrument.

The crypt was cleared in 1899, when 1,484 coffins were removed and reburied at Brookwood Cemetery. The foundations of the south wall were strengthened in 1938 and helped save the building from collapse during World War II, when the damage from German bombings was considerable.

The red brick and Portland Stone structure has suffered from considerable damage due to subsidence , and the nave was declared unsafe in 2000, although services continued in other parts of the building.

Repairs and refurbishments in 2005 involved completely underpinning the building, and lowering the floor levels in the crypt to create a parish hall. A large number of Georgian lead coffins were removed from the crypt to allow the works to take place.

From September 2005 to March 2007, the parish worshipped at Guy’s Chapel nearby. The new crypt or hall provides a conference venue in central London. Services in Saint George’s resumed on Palm Sunday, 1 April 2007.

As well as two Sunday services and a mid-week service on Wednesdays, the church offers a wide range of activities, including a café, lunchtime concerts, a music academy for local children, a community foodbank and a night-shelter for homeless people during winter, as well as a quiet space for reflection and contemplation that is open to everyone.

Little Dorrit (right) kneels in prayer beneath the feet of Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church also has strong associations with Charles Dickens, whose father was jailed for debt in nearby Marshalsea prison. The surviving wall of the prison adjoins the north side of the churchyard. Charles Dickens lived nearby in Lant Street, in a house that belonged to the Vestry Clerk of Saint George’s. This was the darkest period in his life, when he had to work in the ‘blacking factory,’ and his literary career must have seemed an impossible dream.

Later, Dickens set several scenes of his novel Little Dorrit in and around Saint George’s Church. One cold night, Amy Dorrit sought shelter in the vestry.

A small representation of Little Dorrit in Marion Grant’s east window, below Saint George, shows her kneeling in prayer as her woven bonnet falls across her back like the wings of an angel.

Almighty God,
to whose glory this house of prayer is dedicated:
we praise you for the many blessings
you have given to those who worship you here:
and we pray that all who seek you in this place may find you,
and, being filled with the Holy Spirit,
may become a living temple acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,

The High Altar, chancel and East Window in the Church of Saint George the Martyr (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 13: 10-17 (NRSVA):

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15 But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

The Ascension, with Christ in majesty, in the central window at the east end of Saint George the Martyr (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers: USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is inspired by a Reflection – ‘He restores my soul’ – by Revd Dale R Hanson, introduced yesterday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (30 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of your creation. For the restorative qualities it can bring when we take time to stop and look at the world around us.

The pelican representing Christ and the pilgrims and saints in Marion Grant’s east window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life
and the word of his kingdom:
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Church of Saint George the Martyr reflected in the John Harvard Library on Borough High Street, Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint George’s Church in street art on Borough High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)