OLD OXFORD

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Carfax Conduit


This stone water conduit belonging to the University of Oxford stood at Carfax from 1610. It was removed in 1787, when the road was widened for coach traffic, and the University gave it to Lord Harcourt, who set it up in the grounds of his home, Nuneham Park. It is a Scheduled Monument (List Entry No. 1020965).

Carfax Conduit
Carfax Conduit, photographed at Nuneham Courtenay on 14 September 2019

This conduit was built at Carfax, Oxford in 1610 by John Clark, a Yorkshire stone-carver, after it had been agreed that a grant should be passed authorizing the University to open the streets to bring water to Carfax in lead pipes and to build a conduit “to be bewtified and adorned as an ornament of the citty with three several cocks fayerly set out to run water three several ways”, and that the City would allow as much space as could be spared at Carfax, for which a fee of a shilling a year would be paid.

The letters “O:N” can be seen repeated around the conduit: these are the initials of Otho Nicholson, a wealthy graduate of Christ Church, who not only had the idea for the conduit but paid for it. It was fed from a cistern on Hinksey Hill (see below) via an underground lead pipe. The upper part of the pipe supplied various colleges, and the lower part the city.

Arms on conduitThe coats of arms of the University of Oxford, the City of Oxford,
and Otho Nicholson (underneath the initials of the latter)
A full explanation of all the iconography of the conduit is reproduced at the foot of this page.

A description of the conduit after it was repaired in 1686 stated that:

the water which comes from the fountain head or conduit-house near Hinksey aforementioned is conveyed into the body of the carved ox, and thereby the city is supplied with good and wholesome water, issuing from his pizzle, which continually pisses into the cistern underneath from whence proceeds a leaden pipe out of which runs wine on extraordinary days of rejoycing.

The Carfax conduit was made to run with wine on special occasions, such as the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660,

The fate of the conduit was sealed by the Mileways Act of 1771, which proposed its removal. The painting below, dating from 1775, shows the extent to which it must have obstructed traffic (especially as St Martin's Church also then jutted out into the street on the opposite corner).

Carfax in 1775

The conduit was not removed, however, until 1787, when it was replaced by a new water-house on the north side of Carfax.

The following account was written soon after it was moved to Nuneham Courtenay:

The original situation of this piece of antiquity is well known to have been in the centre of the principal street in Oxford; and, probably, from its situation in the middle of four ways, or quatre voiz (in old French) it obtained the vulgar appellation of Carfax; or, perhaps, with as much probability, from Carrefour, the place where several streets meet.

The decayed state of this building, and its inconvenient situation, induced the University very lately to take it down, and judiciously to place it in hands, where it might remain a gratification to the curious, and a pleasing monument of antiquity. The noble Earl has caused some Latin and English lines to be inscribed on this building, on its being placed in his ground; the latter of which run as follows:

THIS BUILDING CALLED CARFAX
ERECTED FOR A CONDUIT AT OXFORD,
BY OTHO NICHOLSON,
IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD MDCX,
AND TAKEN DOWN IN THE YEAR
MDCCLXXXVII,
TO ENLARGE THE HIGH STREET,
WAS PRESENTED BY THE UNIVERSITY
TO GEORGE SIMON, EARL HARCOURT,
WHO CAUSED IT TO BE PLACED HERE.

In the mid-1950s the Harcourt family gave the whole of the Nuneham Park estate, including the conduit that had formerly belonged to them, to the University of Oxford.

In 1972 there was a proposal to move Carfax Conduit to Broad Street, Oxford, and a model was set up there (photograph), but in the end the proposal was rejected.

The University of Oxford still own the arboretum on the Nuneham Park estate, but in 2017 they sold the house and the large part of the park in which the conduit is situated to the Global Retreat Centre.


The water supply to Carfax Conduit

The water came from a 2,000 gallon tank in a well-house on the hill above North Hinksey. This well-house or conduit house was built between 1610 and 1616 and is a Grade II* listed building (list entry 1015158). .

The water entered the city of Oxford near Littlegate and fed the Carfax conduit. The coat of arms of Otho Nicholson who also built Carfax conduit are on the north-east end. There is graffiti on the building dating from the late seventeenth century.

Conduit house
Above: the conduit well-house on Hinksey Hill in 2011


Full description of all the imagery on Carfax Conduit

Anthony Wood records this very detailed description of the conduit in Ancient and Present State of the City of Oxford :

