South Oxford Community Centre

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Folly Bridge

[Friar Bacons study Folly Bridge]

The tower - Friar Bacon's study - on Folly Bridge appears to have been hexagonal, with a second storey and mullioned windows. The road taking travellers onto Folly Bridge passed under it, through a round arch. Tom Tower at Christ Church on St Aldates can be seen in the distance. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre.

Oxford's first stone bridge, known as South Bridge, was built over the Thames by Robert d'Oilly (who also built Oxford Castle) in the 11th century. It was part of the great causeway, or grand pont, which carried what is now the Abingdon Road over water meadows, from St Aldates to the bottom of Hinksey Hill. A defensive tower, with a portcullis, drawbridge and heavy gates was built at the southern end of the bridge, probably in the 13th century. It was known as New Gate and provided a barrier to anyone approaching the South Gate of the city (which was on St Aldates, where Christ Church now stands) from along the causeway. Timber, iron bars and locks were bought for it in 1310-11 and repairs were made regularly throughout the later Middle Ages. The defensive tower became known as Friar Bacon’s study because the Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, who lived between 1214 and 1292, and was said to be the founder of English philosophy and one of the greatest minds in Europe, apparently used it as an observatory to study astronomy.

Like Magdalen Bridge (which was known as Petty Pont, 'small bridge'), South Bridge was largely maintained by charity and bridge-hermits were appointed to collect alms at the chapel of St Nicholas which was on the causeway leading up to it. In about 1530 repairs were being paid for by the President of Corpus Christi College and his donation was cited in the next century as evidence that the maintenance of the bridge was the college's responsibilty. For centuries disputes continued over the respective liabilities of Corpus Christi, the city, the university and the county of Berkshire [land south of Folly Bridge was in Berkshire until 1889].

From early in its life the tower on the bridge was a place of residence but it was still viewed as a defensive structure: as late as 1565 the city, in leasing the gatehouse for the Berkshire archdeaconry court, reserved the right of entry at all times for the city's defence. But by the 17th century the defensive gate was no longer in use and shortly after 1611 the gatehouse was heightened by Thomas Waltham alias Welcome, and became known as Welcome's Folly (left), giving the bridge its present name.

Folly Bridge Taylors Map of 1750 updated by Faden 1789The bridge is shown in this 'View of the old bridge' from the Oxford Journal Illustrated of 4 April 1923, and (marked as 'Friar Bacon's Bridge') on this extract from Isaac Taylor's map of 1750 (right). Between the arches were massive stone piers with triangular sides projecting into the river. These gave the bridge strength to support the roadway above; moreover the recessed parapets gave a retreat for pedestrians, and the triangular projections formed cutwaters which diverted the current and broke the force of ice or other floating bodies. These piers are shown on a cork model of the bridge made in 1878, though only on one side.

Taylor's map was originally drawn in 1750 but this (above) is an updated version produced by William Faden in 1789, by which time the tower, or folly, at the southern end of the bridge had been demolished (in 1779) by the Hinksey turnpike trustees, for road widening. The waterworks, the rectangular buildings just below the words 'Friar Bacon's Bridge', were still in place however.

By the late 18th century Folly Bridge had become decayed and too narrow for increased traffic. In 1815 an Act of Parliament was obtained to rebuild it. The current bridge was designed by the London architect Ebenezer Perry (1779-1850) and built in 1825-7. It cost over £19,000 and a tollgate was placed at the southern end of the Abingdon Road to collect tolls from road-users, in order to help pay the debt incurred. Here is a view along Folly Bridge, looking towards St Aldates, in 1907.

At the same time as the bridge was being rebuilt, Folly Island itself was remodelled. Prior to 1825 the island was much larger than it is now, as shown on the left-hand image below. This is an extract from a map of 1815, held in the University College archives, which shows that the island immediately west of Folly Bridge was originally teardrop-shaped. In 1824 University College sold the island to the Commissioners of Folly Bridge who cut a new channel or basin east-west through the island , leaving the small southern portion shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1878, and which is still there today. Later Thames and Isis Streets were laid out across what had been the northern part of the island, and the old navigation channel (Shirelake stream), running north-north-west from the northern end of the bridge (around the top of the original island) was filled in. Hence the northern part of the original island became part of the 'mainland' and the island is only about a third as big as it was prior to the rebuilding of Folly Bridge in the mid 1820s.

