No. 10. Clock Tower 1847-1947

Exactly what were Messrs Sewell and Singleton thinking when they decided that what their brand new school really needed in 1847 was a bell tower? They were in the middle of a desperate fund-raising campaign, trying to sell a revolutionary educational system to sceptical parents (and even more sceptical boys), and had just taken a twenty-year lease on the Hall and grounds at Radley. They had no money, three boys, four staff, and were renting somebody else’s house. Obvious that what the place really lacked (apart from a dormitory, school room, books, salaries, food…) was an iconic structure with no utilitarian function.

The bell tower was central to Singleton’s vision of a school operating as a monastic ideal. It was hoped that one day they might be able to afford a clock, but the bells were the priority; the bells would call the boys to chapel and to daily worship. The bells were not solely about keeping time, or marking lessons, or even about getting people up in the morning. They were to peal across the countryside, joyously calling Christians to prayer, taking their place among the bells of Oxford in a paean of praise:

‘A superb moon-light, almost dazzling. I never saw such a night. We heard great ‘Tom’ on the one hand, and the Abingdon bell on the other.’
(Singleton’s diary, 22nd September 1847)

Water-colour - F.T. Dalton

Water-colour – F.T. Dalton

Great Tom’ the bell of Christ Church, Oxford, is c.5 miles to the north-west. The bell of Abingdon, either St Helen’s or St Nicholas, about 2 miles to the south-west. It is still possible to hear both bells simultaneously on a clear night, although the traffic noise from the A34 masks them by day, as testified by the present security patrol.

Although a Radleian writing in 1892 found the sound of the striking bells anything but romantic:

‘I went out and sat down on a sunny bank and gave myself up to dreamy languor. I should have liked to read ‘The Lotus Eaters’ but I couldn’t rouse myself to fetch it. … placid and still I lay, and thought and knew of nothing, till the harsh notes of Peter smote on my ear. Was ever anything so cruelly unsympathetic? The man at the end of the bell-rope can have had no soul for poetry, no feeling for the glorious sun of spring, no mind above the cobwebs and entomology of clocktower, no perception of the finer artistic emotions! In the first place I hate any bells; they always suggest something unpleasant or unromantic; and bells at that time – ugh!’ (The Radleian 9th April 1892)

There is also an [unsubstantiated] anecdote of an irate Don, kept awake through the night by the striking bells, firing a shot-gun to Clock Tower.

Plans for the bell tower appear very early in designs for the new school. The first meeting of the founders of Radley took place on 5th March 1847. Three days later they first visited the house at Radley Hall. By 21st March they were settled in and beginning to decorate. The first mention of the bell tower occurs on 7th April: ‘Where the Venison safe is. Thought of raising this last mentioned structure to the height and dignity of a Bell-tower. Its figure is hexagonal.’

Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy

Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy

On 15th July, Sewell and Singleton approached the most prestigious clock maker of the day, Benjamin Vulliamy, to discuss costs and practicalities. Vulliamy was the head of the famous clock and watch-makers company founded by his father in London in c.1730. The firm had been based at 75 (later renumbered 68) Pall Mall since 1752. He specialised in clocks for turrets and had narrowly lost the contract for the clock which was to become Big Ben, in the new tower at the Houses of Parliament in 1844:

‘Mr Vulliamy, the great clock maker in Pall Mall, called & dined with Sewell & me. Sewell had written to him about the cost of a turret clock to strike the hours on the great bell, & the quarters on the small. He subsequently sent plans and estimates of three. The middle-sized one would come to £235. It is clear that we cannot think of this at present, but we can erect the turret so as to admit of it hereafter if funds come in.’ (Singleton’s diary 15th July 1847)

They had already ordered three bells from George Mears. Mears was the pre-eminent bell founder in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. His company, now known as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, then operated under variations of the name of Mears and Stainbank or George Mears and Co. It had produced some of the most famous bells in the world since at least the reign of Elizabeth I, including the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia in 1752. In 1847 George Mears had begun work on Big Ben, although it was not completed until the 1850s.
C & G Mears Bell 1848

C & G Mears Bell 1848

Radley’s three bells arrived on 3rd November 1847:

‘and have been deposited safely on the ground in and by the Tower. Their weights are as follows:

Note cwt qr lbs
B 9 2 20
A 11 3 21
D 30 3 21

They are provided with tolling hammers, as well as with peels and clappers, so that we can sound them as we please.’ (Singleton’s diary 22nd November 1847)

Before the casting of Big Ben by George Mears, the largest bell in England was ‘Great Peter’ of York Minster. Singleton took great delight in calling the largest of Radley’s bells ‘Peter’, and in knowing that the Archbishop of York, who had been unsympathetic to plans for the new school, would be able to hear it tolling across the River Thames from his house at Nuneham Courtenay: ‘We feel rather a malicious satisfaction at the idea that the Archbishop of York will be compelled to hear its deep sound, swelling over the river into his Grace’s study.’

