Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


St Martin’s Church at Carfax

The City Church of Oxford stood here from the eleventh century to 1896

The City Church of St Martin, where the Mayor and Corporation of Oxford worshipped, was situated in a prominent position at Carfax right at the centre of the city, just a stone’s throw from the early Guildhall and the later Town Hall in St Aldate’s. It was usually known as Carfax Church. It appears to have been a private church when it was granted to Abingdon Abbey in 1032 by King Cnut or Canute, but soon became the town church. The advowson passed to the Crown after the dissolution. For more details about its early history, see its section in the Victoria County History.

Carfax Church in 2004

The first known church on this site survived for about eight centuries until 1820, but the second which opened in 1822 only existed for 74 years, as it was demolished in 1896 as part of the Carfax Improvement Scheme.

The thirteenth-century tower to the west of the earlier church (right) had already been preserved once at the beginning of the 1820s when the second church was built , and the last Rector of St Martin's, the Revd Carteret Fletcher, fought to save it again when the council proposed to remove the church. He was successful, and the Oxford Corporation Act of 1890 allowed the demolition of the church, provided that the Corporation should retain on the site the tower and its bells. Fletcher wrote afterwards:

   “For while antiquarian literature is read by
    comparatively a very few, it is by monuments
    like Carfax tower that the past history of their
    city speaks to all citizens.”

The main part of the church was duly demolished in 1896, and in 1897 the surviving medieval tower was restored by the architect T. G. Jackson, who added a stair-turret and buttresses to allow the structure to stand alone.

A stone plaque dated 1899 inside the tower reads:

   “Carfax clock was restored and illuminated, the
    ancient quarter boys were replaced, the chimes
    were added, and the Gateway of Saint Martin
    was erected by the munificence of George Bandell
    Higgins of Burcot, Esquire, a native and freeman
    of this city. MDCCCXCIX”

The tower is Grade II listed (1047353)

The new Gateway of St Martin was created to link the tower to the new shop on the corner (now the HSBC Bank), and there is a sculpture of the saint at the top. The gate originally led into the part of the churchyard retained as a garden.

Five of the bells inside Carfax Tower date from 1676, and one from 1678.

The first St Martin’s Church (eleventh century–1820)

The first St Martin’s (or Carfax) Church was built in the early eleventh century, although the part that survived until 1820 was probably mostly the work of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It became the town church in medieval times, and by the reign of Henry II was probably used for council meetings.

St Martin's Church in 1822 Print of the medieval St Martin's Church drawn & engraved by J. & H. Storer and reproduced by
kind permission of Roger Gilboy. The print is dated 1822, but the original drawing must have been made
before demolition in 1820. The building on the right was the office of
Jackson's Oxford Journal
from 1817 to the 1890s, and the letters JACK… can be seen over the door

On 18 November 1662 when it was reported that this church was much out of repair and that the parish had raised £40 for repairing and beautifying it, the City agreed to contribute another £20. Then on 31 July 1676 £30 was allowed by the City to St Martin's parish towards the recasting of their bells and hanging up six “turneable” bells, and setting up a new chime and repairing the clock. The Great Bell of St Martin's was rung to summon councillors to the Guildhall on special occasions, for example when they had to meet to ride out to meet King James II in September 1687, or William III in November 1695.

Until 1747 the Penniless Bench stood on the east side of this church, facing Cornmarket.

Up until 1848, the inhabitants of St Martin's (Carfax) parish were all buried either inside this church or in its churchyard to the north. The churchyard was closed to all new burials that year, and henceforth parishioners were buried in the St Martin's section of the newly opened Holywell Cemetery.

The surviving parish registers of this church date from 1562, and can be seen at the Oxfordshire History Centre. William Shakespeare (who used to stay with John Davenant and his wife at the Crown Tavern on the opposite side of Cornmarket) acted as godfather to William Davenant (the future poet laureate) when he was baptised at this church on 3 March 1605/6.

In 1818 this medieval church was declared unsafe by four different builders, and on 13 February 1819 the following report appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal:

Carfax Church.

The Committee appointed for the purpose of taking into consideration the best means of raising a Fund for Rebuilding CARFAX CHURCH, in this City, (deemed, after a careful examination, to be in a dilapidated and dangerous state) beg leave respectfully to call the attention of the University, the City, the County, and the Public, to an object which they trust will not be uninteresting to every friend of Religion, and to every admirer of this beautiful and already highly ornamented place.