Univ Coll archives 1815 maps UC.E2.10.1M.1 Irish  Friars

Extract from a map of 1815 in the University College archives, showing land immediately to the west of Folly Bridge owned by the college. The area marked '3' was known as 'Friar's Mead(ow)'; the island, marked '2', was called 'Irelands Mead(ow)' and has Folly Bridge at its south-eastern edge. Image by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford, ref: UC:E2/10/1M/1.

South Oxford OS 1878 extract of Folly Bridge island and land to west

Extract from the Ordnance Survey map of 1878, showing the reduced Folly Island with the artificially-built basin immediately to the north of it.

The bridge and island have been occupied by various industrial and residential properties since medieval times. In the 17th century the city's waterworks were situated on the river nearby. In 1844 a new toll house was built on the bridge and in 1849 Caudwell's Castle was erected on the island. Salter's Steamers have occupied various buildings on and around the bridge and island since 1858, including what is now the Head of the River pub.

[Salters at Folly Bridge c. 1873 showing lock Simon Wenham Dec 13]

The gated pound lock (left) with Salter's buildings on Folly Island behind and to the right of it, c.1873. Salter's warehouse, now the Head of the River pub, is on the far right. Image © Salter's Steamers.

To the west of the bridge was the artificially-built channel or gated basin which allowed boats to moor so that goods could be loaded and unloaded on and off them from the wharves on either side; the posts of the gates can still be seen in the water. From 1821 to 1884 a pound lock (left) stood to the east of the bridge, across the river channel which runs immediately south of Folly Island. Earlier there had been a weir underneath the bridge which had a flash lock and later a pen lock. The basin, the wharves and the pound lock can be seen on this plan of 1844, drawn up when the wharves were being sold at auction.

Folly Bridge can be seen labelled as 'Friar Bacon's Bridge' on this map by Isaac Taylor. Note that St Aldates is labelled 'Bridge Street'. The original map was drawn by Taylor in 1750 but this is an updated version produced by William Faden in 1789, by which time the tower, or folly, at the southern end of Folly Bridge had been demolished. The waterworks, the rectangular buildings just below the words 'Friar Bacon's Bridge', were still in place however. (Click image to close)

[Folly Bridge & St Aldates, Taylors Map of 1750 updated by Faden 1789]

Plan of Folly Bridge and its surroundings, July 1844. The waterworks are in the top left-hand corner.
Image © the Bodleian Library, ref: Bodl GA fol B 71, 132. (Click image to close)

[Auction of wharfs, Folly Bridge, 1844, Bodl GA fol B 71, 132, map]

Looking north over Folly Bridge towards St Aldates in 1907. Notice the horse tramlines in the road, the former tollhouse (here being used as a punt hire office by George Harris) on the left, and the Dolphin & Anchor pub on the right. Tom Tower of Christ Church is in the middle distance. Image © Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: D263879a. (Click image to close)

[Folly Bridge & St Aldates 1907]

Three views of a cork model of the old Folly Bridge made by William Fisher Varney in 1878, and held by the Ashmolean Museum, ref: 272.1878. (Top) the bridge from the west; (middle) the bridge from the east; (bottom) the bridge from above. (Click on one of the images to close)

[Folly Bridge  cork model, 1878] [Folly Bridge  cork model, 1878] [Folly Bridge  cork model, 1878]

Plan of 1815 showing 'intended improvements' to Folly Bridge including the cutting of a 'Proposed Channel' through the island. 'Bridge Street' is St Aldates. 'The present waterworks' are shown at the south-east corner of Folly Bridge (labelled no. 5) and the site of the planned new waterworks is shown to the west, on the northern bank of the proposed channel. (Click on image to close)

[Folly Bridge, map re. rebuilding c. 1815]