Wessex Archaeology and Friends of Blaise teamed up, in conjunction with Bristol City Council Parks Service, to get to the bottom of a mysterious oval structure on the Blaise Castle Estate and became privy to some unconventional 19th Century toilet habits.

Blaise Castle Estate is one of Bristol’s hidden gems. Once a private park for its wealthy owners, it is now a valued public open space nestled between the suburbs of Henbury, Coombe Dingle and Lawrence Weston.

A folly or sham castle is shown with tall grey turrets. It mimics the medieval style, but was built in the 18th century.

The folly or 'sham' castle at Blaise Castle Estate © Wessex Archaeology

The landscape within the park varies wildly, from the open parkland to the west of Blaise Castle House, to the dramatic wooded gorge of the Hazel Brook. In the centre of the park there is a large multivallate Iron Age hillfort, surmounted by a crenelated three-turreted folly known as Blaise Castle. Previous archaeological work has found evidence of prehistoric, Romano-British and early medieval activity within the hillfort, as well as the remains of the medieval Chapel of St Blaise and associated cemetery. The folly, also known as a sham castle, is a more recent addition, designed and built by Robert Mylne in 1766–8. It was commissioned by the estate owner, Thomas Farr, who made his considerable fortune through enslaved labour and American sugar plantations.

Development of the Blaise Castle Estate

As well as the sham castle, Farr had various water features built along the Hazel Brook. He also erected three viewing platforms decorated with fake wooden cannons around the park, and constructed a strange building, known as Root House, built of gnarled branches and tree trunks. Farr lost his fortune during the American War of Independence, and in 1778 he was declared bankrupt and forced to sell the estate. It then passed through several owners until it was purchased by the merchant banker John Scandrett Harford in 1789. Harford demolished the old mansion and commissioned John Nash to design its Neoclassical replacement. Humphrey Repton, the foremost landscape gardener of the era, was appointed to reorder the grounds. Repton added various features, including an artificial ‘Nymph’s Cave’ and ‘Robber’s Cave’. As well as these documented garden features, there is an enigmatic ruined oval building hidden deep amongst a thicket of laurel scrub on the north side of Castle Hill. Whilst this building is obviously old, it doesn’t appear on any maps or estate documents and its exact age or purpose remained mysterious.

During the early 1980s, a group of local volunteers, known as Friends of Blaise, was formed in response to a threat to demolish Blaise Castle. Due to their efforts, the sham castle was saved. Since then, the group has turned its attention to tacking other neglected parts of the estate, one of which is the ruined oval building. Some recording work was undertaken in 1997 (Russell 2003), but over the last 20 years, a dense thicket of laurel scrub has developed in and around the ruin. To tame the thicket and to try and get a better understanding of what the building was, Friends of Blaise in conjunction with Bristol City Council Parks Service, undertook a programme of clearance to remove the vegetation and modern detritus from in and around the structure. Wessex Archaeology was commissioned to work with the volunteers to create an accurate record of the building and assist with the interpretation of the remains.

An archaeologist in high-vis kneels next to the peculiar stone structure.

The mysterious oval structure found in amongst a dense thicket of laurels ©Wessex Archaeology

An Efficient and Sociable Arrangement

So what did we find? Clearing back the vegetation and modern detritus revealed a well-built oval building, built of Carboniferous Limestone rubble and brick, with fine Bath Stone door jambs. The building was divided into two spaces: a circular room and a smaller semi-circular room. There were fragments of ornate Bath Stone window surrounds and cornice blocks, scattered around the building, indicating that it was originally a very fine structure. Stylistically, the building appears to be 18th century, and some of the Bath Stone details match those of the nearby sham castle, suggesting it is likely to be of a similar date. The smaller room was easiest to interpret. It incorporated an underground cesspit, which was subsequently fitted with two stoneware water closets that would originally have housed in a wooden box seat. The toilet pans were ‘servant’s’ or ‘cottage’ types: the cheapest form of late 19th-century water closet, which had a reputation for being smelly and unsuitable for use indoors. The use of this type of toilet suggests that, by the later 19th century, this privy was intended for use by staff rather than polite visitors to the garden. Strangely, at least to modern sensibilities, there was no partition between the two toilets – a very efficient and sociable, if not particularly private arrangement!

A group of volunteers, council staff and archaeologists are crowded around the ruins of the 18th century structure. They are enveloped by a dense thicket of trees.

A group of archaeologists, council staff and volunteers gather around the ruins ©Wessex Archaeology

The larger circular room was harder to interpret. This room appears to have originally been fitted with wooden or lathe-and plaster panelling on the walls and a suspended wooden floor. Part of the floor was subsequently resurfaced with Pennant Sandstone flags, perhaps due to the original floor having rotted. This room originally had large decorative windows that looked out over the park and is probably best interpreted as a summer house or shelter from inclement weather. The lack of a fireplace suggests that it was not used during the colder months. The building probably remained in use for at least 150 years (it was extant in 1918), and its function probably changed over time. The adjacent sham castle was used as a residential building in the early 20th century, and in its later years the oval building may have had a more prosaic use: a lavatory and storage shed for staff and residents of the sham castle.


Find out more

If you’d like to find out more about this structure and other fascinating local sites that we’ve investigated, please visit Wessex Archaeology’s stall at Bristol’s Brilliant Archaeology festival in the grounds of Blaise Castle on the 13 July 2024. 


Further Information:

To view this structure in 3D on SketchFab, click here.

To find out more about Blaise Museum, click here.

See here for more info on volunteer group Friends of Blaise Castle.

Russell, J. 2003. ‘Two 18th-century garden buildings at Blaise Castle’, Avon Gardens Trust Newsletter 26, 11–18. https://www.avongardenstrust.org.uk/publications/.