Carfax Conduit

A stone water conduit stood at Carfax from 1610, but was removed in 1787, when the road was widened for coach traffic. It was given to Lord Harcourt, who set it up in Nuneham Park (which now belongs to the University of Oxford).

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

The conduit was built at Carfax, Oxford by John Clark, a Yorkshire stone-carver, after it was 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 both had the idea for the conduit and 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.

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).

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.

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

Photographs of the conduit at Nuneham Courtenay today

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