Sewell and Singleton may have approached the most pre-eminent craftsmen of the day, who were already associated with the most prestigious building project in England (the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben), for the clock and bells, but the design of the turret itself was a much more modest affair. This was the work of one of the first three schoolmasters of Radley, Edward Howard. Howard also designed the College seal. Howard’s design for Clock Tower was a plain, free standing, square turret built in brick, surmounted by four steep gables. The most important feature of a free-standing bell tower is that it must be stable enough to tolerate the swinging of the bells. Its foundations are crucial. Its height and width dictated by the bells themselves. The original site selected by Singleton and Sewell proved unable to support such a tower:

The earliest extant photograph of Clocktower taken in 1860 with the fives courts butressess present but no clocks

The earliest extant photograph of Clocktower taken in 1860 with the fives courts butressess present but no clocks

‘Commenced the Bell Tower, which is to be a simple building of brick, narrow but lofty, – 13 ft wide, and about 50 ft high, terminated by a roof with four valleys. The design is Howard’s, after the German style. I am sure it will look charming. At first it was to have been built joining on to the Venison Larder, for the sake of good grouping, and accordingly the foundation was sunk until a bed of gravel appeared. Mr Johnson, however, was much perplexed at a settle which he had observed in the Larder, and for which he could not account. The foundation appeared to have slightly given way. He therefore determined to sink lower, and thus lighted upon as fine a deposit of building sand as could be found anywhere. … After sinking a few feet, water appeared in abundance; – another great convenience. How very fortunate that we had not built on this spot; the tower would infallibly have come down.

We were of course obliged to choose another site, – which we fixed at a few yards distance, where we found stiff clay. The excavation is filled up with a great mass of concrete, and the brick work in the centre is grouted with hot liquid mortar. Above the plinth the walls will be 18 inches thick, and will be tied together with cross beams which bear several floors. Thus, he says, that the work will never stir, and that we are quite welcome to swing the great Bell; no ordinary comfort.’ (Singleton’s diary 6th October 1847)

The Tower is a very beautiful structure, built of plain brick, and thoroughly German in character and proportion. It is 13.6 square, and 60 feet in height to the top of the ridge-tile. There is thus abundant height for bells, and a clock, if we should hereafter be rich enough to buy, or fortunate enough to receive the present of, one.’ (Singleton’s 22nd November 1847)

Exactly what is meant by ‘thoroughly German in character’ is unclear. Tony Money and Michael Cherniavsky in their pamphlet ‘Looking at Radley’ identified the four steep gables as characteristic of several surviving examples of Romanesque towers in the Rhineland. However, they illustrated the point with a photograph of the 11th century tower of Sompting Church, Sussex, which lacks the deep valleys described by Singleton. Another possible inspiration that they identified is a nineteenth century drawing of a chimney at nearby Abingdon Abbey. The major point being made by the design is probably simply that it was the height of fashion. This was a Neo-Gothic building, echoing much of the new style being introduced elsewhere in Oxford. It was ‘German’ in style, and therefore a nod to modernity and to the influence of Prince Albert in contemporary new builds. Its style was markedly different to other turrets simultaneously being constructed at Radley. Staircase turrets built for the chapel and dormitory (both since demolished), were circular with cone-shaped, pointed roofs. Singleton was concerned that such round turrets appeared ‘more martial than ecclesiastical; still we deliberately chose it in preference to a square concern … and I am sure that it will look very well if we crown it with a conical roof. We must in this, as well as many other points, brave criticism and defy cavil.’ (Singleton’s diary 24th September 1847)

An American visitor in 1935 saw a less beautiful structure:

‘I’m afraid we didn’t look on Radley as exactly the most attractive spot in the world … My cousin even went so far as to say that Clock Tower looked like the watch tower in a prison and that she expected to see a machine gun poked through the slit at any time.’ (The Radleian 18th December 1935)

The three bells arrived on 3rd November 1847:

‘While standing inspecting the arrangements for raising ‘Peter’ (as we call him) off the cart, saw about 8 gentlemen coming up towards the Offices, and looking rather bewildered. … [including] Mr Halse of All Souls’… Accompanied him part of the way down the drive, when I suddenly heard the first stroke of the great bell. While it was in suspension, before being lowered from the cart to the ground, Mr Johnson took up its clapper and struck a blow. The sound was very fine, rich and deep. ‘There’, said I, to Mr Halse, ‘is the first sound of the great Peter of Radley.’

By 26th November they were finally installed: ‘the three bells have been safely placed aloft in their berths. They were struck by drawing the clappers with the hand, and are lovely.’