Their first object is to provide a place of Divine Worship, in which not only the Parishioners and Congregation usually frequenting that Church may be accommodated, but also a considerable number of seats thrown open for the reception of the Public, Servants, and the Poor. On this latter provision, they beg leave to observe, that there are very few Churches, in this large and populous City, in which Sermons are preached in the Afternoon; and that, from a variety of causes preventing their attendance on  Morning Service, a large proportion of the Population, consisting of Servants and the Poor, have not an opportunity of hearing Sermons at the established Church.

The Evening Service at Carfax Church begins at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a time most convenient to persons of the above description; there is always a Sermon preached, and, by the proposed accommodation, they would have an opportunity afforded them (the only one perhaps presented to many of the through the day,) of receiving instruction from the Church Pulpit.

After stating their views as to this most important part of their object, they further remark, that it regards the convenience of the Public, by affording space to widen that most inconvenient and dangerous turning at the Corner of the Church; and the improvement of the High-street, one of the finest Streets in the World, by presenting a chaste specimen of Architecture at its termination. The Committee now beg to submit to the Public a Statement of the Means, small in themselves, but liberal when its very small extent is considered, which the Parish hope to be able to furnish. These cannot exceed £2000.

They are therefore obliged, and they hereby most respectfully solicit the advice, assistance, and co-operation of the University, the City, the County, and the Public; and having left the Committee open, they hope to be favoured at their first General Meeting, on Tuesday the 16th instant, with such an accession of Members and support, as will enable them to proceed without delay in this desirable and useful Work.

Committee Room, Town Hall,
Monday, Feb 8th, 1819.

Numerous Oxford worthies joined the committee, including the Provost of Oriel College, the Master of University College, the four top Oxford physicians (Drs Wall, Bourne, Williams, and Kidd), Bodley's Librarian Bulkeley Bandinel, and Baker Morrell, and the tradesmen Wiliam Slatter, William Joy, and Mr Thorp.

On 27 March 1819 a letter appeared in Jackson/s Oxford Journal from Edward Tatham, the Rector of Lincoln College, pledging a subscription of £100 provided that the new church was a Gothic rather than a Grecian structure, and recommending that it should have a tower based on that of Great Malvern in Worcestershire. Other subscribers had different ideas: see for example the long letter from “Homo” in the edition of 31 July 1819, expressing abhorrence of the proposed design based on Gloucester Cathedral. In the event, when the church was demolished in 1820, its original thirteenth-century west tower was retained: G. V. Cox stated: “The old tower , however, was not meddled with and the Doctor kept his £100”.

The second St Martin’s Church (1822–1896)

St Martin’s Church at CarfaxThe second St Martin's Church in 1836, when it was 14 years old. The medieval tower that still exists
at Carfax was incorporated into the new church, but its height hides most of it

The foundation stone of the replacement St Martin’s Church (above) was laid by Herbert Parsons, Mayor of Oxford, on 23 October 1820, and the church was opened for its first service on Sunday 16 June 1822. The map below, dating from 1876, shows the surviving old tower to the west of the church, and the grave yard to the north.

St Martin's in 1876

The Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce wrote as follows about the parishioners of the city church of St Martin in his Diocese Book on 26 January 1857:

Scarcely any poor. 6 heads of House more or less Dissenters – one joined the Parish Choir. None active in Dissent. Church accommodation for 1000. Pop[ulation] 450. Mor[nin]g parishioners attend well. Even[in]g mixed. Some really pious men…. No college servants…. Corporation still improving. Had all [few] churchwds to dine, & this works well. Parish choir a great help in getting hold of young men. A few years back Church Rate raised by casting vote. Last year no seconder to proposer of no rate.

In 1886 the advowson passed from the Crown to Keble College, which immediately exchanged it with the Bishop of Oxford for that of St Barnabas' Church, Oxford.

W. E. Sherwood reminisced thus about this church of 1822 as it was in the later nineteenth century:

It was the City Church, and so contained the Corporation pew on the south side, but opposite this was, strangely enough, a Ladies’ Corporation pew. Not, mind, that Oxford City was then so ahead of the times as to dream of having ladies as aldermen or councillors, but because, I fancy, it was the fashion in those days for husband and wife to worship together. Of course, the cynical said it was because the City Fathers liked to have their wives under their own eyes, but this no doubt was a libel.

However, there they were; the Corporation pew and the ladies’ pew facing each other, and between them, close up to the altar rails, and quite blotting out the east end, was a fine old ‘three decker’; the clerk below, the reader on the main deck, and the preacher up aloft…. In front of the clerk’s seat sat on benches round a stove four old City Almsmen, clad in handsome gowns and wearing brightly-polished sliver badges, two of which are now in the Committee Room of the Town Hall…. The sermons were preached by the four City lecturers in turn, of whom the Rector was as a rule one….

