Friar Bacon's Study and Folly Bridge

Friar Bacon's Study and Folly Bridge

Image 1. ‘North West View of Friar Bacon’s Study etc.’, engraving after Michael Rooker, 1787.  Size: 29.5 x 44.9 cm. Source: Wellcome Library, reference no. ICV No 14547. Licence: CC BY 4.0  

Image 2. Friar Bacon's Study from Folly Bridge, by Joseph John Skelton (1783–1871), 1819. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.  Another depiction from a similar standpoint can be found here).


Grandpont. Oxford derives its name from the ford to the south of the city over which, in Saxon times, oxen could be driven across the Isis (the ancient name of the Thames in the Oxford area).  Around 1085, Robert d'Oilli replaced an earlier wooden bridge with the so-called South Bridge, which culminated a long causeway along the Abingdon Road known as Grand Pont (to distinguish it from the Petty Pont or small bridge reaching Oxford from the east, on the site of the current Magdalen Bridge).  This causeway is particularly evident on the map of Oxford’s fortifications in 1644, where the Greek letter ‘μ’ marks the full length of a ‘Pons grandis’ which extends over a network of tributaries which are now buried under an elevated section of the Abingdon Road.

Friar Bacon's Study. In the thirteenth century, an imposing, hexagonal defensive tower was constructed, straddling the Abingdon Road, at the southern end of the bridge.  Complete with portcullis, drawbridge and heavy gates, it was designed to bar entry to the city from the south.  Shortly after its construction, it is said to have been used by Roger Bacon as an astronomical observatory; and for 500 years thereafter the tower was known as 'Friar Bacon’s Study'.  (In 1694, a waterworks was added to the east of the bridge: a water wheel pumped water from the river for use in the city. On the north side of the river, what is now the courtyard garden of The Head of the River pub was a wharf: hence the crane which remains to this day).

For centuries thereafter, Friar Bacon's Study was a prominent landmark, visible on all the main contemporary maps of Oxford – in 1578, 1605, 1643, 1675, and 1751 – as well as John Smith’s rather crude and impressionistic ‘South Prospect of City of Oxford’ in 1724. In the 1770s, the picturesque composition of a tower straddling a bridge spanning a river caught the eye of a sequence of artists.  Captured in engravings in 1774 and 1775, it was best immortalised by a painting by Michael ('Michael Angelo') Rooker (1746–1801), now in Worcester College.  Rooker regularly engraved the frontispiece to the Oxford Almanach in these years, and may also be responsible for the engraved version of the painting (Image 1) which appeared in 1787.

Folly Bridge. This flurry of interest in the structure recalls the period's fad for decorating landscape gardens with extravagant towers: although sometimes ostensibly purposeful, these towers - commonly known as ‘follies’- mainly served ornament and delight. With its purpose long since obsolete, the peculiar structure on Oxford’s South Bridge came to be regarded as a picturesque but anachronistic peculiarity of this kind. Ironicially, this fresh appreciation of its scenic qualilties antedated its desctruction by only a few years.  As suggested by the final engraving (Image 2), produced as late as 1819, the original South Bridge was very narrow and the passage beneath the tower was more constricted still. With traffic into Oxford steadily increasing, the need to widen the bridge led to the demolition of the tower in 1779.  But even without its extraordinary tower, the underlying structure continues to be known as Folly Bridge. 

Folly Island today. The name subsequently inspired two houses on Folly Island, which must number amongst the most extravagant in Oxford.  No. 5 Folly Island was built in 1849 for Joseph Caudwell, an eccentric Oxford mathematician and accountant. Only the desire to build a house worthy of this address can explain the crenellated roofline, cast iron balconies, and multiple niches hosting plaster statues.  In 1911, this house, nicknamed ‘Caudwell’s Castle’, was purchased by Robert Gunther (1869 – 1940), the founder of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. Immediately to the west of is 4 Folly Island, built in 1875 and crenelated (in imitation of its neighbor) as recently as 1974.

Further information can be found from South Oxford Community Centre and a rich gallery of commentated images to be found here.

Credits: Howard Hotson (March 2017).