The bells have rung the hours since 1847, only being silenced during World War 2, when all bells across the country were used only for dire emergencies. But they did ring out on Sunday 15th November, 1943, to celebrate the victory in the North Africa Campaign. About two-thirds of the boys at the school during those years had never heard them before.

No photographs survive of the bell tower in this earliest phase, as a single, unsupported tower without clocks. The earliest image of it is in a letter from Charles Talbot to his parents in 1856. Even then, it is incidental to the drawing as Charles is describing the layout of some railings which lay between the bell tower and the park. At this date the wings must already have been added although they are invisible in the drawing.

Charles Talbot’s drawing of Clock Tower

Charles Talbot’s drawing of Clock Tower – A sketch of this drawing was added to the transcript of the letters now in Radley College Archives. The copyist failed to observe that the buttress is clearly visible on the left side of the tower and so omitted it. This caused AK Boyd to annotate the letter with the note ‘this is the only extant picture of Clock Tower before the buttresses were added by Sewell.’ Unfortunately, the buttresses were added in 1855 and letter written in 1856. Therefore there is no extant picture of the original bell tower as designed by Howard and built in 1847.


‘Friday 19th 1856
Today I sent off my letter to you and some drawings which Ge and I had done during the term … Today … while we were playing about a man came up with rather a jolly pony and so I asked him to let me have a ride on it so he did and I rode it at full gallop in the park and just as I was stooping down to open a gate … and near which there were some railings like this when the pony wheeled round before I could stop it or say anything the pony had tried to take the fence but not being able to do it, it came down on its knees and sent me right down head foremost into the mud, but I picked myself up quick and took hold of the reins and got on him again and had a canter, but I was not hurt a bit so I didn’t care a hang.’

In 1853, amid a crisis in the leadership of the school, William Sewell took over as the third Warden of Radley. Sewell’s vision for the school gave greater priority to the aesthetic and arcadian side of the founders’ joint vision, rather than Singleton’s more austere monastic approach. Nowhere is this more apparent than Sewell’s rapid conversion of the bell tower from a single function building to house the bells for Christian worship, into the central play area of the school. In 1855, Sewell constructed four wings, each projecting from the four corners of the tower. These have occasionally been described as buttresses, and it may be that the tower as originally built was unstable. But the wings were primarily the sides of four Fives courts, with a low wall at the back of each court, only one of which now survives as a boundary wall for A Social Tutor’s garden.

The only surviving wall of the fives court. This particular court was reserved for the use of prefects, consequently all other boys were forbidden to cross the court, so had to walk behind the wall. This tradition survived at least until the 1940s even though the court and wall had long lost their original purpose.

The only surviving wall of the fives court. This particular court was reserved for the use of prefects, consequently all other boys were forbidden to cross the court, so had to walk behind the wall. This tradition survived at least until the 1940s even though the court and wall had long lost their original purpose.

The courts were painted white, which would have stood out clearly against the red brick. The bell tower courts compensated for the loss of informal Fives courts which had developed in the bays alongside the School Room (now the Library); these were converted into a series of lean-to classrooms in 1855. The opening of the new Fives courts was a grand affair celebrated with a large party, with Mrs Hook, mother of Walter (1851) and Cecil (1855), laying the first stone, on 3rd September 1855. Playing Fives at the bell tower courts became the obsession of Dons and boys. The diaries of both Sewell and his Sub-Warden, William Wood, constantly refer to Fives matches. The smallest boys in the school would challenge Sewell to join their game if he were simply walking past (at least, according to Sewell). Wood’s photo album shows a mixed team of Dons and boys – the earliest sporting photo of Radley.

It is unclear whether all four courts were all intended for games. The tower contains a staircase for access to the bells, approached through a double door. This door would have made one court at least unusable for racket sports. By 1894 there were certainly only two courts in use for Squash Rackets, with the suggestion that a third might be organised by laying down stone slabs. The original shop, organised by the boys themselves, was also located somewhere close to Clock Tower. The key spot above the doorway into the tower was appropriated by the parents of Robert Risley, to commemorate his role as the third Senior Prefect of the school, and Senior Prefect under Sewell. Risley left the school in 1855, to go up to Sewell’s old college in Oxford, Exeter. Now it looks an incongruous location for such a key plaque, but when it was erected it was the central, secular place in the school.
The Risley Plaque

The Risley Plaque

This central location made the tower an ideal candidate for other communal activities: it was always the rallying point and meeting / collection place, but in 1892 it was suggested that the door into the Tower would be the ideal site for a new school shop:

‘rumours … there was to be a magnificent erection … with myriad trays of French pastry and French chefs doling out sweets … if tastefully carried out [this] would considerably improve the appearance of the tower…’ (The Radleian 15 November 1892).

