Annette Cunningham investigates ‘Oxford Time’ and other temporal traditions
Alumnus Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design a new bell tower in 1682, which houses 'Great Tom'
Oxford is renowned for its charm and fascinating eccentricities. Beating the Bounds to mark parish territories (originating from a time before maps and deeds were commonplace), city wall inspections being carried out by the Lord Mayor in full regalia, penny throwing on Ascension Day and an annual tortoise fair dating from the 1920s – featuring the thrill of a tortoise race – are just a few of the many Oxford college traditions which are still in existence.
One of the best-known local traditions is the tolling of Christ Church’s majestic ‘Great Tom’, the largest of the Cathedral’s bells, which lords it over the city every evening. Great Tom’s 101 peals from Christopher Wren’s bell tower have dominated the night air for centuries. Ringing at 9.05pm, they originally served to alert the college’s students to return to their lodgings quickly before the gates were locked.
Judith Curthoys, Archivist at Christ Church, says there is no evidence for the exact date this tradition began. ‘The ringing of the nightly alert is likely to have originated soon after 1546 when the college was founded and its timing now serves as a reminder of “Oxford Time”,’ she says. ‘Time marked by Tom’s chime also helped to mark the daily timetable and was important in a place where lectures, meals and curfews governed the day.’Wren’s Tom Tower is the college’s most famous feature, and an Oxford landmark
Judith has carried out extensive research on Christ Church and her book,The Cardinal’s College: Christ Church, Chapter and Verse, is the first complete history of Christ Church compiled since Henry Thompson’s volume back in 1900.
So what is Oxford Time? It dates from the era before the railway, when towns functioned on their own local time, calculated by their position on the line of longitude. The coordinates of Oxford result in the city being five minutes and two seconds precisely behind Greenwich Time. Following the arrival of trains, providing a new link between the UK’s towns and villages, a need arose to bring the time zones together and in 1852 Greenwich Time was adopted nationwide. Christ Church, however, chose to continue to ring its 9pm curfew at exactly the same time every day – which is 9.05pm to the rest of us.
Tom started life along with seven other bells – all with their own charming names including Clement, Marie and Douce – at Oseney Abbey. The abbey was closed by Cardinal Wolsey (who claimed his own Oxford degree at the tender age of 15) to fund his vision of creating a new college aimed at training young men for an active life in the church or state. As Henry VIII’s chief advisor, Wolsey closed down several other monasteries including the St Frideswide Priory and this provided the site for his new building. Christ Church was originally named Cardinal College but, with Wolsey falling from favour just four years after its foundation, the college was remade and renamed by Henry VIII.An engraving of Oseney Abbey near Oxford as it appeared in 1640
Moving the bells from Oseney Abbey through the streets of Oxford must have been something of a challenge in 1546, with Great Tom alone weighing in at several tons. ‘They were carted through St Thomas’ parish and into the city by a Mr Willoughby of Eynsham,’ reveals Judith. ‘He was paid twenty shillings for his trouble and he probably felt that he earned every penny.’
People are often curious about why the bells are rung 101 times. ‘There was originally a peal to mark and alert each of the 100 Students attached to the college by Henry VIII to return,’ Judith explains. ‘The extra ring came later when an additional Student was added by bequest in 1663.’
The bells were, of course, originally rung by hand. There are rumours that the bell ringer would quite often lose count and, instead of hazarding a rough guess at where they had got to and continuing, they would start again from the beginning – resulting in numerous peals filling the air, confused Oxonians and a slightly later than normal curfew. The ringing has been automated since the 1960s so there’s no danger of that happening now.Christ Church clings to Oxford Time for dinner, which starts at 7.20pm rather than at 7.15pm as in other colleges
Great Tom could be forgiven for having something of an identity crisis. The bell has been re-hung and recast (resulting in substantial weight gain) several times, the first such in 1612, possibly to rid it of a papist inscription. It even spent a brief period known as Mary when it was renamed in honour of Mary Tudor during her five-year reign.
Christ Church still clings to Oxford Time in other ways too. Dinner starts at 7.20pm and not at 7.15pm as in other colleges and Cathedral services start at five minutes past the hour.
And so in keeping with tradition, the 101 nightly tolls remains – serving to remind the rest of the city that Christ Church is both loud and proud to be blatantly just a tad behind the times.
Find out more about the history of Christ Church at www.chch.ox.ac.uk/house/about-christ-church