This second St Martin's Church, built in 1822, only survived for 74 years. The photograph below by Henry Taunt must have been taken shortly before it was demolished in 1896 as part of a road-widening scheme.

St Martin’s Church

The end of the City Church of St Martin in 1896

The Oxford Corporation Act of 1890 marked the end of almost 900 years of worship on this site. It stated that the removal of this church and the throwing of part of its site and of the churchyard into the street would be a great public improvement, and enacted that the Rector and Churchwardens of St Martin, with the consent of the Bishop and Archdeacon, should sell the church to Oxford Corporation. This sale duly took place under an agreement of 6 July 1891, the Corporation paying £2,100 for the church with its churchyard, and the Act stipulated that this money should be used to rearrange All Saints' Church for the accommodation of the parishioners of St Martin's and the members of the Council.

The Act came into force on 15 April 1895, when the Vicar of All Saints', the Revd J. O. Johnston, was instituted Vicar of Cuddesdon. The Rector of St Martin's since 1876, the Revd Carteret J. H. Fletcher, should then have become Rector of the united Church of St Martin and All Saints, but he resigned immediately. He wrote a history of St Martin's: his introductory words make his feelings about the loss of the church at Carfax clear: “The Street Improver’s besom of destruction having just swept from the face of Oxford its oldest parish church, in which the Mayor and Corporation for more than three centuries regularly attended public worship…”.

The last service at St Martin's was on 15 March 1896, and the church was demolished shortly afterwards. The endowment of the city lectureships attached to the church was henceforth applied for educational and charitable purposes.

The photograph of the demolition shown below was taken by Henry Taunt in 1896 (Historic England CC51/00078)

The plaque below was installed at the base of the church's tower in 1899:


Font from St Martin's Church

The stone from St Martin's Church was bought by Windlesham House School and used to build their chapel, and its stained glass went to St Clement's Church. The organ was sold to St James's Church in Cowley for £150, and the communion table was given to Oxford Workhouse.

The church plate, font, and muniments were moved to the new City Church of All Saints' (which was henceforth known as St Martin's and All Saints' Church)

The fourteenth-century font (right), which is carved with eight figures of bishops and saints, was moved from St Martin’s to All Saints', and then transferred again to St Michael-at-the-Northgate Church.

All monuments and tablets, including the Davenant memorial. were re-erected inside the new City Church (All Saints), and some gravestones were moved to its churchyard.

The stair turret to the side, buttresses, and clock were added after the nave was demolished. Its iron staircase was made and erected by Messrs. Lucy & Co., and the two tablets on the wall by Messrs Payne & Co.

The Gateway of St Martin

Bronze of St Martin

St Martin and the beggar

The church was named after St Martin of Tours, who was a soldier in the Roman army stationed in Gaul. As he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens on horseback, it is recorded that he met a half-naked beggar and cut his military cloak in half to share it with him.

When the above gateway was built to connect the ancient tower to the new shop on the north-west corner of Carfax (now the HSBC Bank), a bronze sculpture at the top showing St Martin slicing his cloak (above and right) was placed at its apex.

Originally this gate led into a small grassy area of the churchyard that had remained undisturbed, and although there is a café there now, some flat stones covering vaulted graves can be seen under the tables, including that of William Henry Butler (Mayor of Oxford in 1836/7) who was buried as late as 1865 because his family had an existing vault.

Below: The new gateway in 1900
(Historic England CC51/00085)

The clock at Carfax

The clock and the quarter-boys

T. G. Jackson, who restored Carfax Tower in 1898 after the rest of the church was demolished, also designed a square with a pediment (right) to contain a new clock face, and beneath that an area with pillars with the city motto FORTIS EST VERITAS across the top. Between the pillars he placed stone corbels on which the ancient quarter boys from the church that had been demolished in 1820 were placed. The external bells for them to strike were new, cast by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough. Some of these elements have, however, been replaced:

  • The present clock is a replacement electric one, installed in 1938.
  • The ancient quarter-boys were replaced in the 1960s, and the former ones can be seen in the Museum of Oxford
  • The external chiming bells of 1898 are still in use, and the word LOUGHBOROUGH and part of the year can be seen in the photograph below.

In 2013 these new quarter boys, who like the old ones are dressed as Roman soldiers, were restored and repainted and the clock was serviced by Smith of Derby (as reported here in the Oxford Mail of 8 April 2013).

