The great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner had little time for St Frideswide’s Church in Osney. ‘Violently high Victorian’ was his verdict; an example of architectural ‘ruthlessness’, with its ‘very low octagonal central tower’ and ‘stunted north transept … squeezed in between mighty buttresses’, not to mention its ’lean-to roof’. Worse still, he lamented, ‘It has all been left uncarved.’ …

IMG 8521 - St Frideswide’s Door

Within the body of the church, however, is a carving of another sort which has excited considerable interest.

It’s a wooden door. It stands in one corner of the nave. It features an image of Oxford’s patron saint, St Frideswide, in a rowing boat, making her escape from the dastardly clutches of King Algar. And it is supposed to have been carved by none other than Alice Liddell – the original ‘Alice’, of Wonderland fame.

Frideswide Door 2020 full - St Frideswide’s Door

Or ‘so the Rev A Mallinson tells me’, Pevsner added in an exculpatory footnote. And herein lies a clue. For it turns out that the good reverend was getting somewhat ahead of himself. The people responsible for the door carving were, in fact, two of Alice’s sisters, Rhoda and Violet (we have Mark Davies, Oxford’s expert on all things Wonderland, to thank for this sleuthing: see Feedback below).

It’s a powerful and evocative connection nonetheless, linking two of Oxford’s most famous women. As it happens, St Frideswide’s church is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, having being founded in 1872. The saint herself is rather more venerable – over a thousand years more venerable in fact. Her feast day is on 19 October 735.

Long may they both sail on – and all who sail with them.

Happy St Frideswide’s Church! Happy St Frideswide’s Day!

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Feedback

Henry Hardy, acclaimed editor of the writings of philosopher-historian Sir Isaiah Berlin, lived for a decade in the vicarage of St Frideswide’s, and has published two books by the aforesaid Revd Arnold Mallinson. He writes:

I was unsurprised to learn that Arnold had got his facts wrong: but it made a better story if the door was carved by Alice.

Pevsner’s comment on the tower is unfair: there was supposed to be a steeple, but funds ran out. I prefer Betjeman’s verdict: ‘Teulon’s neat little job.’

I revisited Binsey recently and was sorry to see that the churchyard gate installed in Arnold’s memory was leaning up against the wall in a state of collapse.

I was one of the churchwardens who organised the planting of the yew tree at St F’s over 40 years ago, now full grown.

We are in the process of commissioning a plaque. We also helped keep St F’s open when the Church powers that be were trying to close it. – HH

Henry also composed an anthem for St Frideswide with words by fellow churchwarden Christopher Schenk.
You can hear a performance here:
https://users.ox.ac.uk/~wolf0776/dugpubs/tunes.html
John Whitehead, author of a fascinating historical / theological blog, and for many years a citizen of this parish, writes:

I think Pevsner is a bit unfair in what he says about St Frideswide’s – but, as he pointed out when I heard him speak many years ago, The Buildings of England surveys were, of necessity, done quickly. The proposed octagonal tower was never built due to the low-lying marshy site being close to the river and canal, and, like the never-undertaken carving, presumably also not done to save costs.

St Frideswide’s was the creation of the great High Churchman Canon Chamberlain, incumbent of the original parish of St Thomas’ just to the east. He built it to counter the presence of the Baptists on Osney Island, the first part of the area to be developed as housing for ordinary working families, and he appears to have impoverished himself as a result of funding its construction.

The church he built, together with its attached vicarage – they are connected by a long corridor – was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon, an architect prolific at the time but little known these days. His muscular, assertive buildings are replete with Gothic detail but are unmistakably and uncompromisingly of the mid-nineteenth century – there is about them nothing of the Pugin and Wardell, or Pearson, Bodley and Comper, striving to recreate the English middle ages.

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Jackie Holderness, author of The Princess Who Hid in a Tree, writes to tell us of another church in which St Frideswide is commemorated:

I recently spotted two large, empty niches in the side chapel of St Mary’s Church in Witney, so I introduced my iconography teacher, Dr Irina Bradley, to the Rector. The result is the panels you see below: St Luke and St Frideswide, both associated with health and healing. The panels were installed on 16 October.

Icons - St Frideswide’s Door
More than that, Jackie has instigated the creation of what she calls a Psalm 23 Garden in the surroundings of the Treacle Well at Binsey. See https://morrisoxford.co.uk/treacle-well/
Thanks to Mark Davies for sharing his article from the Times Literary Supplement.