Kelston and the apparent origin of the phrase “I’m going to the john”

A lively Kelston village hall AGM heard from Graham Padfield about the history of the village, with special focus on the more than colourful Elisabethan figure John Harington. See rough transcript below (map courtesy BathinTime)

John Harington’s estate at Kelwoston

People in Kelston have found neolithic axeheads, roman coins, sarcophagi and ammonites embellished with Roman cement. But very few of the people who have walked over the land through the millenia have left any artifacts or written evidence.

Previously called Henstridge, Kelston (or Kelweston) was at one time part of the Shaftesbury Abbey properties. It was acquired by Henry VIII (“he would save no man his temper and no woman his lust”) and given to one of his lesser-known daughters – Audrey Malt. He gave her Kelston and also St Catherine’s to the east of Bath.

John Harington by Hieronimo Custodis

She married John Harrington, who started building a huge stone manor in the field now used for the village fete. The house was then taken over by his son John (later Sir John; knighted on an Irish battlefield by the Earl of Essex) Harington, a contempory of Shakespeare who is thought to have been the inspiration for the character Jacques.

Harington’s house had famous ornamental gardens including a fountain fed by water pressure driven through sealed pipes from a pond at the top of the fete field.

Kelweston manor survey from 1744 (via BathinTime)

He also devised the first flushed lavatory, and wrote about how people needed better sanitation generally in his paper Metamorphosis of Ajax. The name is a pun, jacks being colloquial for a lavatory, with some sort of play on the myth of Aljax’ blood metamorphising into hyacinths. Harington’s nickname was Jacques (hence the Shakespearean link).

He entertained his godmother Elisabeth I here, and encouraged her to build a lavatory in her own house. Nothing exists of the mechanism anywhere at all, but there is a fairly good description. And there is a US manufacturer which makes Kelston branded toilets today. When Americans say “I’m going to the John” this is thought to refer back to John Harington (citation needed, as the Wikipedians might say).

Harington spoke Latin, Greek and Italian and started to translate Ariosto’s saucy epic poem Orlando Furioso. In a Blackadder-like twist Elisabeth read it and was not amused; he was banished from court until he had completed the translation. He duly completed it (liberally adding references to his own family in the translation) plus over 400 epigrams, some well known eg:

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason

His house was pulled down in 1700s to build the new manor house; the only remains of the estate are the village hall. But we have shreds of the legacy of a poet, courtier, warrior, wit and inventor of global significance.

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