Quarter boys and clock

The old quarter boys

Three images of the former quarter-boys

Three images of the former quarter-boys are shown above:

(1) before 1747, on the old church
(2) c.1820, on the old church: possibly replacements made in 1748
(3) c.1905, on Carfax Tower the pair taken down in 1820 standing on the same corbels as today

On 12 August 1748 the City agreed to pay the Churchwardens of St Martin's ten guineas toward repairing or new erecting of the clock and chimes at this church, to be raised to twelve guineas if it was done in a decent and substantial manner.

When this church was demolished in 1820 except for its tower, the old quarter-boys were taken down and put into storage, because the new church had only a simple clock.

In 1855 the old quarter-boys were restored by Mrs Pilcher and presented to the City Council, which kept them in the Mayor's Parlour of the Old Town Hall until that was demolished in 1896. In 1899 they were placed on Carfax Tower, but were replaced in the 1960s and are now in the Museum of Oxford.

Jackson's Oxford Journal on 14 October 1899 reported thus on the clock and quarter-boys that had just been moved to the surviving tower:

CHURCH AND TURRET CLOCKS.—The rehabilitation of Carfax clock was carefully carried out under Mr. Jackson, R.A., by Messrs Payne and Son, High-street, and was necessarily a complicated piece of work. The ancient quarter-jacks were ?added to strike warning to the chimes. These quaint figures are carefully poised on stone corbels, and by a specially-made apparatus of Payne and Son, are connected to the clock movement above, phasing the figures at the exact moment of time that they may deliver the resonant blows on the bells below the dial outside the tower. These chiming bells are followed at a given space by a set of chimes, a quaint old time air of Sir John Stainer's (the same as used in Tennyson's church at Freshwater), rung on the peal of bells 30 feet above. The chimes again are followed by the ponderous hour bell, striking the time, thus at twelve o'clock no less than 34 blows are delivered on ...ous bells. The original dial ordered by the architect, and subject to much varying comment, is now replaced by a clear illumination, without piercing the tower.... The re-construction of Carfax clock, rehanging of bells, the chimes, and dial and quarter-jacks partly represents the munificence of Mr.  Randell Higgins, of Burcote, whose early days were spent in Oxford.

This further report a year later on 13 October 1900 provides some extra information, including the fact the the clock now had a new face:

A bold handsome dial has been made and fixed, facing the High-street, by Messrs. Payne and Son, of Oxford, who have successfully overcome the difficulty of illuminating the same without piercing the tower. The clock arrangements for working the old quarter-jacks to strike on outside bells to warn the quarters, and the quaint quarter-chimes (composed by Sir John Stainer for the Tennyson Memorial Chimes at Freshwater), to precede the hour striking on the great tenor bell, are complex and bewildering in appearance, so numerous are the layers, steel lines, cranks, and fittings; and the adaptation of the original clock, a well-made but heavy machine, to its modern uses, has involved a great amount of skill and labour. The clock itself is now encased in a glass compartment, and should not be omitted by visitors looking over the tower. We should add that the electric current is the free gift of the Oxford Electric Company.

Burials in the churchyard of St Martin's Church at Carfax

Between 1562 and 1848 roughly 2,500 people, including some of the most prominent citizens of Oxford, were buried inside this church or in its churchyard. The churchyard was closed in 1848 (except for a few burials in existing graves), and thereafter parishioners were buried in the St Martin's section of Holywell Cemetery A small number of intact vaults can still be seen under the tables in the outdoor area of the present café, but most of the surviving human remains were removed to Holywell Cemetery.

Because it was the City Church, many Mayors of Oxford were buried here, including:

Richard Carey (d. 1349)

Edward Woodward (d. 1497)

William Fleming (d. c.1550)

Richard Whittington (d. 1578)

William Noble (d. 1578)

Henry Dodwell (d. 1578)

Thomas Rowe (d. 1599)

Walter Payne (d. 1619)

John Davenant (d. 1622)

William Wright I (d. 1635)

John Dewe (d. 1639/40)

Thomas Cooper (d. 1640)

William Chillingworth (d. 1645)

Martin Wright (d. 1664)

William Cornish (d. 1679)

William Morrell (d. 1679)

William Bayly (d. 1683)

Roger Griffin (d. 1690)

William Wright II (d. 1693)

John Halifax (d.1735)

John Austin (d. 1775)

John Treacher I (d. 1780)

William Henry Butler (d.1865)

See also:

The second city church (All Saints)

The third (and present) city church (St Michael-at-the-Northgate)

C. H. J. Fletcher, Carfax Church, Oxford (Blackwell, 1896)

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 10 April, 2023

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