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The perils of procrastination...

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Friday, March 1, 2019

Document of the month March 2019

Engraving by William Crotch showing the devastation in the south-west canonry at Christ Church after the fire of 3rd/4th March 1809An engraving by William Crotch showing the devastation in the south-west canonry at Christ Church after the fire of 3rd/4th March 1809 - Christ Church Archives D&C xx.b.1
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In a corner of the City of Oxford Museum is a small fire engine that belongs to Christ Church. The Treasurer’s disbursement book for 1809, which is kept in the Muniment Room, records the expenditure of £20 3s on a ‘new small fire engine’ supplied by a Mr Bristow. Its purchase, along with that of a number of leather buckets, was made on the advice of a University Committee, set up on 20 March 1809, to consider the best means for guarding against the ‘ravages of fire’. The University bought itself a new engine, sent men to London to be trained in its use, and a permanent volunteer fire brigade was established.

Both University and Christ Church were responding to the great fire which broke out in Tom Quad on the night of 3 March that year, but how different things might have been if the Treasurer had done as he had been asked, first in 1785 and then again in 1808, to purchase a fire engine for Christ Church…

Probably the result of a careless candle or an unguarded grate, the fire was first discovered around midnight in the roof space close to the south west bastion. It burnt so fiercely that it was feared both the Hall and Tom Tower were in danger. Portraits and valuable furniture were cleared from the Hall and stacked up in the Chapter House.

Town and Gown came together in a huge concerted effort; chains of undergraduates, senior members, college servants, and townsmen passed water from Mercury which had been dug as a reservoir in 1670 after another fire. The Oxford Loyal Volunteer regiment turned out in force and, with the assistance of fire engines from other colleges, churches, and businesses all over Oxford, everything was brought under control by 7am.

The Dean and Chapter sent letters to the University and to the Mayor - ‘...they do not offer their thanks simply for the assistance that was given, but much more, and much more strongly, for that zealous and active benevolence, which united all in a common cause, and which alone could have produced and supported the severe exertions of the night’.

Engraving by William Crotch showing the devastation in the south-west canonry at Christ Church after the fire of 3rd/4th March 1809No lives had been lost - the only injury was to Mr Smith of Oriel College who dislocated his knee trying to force open a door - but the whole of the south-west corner of Tom Quad was gutted along with the rooms of four students, two of whom had been in residence for less than a month. Eight further rooms in Tom 1 and 2 were damaged, with the total loss estimated at £12,000 (perhaps in excess of £800,000 today). Complete reconstruction was the only option. 

The celebrated architect, James Wyatt, who had been responsible for the design of Canterbury Quad and alterations to the Hall stairs, was called in to supervise what would be his penultimate project. He estimated that the structural work could be completed by the end of June if the old stone was re-used; new bricks could not be obtained quickly enough. While the timber and glass could be acquired locally, locks were supplied by Standley and Gale in Birmingham. Roofing lead was recovered from the ashes as far as possible, but new material was purchased from the church of Fyfield. Wooden staircases were rebuilt in stone, and the balustrades replaced in iron.

The work was done by local architect, John Hudson, who was employed by the Dean and Chapter throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The total cost of the repairs came to £14,272.