Clocks and Sundials
Tom, the great bell in Christ Church’s Tom Tower, originally came from Osney Abbey in 1545. Attempts to recast the bell, one of which flooded the Archdeacon’s garden with molten lead, kept the experts busy throughout most of the 17th century until it was finally accomplished in 1680. No one is quite sure of Tom’s precise weight, but it is well over 7 tons - ie. roughly 8 old minis, give or take a gear-box - and with a height of 5’ 9’’ and a diameter of 7’1’’, he probably wins on leg-room.
The bell tolls for an hour on the death of the Dean or of a reigning Sovereign. At 9.05pm every evening there are 101 strokes to commemorate Henry VIII’s foundation of 100 scholars, plus one added by a 17th Century bequest. In less liberated times, this was also the signal for all students to return to college – the gates were locked after the last chime. The clock in Tom Tower runs five minutes slower than GMT. This is a vestige of the Oxford Time of old, Oxford being just West of Greenwich.
Carfax Tower is all that remains of St Martin’s Church, originally founded by King Canute in 1034. This was a convenient fortress in early battles between Town and Gown, and in 1341 the tower had to be lowered because its height gave the citizens an unfair advantage when shooting students with bows and arrows from the top. The original oak quarter-boys (which strike the quarters, the clock itself giving the hours) are now retired to the County Museum in Woodstock. The present metal replicas are electrically driven. A 22-second sample of the bells appeared on Oxford band Supergrass’ debut album ‘I Should Coco’ in 1995.
The legend of the pelican tells that it scratched its breast in order to draw blood to feed its starving young. The associations with Christ’s sacrifice as commemorated in the Eucharist led Corpus Christi College to adopt the motif, and it adorns the top of the sundial in the main quad. Known as the Turnbull Dial, this sundial was originally set up in 1579-81. There is a replica (1907) on the campus of Princeton University.
The celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee were taken very seriously in Oxford. As well as the erection of the memorial clock and drinking fountain on the Plain, festivities included a party in the University Parks for 8,000 children. Tea was served in four marquees from a central steam-powered urn containing tea, water, milk and sugar, from which ran pipes with taps at intervals.