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Penniless Bench, Carfax, Oxford


A bench at Carfax attached to the City Church was the traditional official meeting place for Oxford citizens.

The first known bench was built by the Churchwardens of St Martin’s Church in 1545: it leant up against the church, and had a leaded roof. By 1561 it was known as the “Penniless Bench”, suggesting that it was used by beggars: this is probably connected to the fact that St Martin (who tore his cloak in half to give part of it to a beggar who turned out to be Jesus in disguise) is the patron saint of beggars. In 1578 it extended the whole length of the church’s east wall, and projected into the street.

In 1598 a man was employed by the council to look after it:

Hit is agreed that William Holbeck shall have twentie shillings allowed him yerelie from henceforth, to see Penylesse bench allwaies kept cleane, and to keepe those from the same bench on markett daies and other tymes which ought not to sit or stand there.

The structure was used as an assembly point for the Mayor and Corporation before and after church; and on market days it was used as a butter bench.

Students were forbidden to loiter near the penniless bench by University Statutes of 1636.

In 1667 the city rebuilt the bench in stone, and it became a much more elaborate structure, with an arcade of four arches supported by pillars, and a large window in the north wall. In 1711 there was a proposal to remove it, but a citizen, Charles Harris:

having been informed that the City agreement was to demolish the old pyaza under the est end of Carfax Church called Pennylesse Bench or pay £20 in lieu thereof, came into the Council house and did promise, rather than the said Bench should be demolished, to lend the City the said sum for one year gratis, which the house accepted with thanks, and agreed that the same bench should continue as it then was, saving that the enclosure at the two ends thereof should be pulled down and left open.

In 1713 a new butter market opened on the south-west corner of Carfax with a new assembly room for the Mayor and Councillors beside it. By 1747 the old arcaded “penniless bench” was being abused by disorderly people, and it was pulled down.

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 20 July, 2018

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