Aristophanes - The Frogs, 1900

Aristophanes – The Frogs, 1900

The wings of the Fives courts also made excellent wings for a stage for the annual Latin and Greek plays in the 1890s and 1900s. Swedish drill was practised there by the entire school in 1915. The interior of the tower became a dumping ground for those things no one wants and which cannot be thrown away, such as the broken remains of the Museum. In 1939, Clock Tower was declared a tripping hazard while walking around College during the black-out. The exterior became so much a pedestrian route that it took on the role of a roundabout. Originally, the tower was surrounded by grass, with a large tree, the home of a rookery, between Clock Tower and the Old Gym. Gradually the grass suffered from being churned up into mud.

In 1928 there were complaints that the ground was so heavily trodden and waterlogged that there was danger of being lost in quicksands. By 1929, the car was beginning to make its presence felt, and the tree was felled:

‘We were surprised the other day to see two workmen demolishing the wall of the old court on the north-east side of clock-tower. The cement was also being removed from the wall of Clock Tower. The idea is to give more room for cars. It is interesting to note that this wall is part of one of the oldest buildings in College.’ (The Radleian 28 July 1929)

By October the same year:

‘The paving stones on Prefect’s Court have been removed, and the whole space surrounding Clock Tower tarred and gravelled. The stones have been used to pave certain areas which formerly reminded one of nothing so much as the Slough of Despond.’ (The Radleian 23 October 1929)

It was not until 1864 that the school could finally afford a clock. Then a clock with two faces, looking south-east and south-west was installed. The clock radically changed the focus of the tower. By 1871 an article in ‘The Field’ about the opening of the golf course, the inauguration of another new sport at Radley, describing the landmarks of the course, saw the Fives Courts as the primary structure with the clock tower as an adjunct to them:

‘The entire distance of nine holes is about 3,330 yards round the inner Park … and consists of the Ricks, the Path, the May, the Wood, the Elm Clumps, the Firs, the Ridge, the Warden’s and the Home’s Holes; the places named being conspicuous objects … The clock tower of the Fives Courts rising above the roof of the Gymnasium gives the leading mark to the Warden’s Hole…’ (quoted in The Radleian, October 1871)

Squash on the East Court circa 1880.

Squash on the East Court circa 1880.

The East Squash Court - 1902

The East Squash Court – 1902

This shift in emphasis from tower to courts is repeated in 1880, when The Radleian printed a correction to an article which had appeared in another school’s magazine, The Lorettonian: ‘We certainly do play Bat Fives on the out-door courts, which are built around a clock tower…’.
In 1876 the school built an indoor fives court for Winchester fives. This court is still in use. By the 1880s the open air courts around Clock Tower were also being used for squash rackets as well as bat fives.

By 1908 the lack of dials on the two remaining sides was becoming a matter of complaint. The new school Shop had been built, two hundred metres away from Clock Tower, but there was no dial on the side facing Shop – a great annoyance for those without watches. 1913, still no more dials. 1930, still no more dials. 1935, still no new dials. 1938, a plea for just one more dial, on the north-east, which could at least be seen from the playing fields … In 1925 there was a plea that even with only two dials, they should at least indicate the same time. This was repeated in a limerick competition in 1926 when third place went to this effort:

To determine the time from clock tower

Is a task quite beyond human power;

When it strikes quarter-to

On the side facing you,

On the other it points to the hour. (The Radleian July 1926)

The Clock

The Clockface

At the Old Radleian dinner held in his honour in 1949, Vyvyan Hope recalled three particular highlights of his time at Radley in charge of the OR Society and fundraising:

‘In 1930 a packet dropped from a plane on to the pitch containing £30 for the Land Fund… In 1939 he received 98 ‘fivers’ from an anonymous OR… and finally in the century term [Easter Term 1947] he received a cheque for £1000. This was spent on electrifying the works of Clock Tower and putting synchronised clocks round College, in an attempt to mark more accurately the passage of time in the second century of the College!’ (The Radleian 13th March 1949)

In 1948 the two missing dials were also added. The gift of the clock faces and the electrification was originally anonymous, but the donor died on 8th April 1948, and his obituary revealed his identity. He was George Saunders of A Social, who had been a boy at the school throughout World War 1, 1914-1918. In World War 2 he had served on Field-Marshal Montgomery’s staff in 1945 and was probably instrumental in arranging Montgomery’s visit to Radley in 1947. So it took exactly 101 years from Singleton’s and Sewell’s first meeting with Benjamin Vulliamy for their hoped-for Clock Tower to be complete with four dials, three bells and electrified mechanism. As they had hoped, somebody gave the school a present.

Clare Sargent 12.2.2013

Through the Trees

Through the Trees

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