Past Talks

Excavations at the Westgate

Date: 15th January 2018
Speaker: Ben Ford

Excavations at the Westgate – Ben Ford

Ben Ford, director of the excavations at the Westgate is a Senior Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology. 

Archaeology took place on this site in central Oxford from 2015 to June 2016, and represented a unique opportunity to understand the history of this area prior to the redevelopment of the shopping centre.  The principal focus was on the mediaeval period, but archaeologists also investigated the 19th century housing, an old channel called the Trill Mill, a possible water mill and a possible Iron Age village. 

In the 1960s Oxford City Council began a major redevelopment of the city in the south western part of the town around the mediaeval church of St Ebbe’s. At this time, a large part of the church and fragments of the cloisters of the Oxford Franciscan Friary or Greyfriars were discovered.  This dated from 1224 and was located between St Ebbe’s Church and the city wall.  When the original site was outgrown, permission was given to extend the precinct to the south and build a church across the line of the wall.  This was marginal land outside of the well-drained gravel promontory on which the city had developed.  However, the friars were expert builders and were able to exploit the terrain to channel water for fishponds and flushing toilets. 

Evidence of a stone-lined channel and sluice have been found in the recent excavations.  This was the friars’ water supply.  The complex consisted of dormitories, two libraries, a toilet block, a kitchen range, store houses, a buttery, a servery, an infirmary and a eating hall.  Teaching rooms and the libraries were situated around cloisters, the whole being surrounded by a precinct wall.                                                   

Pits for kitchen waste located in a yard between the kitchen range and the precinct wall gave an indication of the friars’ varied diet of wheat, oats, barley, rye, nuts, herbs, meat, fish, eggs, poultry and shellfish.  This was further supplemented by homegrown produce.  The area known as Paradise was used to grow food and graze animals.   

The friars enjoyed considerable status as teachers within the university and produced books for the papal library.  A stylus, a lead pencil, parchment, prickers (for planning the layout of a document) and book clasps were excavated in support of this reputation. 

After the Reformation the buildings of Greyfriars were pulled down and much of the stone used to provide building materials.  

During the Civil War, Oxford was used as the royalists’ military base necessitating the construction of new fortifications.  A map dating from 1644 shows the extent of these works and conforms with the discovery of a large flat-bottomed ditch which follows the line of the defences.  A well-preserved halberd was found in this area.

Between c. 1820 and the 1860s, the site was built over with streets of terraced housing, known as ‘The Friars’.  The development, which included small shops and a number of public houses, suffered from poor drainage and a lack of piped water.  The proximity of cesspits and wells ultimately led to serious health problems among the residents and outbreaks of cholera in the mid-1800s. By the mid-1900s the area was scheduled for clearance and redevelopment and was finally demolished in the 1970s.