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Uncomfortable Scavenger Hunt

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Grandpont: Location 3

Folly Bridge, Oxford OX1 1SW

Welcome to the location of Oxford's marshes.

A story of bridges

The origins of Oxford’s name come from its distinct geographical features - the existence of an oxen ford, namely a crossing (ford) for cattle (oxen) across the Thames River.

 

Oxford became a particularly prosperous city in the Middle-Ages due to its location at the intersection between North-South and East-West trading routes, and the river was a prime axis for commerce.

Folly Bridge from the North Bank of the River

That river had many branches and channels, some of them relatively shallow and easy to cross on foot, and others traversed by a series of bridges, to the extent that the southern exit route out of the medieval city ended up being called Grandpont - a long bridge - towards a marshy meadowland. By the 16th century, Grandpont causeway ran from the site of Folly Bridge to the foot of Hinksey Hill, comprising over forty arches.

 

Known today as Folly Bridge, it was then designated as South Bridge, and was Oxford’s first stone bridge. In the 13th century, a defensive tower was built at the southern end of the bridge, protecting the city gates which were located on St Aldate’s on the future site of Christ Church college. The tower was also known after its early occupant as Roger ‘Bacon’s study’, a Franciscan friar who used it as an observatory for his research in astronomy. The whole site of the island counted over 60 houses - a small suburb in its own right. By the 17th century, the bridge had lost its defensive function, and was nicknamed the ‘Bachelor’s Tower’ after Thomas Waltham alias Welcome elevated the gatehouse - which was described as Welcome's Folly, giving the bridge its present name. 

Oxford accountant's Joseph Causewell 19th century 'folly' or 'castle".

Note the sculpture of Atlas at the top of the building with the globe missing.

River view of "Causewell's Castle"

Interestingly, the name “Folly Bridge” pre-dates its more striking architectural element, a 19th century building known as “Causewell’s Castle” - adorned with neoclassical sculptures, and topped with an Atlas who has now lost its globe. The building was erected in 1849 by an Oxford accountant, Joseph Causewell, and its eccentricity brought it a lot of attention, especially from undergraduate students. In 1851, when a group of students “in order to fill up or rather to kill time” tried to steal one of the cannons outside the castle, one of them was severely injured after a shot was fired. Cauldwell was put on trial, but he was not found guilty, the blame falling on the students’ “wanton mischief.”

The question of who was in charge for the upkeep of the bridge became a protracted debate that lasted centuries. Originally, the maintenance of the south bridge relied on charity, however in the 1530s a George Claymond for Corpus Christi college was clearly identified as having contributed to the repairs. Therefore, for the following centuries, it was seen as that single college’s responsibility, resulting in a long dispute between Corpus Christi, the University, the city of Oxford, and the county of Berkshire, south of the bridge.

 

By 1815 the original bridge was deemed beyond repairs and an act was passed for its replacement. A toll house was built in 1840 to balance the initial cost, but by 1850 the bridge had finally paid itself off and the tolls were abolished. The late 19th century saw the peak development of south Oxford, with many areas, including Marlborough road, being reclaimed from the marsh by the Oxford Building and Investment Company.

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With friends or family? Discuss the following:

Grandpont reminds us of the importance of water systems to the development of the city.

 

  • How does Oxford's location on water systems impact the city today, if at all? 

  • What role does this bridge play in city life today in Oxford?

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Want to learn more about how this space changed through time?​

Folly Island itself was remodeled: before 1825 the island was much larger than it is now, but in 1824 the owner of the island, University College, sold it to the Commissioners of Folly Bridge who cut a new channel or basin east-west through the island, thus reducing its size. Later, the northern end of the bridge was filled in, and the northern part of the original island became part of the Oxford 'mainland'. As a result, the island is only about a third of its original size, prior to the rebuilding of Folly Bridge in the mid 1820s.

Check out local historian's Liz Wooley's work on the local history of South Oxford, which was  commended in the Royal Historical Society's 2018 Public History Prize.

Folly Island and Boathouse Island seen from the old South Bridge.

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