In 1839 Charles Booker leased a plot of land in the corner of Guildford’s ‘Great Hilly Field’. There’s a clue to his purpose in the name of the site: Booker needed an elevated spot on which to build a ‘prospect tower’. After his death the adjacent land became the town’s cemetery, and the tower passed to the Burial Board (who were reluctant custodians). It later came into the control of the town council, and a contract was signed in 1927 to allow its demolition. But by a quirk of fate the tower survived, and stands tall today.
Booker (c.1780-1859) was a businessman and pillar of the community who served as a Justice of the Peace and was three times Mayor of Guildford. Why he chose to build a tower is subject to some argument: some sources say it was a monument to his two sons Charles (1809-1824) and Henry (1812-1827) who both died at the age of 15 – Charles of illness and Henry in a ‘melancholy accident’ when he drowned in the town’s river Wey while bathing. Their resting place in the churchyard of Holy Trinity is clearly visible from the tower, but if the tower was a memorial to the boys it is curious that Booker waited for more than a decade to erect it. Other sources say the tower was built simply to ‘gratify a personal whim’. Although now hidden in trees the tower would certainly have been a prominent statement of Booker’s wealth and status when first constructed.
In June 1839 Booker leased the land for his tower from James Stedman, agreeing to rent 40 square feet at the south-west corner of ‘the Great Hilly Field and Cradle Field for building a prospect tower’. For a total of 6 shillings per annum Booker also had a right of way across the field. The tower was built by a local builder, the suitably-named John Mason, but no architect’s name is recorded. Soon after completion the ‘newly-erected and elegant tower’ became a focus of Guildford’s celebration of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in February 1840. A royal salute was fired from the tower during the daytime and the tower was ‘beautifully illuminated’ and the venue for a ‘pretty display of fire-works’ on the evening of the wedding. By then the building was ‘pretty generally known as Booker’s Tower’, and it was named as such on the tithe award of 1841. From the top Booker and his guests enjoyed wide-ranging views of the countryside and of the rapidly developing town.
Booker died in 1849 and the small parcel of land, complete with tower, seems to have reverted to Stedman. In 1856 the tower became the responsibility of the Burial Board which had bought the field from Stedman to lay out Guildford Cemetery. Stedman gave the tower to the board on condition that they keep it in good repair: this they did with some reluctance as many felt that ‘the building in question was of no utility to the ratepayers, and totally unnecessary for the purposes of the cemetery’. Grudgingly, the board honoured the terms of the donation (once it was clear they couldn’t wriggle out of it) and repaired the internal staircase which allowed visitors to admire the view from the top.
One who climbed the tower was the gentleman scientist John Rand Capron. He had an observatory nearby and in 1885 set up equipment at the top of Booker’s Tower for his experiments in ‘Atmospheric Electricity’.
In 1927 the local paper featured the headline ‘Booker’s Tower to Topple’ and it was revealed that the tower was in a dangerous condition. The council invited ‘competent House-breakers, Contractors and Builders’ to tender for its demolition and nine applications were received. These ranged between £50 and £507.10.0 and, unsurprisingly, the council signed a contract with Charles Strickland of Stoke Newington, who had submitted the lowest figure. Strickland advertised the sale of the stone from the tower in the local paper, but ended up in court on charges of fraud, having accepted a cheque for £25 but not produced the goods.
Whilst Strickland’s case went through the courts, the council began to have second thoughts and in ‘a passing fit of repenting sentiment’ decided to repair the tower, albeit on a very limited budget of £100 (less than half the sum the builders who tendered had suggested was necessary).
In 1928 the Borough Surveyor, J. W. Hipwood, drew up plans for a ‘reconstruction’ and provided two options: a tower with or without battlements. No prizes for guessing that the battlements were binned and the cheaper version with a simple parapet won the vote. The Sussex Advertiser thought even £100 too much to spend on a ‘building with nothing to recommend it’. Remembering that it had been known as ‘Booker’s Folly’ the paper thought that investing in its future would be ‘to add folly to folly’.
The newspaper concluded that the tower ‘will be demolished eventually there can be no question’. Almost a hundred years later the tower still stands, having survived the great storm of 1987 which toppled some of the trees that had grown around it. Local sentiment and a grade-II listing suggest that it will around for some time yet: it is kept in good repair by Guildford Borough Council but there is no access to the interior.
Special thanks to readers Ian and Helen Wright for suggesting Booker’s Tower as a subject. Ideas for future posts are always welcome.
Thank you for reading and do please share any thoughts or comments – scroll down to the foot of the page to get in touch.