30 October 2022

Four Candles are something of
an old school joke in Oxford

The Four Candles at the corner of George Street and Bulwark’s Lane in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in Oxford four or five times this year, including a stay in John Ratcliffe Hospital in March and April following my stroke earlier this year.

There is a good bus service between Stony Stratford and Oxford, and as I make to and from the bus station I cannot but smile as I pass The Four Candles on 51–53 George Street at the corner with Bulwark’s Lane. This was formerly Yates’s Wine Lodge, and before that the Slug and Lettuce. But it was renamed in 2008 when it was taken over by JD Wetherspoon.

The pub’s name, The Four Candles, was inspired by a celebrated comedy sketch by the Two Ronnies, where Ronnie Barker tries to buy fork handles from Ronnie Corbett in a hardware shop. Ronnie Barker asks for and gets ‘four candles’, when all he really wanted were fork handles – ‘andles for forks.’

Four Candles seems an appropriate name for the pub, for Ronnie Barker spent his school days just a few steps away at the City of Oxford High School for Boys, and his first tentative steps on the stage were made a couple of hundred metres away at the Oxford Playhouse.

The beginning of the Two Ronnies goes back to The Frost Report, the satirical show that brought together the future members of Monty Python and the Goodies, and Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.

By the second series of The Frost Report, the two Ronnies were being paired up in sketches. When David Frost helped found London Weekend Television, most of the Frost Report cast went with him. When Frost’s production company parted company with London Weekend, so did the two Ronnies, and The Two Ronnies emerged.

Oxford University’s History Faculty building … built as the City of Oxford High School for Boys (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The eye-catching building next door but one to the Four Candles, on the corner of George Street and New Inn Hall Lane, is Oxford University’s History Faculty building. It was originally the city’s High School for Boys, which opened in 1881, and former pupils include Ronnie Barker.

It was built as the City of Oxford High School for Boys, with the educationalist, philosopher and teetotaller Thomas Hill Green as the leading founding figure. The school was purpose-built and was designed by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924). He also most of Hertford College, including the Bridge of Sighs over New College Lane, much of Brasenose College, and ranges at Trinity College and Somerville College, as well as the former town hall in Tipperary Town.

The foundation stone of the school was laid in 1880 by Prince Leopold, youngest son of Queen Victoria.

The most famous old boy is TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who was a pupil in 1896-1907. He then entered Jesus College, taking first class honours, in 1910. His best known work is the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his experiences during the Arab revolt of 1916-1918. The title comes from the Book of Proverbs, ‘Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars’ (Proverbs 9: 1).

The school finally closed in 1966. The Faculty of History at the University of Oxford has been based at the former City of Oxford High School for Boys since 2007. The History Faculty building on George Street has three seminar rooms, a lecture theatre and a common room.

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