The Conduit is a most curious Piece of Architecture, built in the Year 1610, as appears by the Date facing East, by Mr. Otho Nicholson, M.A. of Christ Church College.—He was much skilled in the Oriental Tongues, and had travelled Abroad into several Countries. He was a Gentleman much beloved, and his Death much lamented. In Christ Church old Library, formerly a Chapel, near the Stone Pulpit, is a small Monument, containing an Inscription well worthy the Inspection of a curious Eye; the Year of our Lord being so promiscuously placed by Capital Letters, as to make up the Date above in Gold Letters; over which is a Coat of Arms, being the same in Likeness as is placed on every Side the Conduit, viz. East, West, North, and South.—The Whole is exactly square, built with fine polished Stone, the four Sides being made with hard Stone, cut all over in Imitation of the Waves of the Sea: but since the University had it, where it was damaged by Time, notwithstanding the great Weight of Stone Work above the square Walls, it was so well contrived by Props and Pullies, whilst doing, as to support the whole Top, while the Sides of the old Work were pulled down. The Arms of the University, City, and Founder, are under the Cornish, thus, on the East Side, the University, City, and Founder's Arms; the last of which is Azure, 2 Barrs, Erm. in Chief, 3 Suns in their Glory, alluding to his Name.—On every Side is the same Coat of Arms. On each Corner above the Cornish is placed, on the three Sides of each Cube, as many Sun Dials, making in all twelve. Between each Corner Dial, facing the North, East, West, and South, is very finely carved a Sort of Open Work, consisting of Capital Letters, the Sun in his Glory, and Mermaids holding Combs and Mirrors. The Letters O.N. serve for a Rebus, and was an ancient Way of expressing Devices. On the four Side Walls hereof, proceeding from the Corners of it, stand as many curious Arches which concentre in the upper Part, supporting a stately Fabrick of an octangular Form; under and beneath those Arches is contained a large Cistern; over which stands Queen Maud, Sister to the Emperor, riding on an Ox over a Ford, alluding to the Name of Oxford. The Water which comes from the Fountain Head is conveyed into the Body of the Ox, whereby the City is supplied with good and wholesome Water, which continually runs into the Cistern underneath, from which proceeds the Leaden Pipe, out of which runs Wine upon extraordinary Days of Rejoicing.

   Above the Foot of each grand Arch, which supports the other Work, is one of the Supporters of the Royal Arms of England, according to the Times they were used, in Manner following; to the N.W. Point is an Antelope born, as a Supporter in the Reign of Henry VIII. to the S.W. Point is a Dragon, used in the Time of Queen Elizabeth; to the S.E. Point is a Lion, as now used; to the N.E. Point is an Unicorn, as now used. Each of these Supporters is sejant, or sitting, holding in their Fore Feet a Banner, containing the several Quarterings of the Royal Arms of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland.—Between the abovesaid Supporters are carved various Ornaments, as Obelisques, Boys, &c. interchangeably transposed on the four Sides of the Conduit. Above the Middle of each Arch, stand Figures neatly carved, representing the four Cardinal Virtues.—To the N.W. stands Justice richly habited, holding in her Right Hand a Sword, in her left a Pair of Scales, and her Eyes covered, to shew her impartial Administration of Justice. To the N.E. stands Temperance, pouring of Wine out of a large Vessel into a smaller Measure. To the S.E. stands Fortitude, holding in her Right Hand a broken Pillar, and in her Left the Capital. To the S.W. is Prudence, holding in her Left Hand a Serpent, denoting Eternity.—Where the four Arches meet at the Top, stands a curious Pile of Stone Work of an octangular Form, having as many Niches, in each of which stands a fine Statute under a Canopy, each Figure having a Crown of Gold on his Head, a Sceptre in his Hand, and a Shield on his Arm, containing his Device or Coat of Arms.

   The Figures which stand in the above mentioned Niches, are the seven Worthies; and our then Worthy, King James I. made up the eighth, in Manner Following.—To the E. stands King David, holding in his Right Hand a sceptre, in his Left a Shield, thereon these Arms, Sapphyre, a Harp Gold stringed Silver within a Border, diapered Rubie and Diamond.

   The Second, Alexander the Great,—On his Shield, these Arms; a Lion Rampant, regardant.

   The Third, Godfrey of Bullen, crowned with Thorns,—On his Shield, a Cross Potent between four Croslets Topaz.

   The Fourth, Arthurus,—On his Shield, four Crows volant.

   The Fifth, Charlemaine, On his Shield, Party per Pale, Topaz and Sapphire.

   The Sixth, King James I.—On his Shield, England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, quartered.

   The Seventh, Hector of Troy,—On his Shield, Topaz, a Lion Rubie sejant in a Chair, Pupure holding a Battle-Axe Pearl.

   The Eighth, Julius Caesar,—On his Shield, Topaz, an Eagle displayed with two Heads, Diamond.

   Above these eight Worthies stand out at some Distance, several curious Figures, representing the liberal Sciences; one of which is Orpheus with his Harp, embellished with several Sorts of musical Instruments, as Trumpets, Lutes, &c. On the Top, over all the niches, and above the four grand Arches which support the rest, stand two Figures of Human Shape, Back to Back, representing Janus, an old Man, looking Westward, holding in his Left Hand a Shield, whereon is carved a Batt with Wings displayed; The other is a young Woman with a Sceptre in her Hand; both standing under a Canopy.—Above which is an Iron Rod, on the Top of which a Vane shewing the several Points of the Wind. Over this is a Cross, representing the Points of the Heavens. Also, above the Niches, wherein stand the eight Kings, are contained Ornaments; consisting of a Woman upwards, and Scales of Fish downwards, and tapering towards the Feet. Under which are interchangeably transposed, the Royal Badges of the four Kingdoms;—The Rose for England, the Thistle for Scotland, the Fleur-de-Lis for France, and the Harp for Ireland.

Thus far concerning the Conduit, which for Usefulness, Beauty, and Neatness, is not to be exceeded in the three Kingdoms.

Carfax conduit
Above: The Carfax Conduit at Nuneham Courtenay,
painted by Percy Roberts in about 1850


Photographs of the conduit at Nuneham Courtenay today

Catherine Cole, “Carfax Conduit”, Oxoniensia 1964–5

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