In the late 19th century Braystones was a peaceful hamlet close to the Cumberland coast with views out across the Irish Sea. It was here that William Henry Watson built a tower to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Half a century later, the view would change dramatically: were one able to climb the tower today the eye would be first caught by the great mass that is the Sellafield Nuclear Plant.
William Henry Watson (1859-1934) was the son of a Bolton ‘analytical chemist’, Henry Hough Watson (1810-1886), whose success had enabled him to buy a seaside retreat at Braystones, ten miles south of Whitehaven, which was newly accessible with the coming of the railway. Henry Hough Watson, a Fellow of the Chemical Society, was chemist to the Bolton Gas Company, and advisor to many of the waterworks companies supplying fresh water to Lancashire towns. But he was best known locally as the scientist the police turned to in cases of murder by poisoning, most of which were reported in lurid detail in the local papers.
William Henry Watson also trained as an analytical chemist, but with his father’s wealth behind him he was able to live the life of a gentleman. As well as being a dedicated public servant, he could indulge his interests in geology, meteorology, painting, photography, and the antique.
He was also devoted to his monarch, and as the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne approached, he decided to mark the occasion with a 30 foot high tower. Either side of the door stood a pair of cannon which were apparently sent from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich and ‘bearing date the year of Waterloo’. From the rooftop the views (with the usual proviso ‘on a clear day’) took in Scafell Pike, St Bees Head, the Isle of Man and the ‘Scotch hills’. A plaque records that the tower was erected:
IN HONOUR OF THE QUEEN, AND IN COMMEMORATION OF HER DIAMOND JUBILEE, SIXTY YEARS REIGN, 1837-1897, OF HER GLORIOUS MAJESTY VICTORIA, QUEEN OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, THIS TOWER WAS ERECTED BY WILLIAM HENRY WATSON, OF BRAYSTONES ESQUIRE, AND OPENED BY JOHN QUAYLE, FOR THIRTY-SIX YEARS OVERSEER OF THIS PARISH, AND BY THOMAS JENKINSON AND EDWARD STEELE, CHAIRMAN AND VICE-CHAIRMAN OF THE FIRST PARISH COUNCIL. THE 22nd DAY JUNE 1897
The rather austere tower was officially opened on Tuesday 22 June, the day of the Jubilee, and there were great celebrations. The proceedings began at noon with the firing of a signal rocket, and after the speeches a choir of schoolchildren sang hymns from the top of the tower, before a magnificent firework finale.
As well as honouring his monarch, Watson had also built the tower to house his ‘collection of antiquarian objects’. In 1899 the contents of the nearby Distington Museum were sold, and Watson bought pieces for his collection. Other items came from a variety of sources: stone troughs were unearthed nearby and neolithic axe-heads and stone tools were found when the local tarn was drained. Most curious was an accession in 1902: men working for G. Patrickson of Ulverston found ‘what is supposed to be a fossilised human foot’, and it was ceremoniously presented to the museum.
In 1920 Watson added a second plaque to the tower commemorating the local men who lost their lives in the First World War, and honouring those who served and survived.
Watson died at Braystones in May 1934 and was buried in nearby St Bridget’s, Beckermet. His gravestone, now a little overgrown, records his dedication to public service:
WILLIAM HENRY WATSON
JUSTICE OF THE PEACE FOR THIS COUNTY
YOUNGER SON OF
HENRY HOUGH AND JANE WATSON.
HE WAS A MEMBER OF THE CUMBERLAND
COUNTY COUNCIL, & OF THE STANDING
JOINT & POLICE COMMITTEES OF THIS
COUNTY, & FOR 39 YEARS , OF THE
WHITEHAVEN UNION BOARD OF GUARDIANS
DISTRICT COUNCIL. ALSO ONE OF THE
PERMANENT COMMITTEE OF THE BRITISH
ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF
SCIENCE , & A FELLOW OF THE GEOLOGICAL
& CHEMICAL SOCIETIES OF LONDON
BORN MARCH 15TH 1859
DIED MAY 19TH 1934
Who wrote this magnificent account of his achievements? His family? A fellow member of one of the many committees? No! It is entirely autobiographical. So determined was Watson to ensure his work was remembered, that he had his entry on the family gravestone carved during his lifetime, leaving only the date of his death to be added after his demise. The story reached the press, and far away on the opposite coast the Hull Daily Mail ran the story under the headline ‘Epitaph Carved in Advance: How a Magistrate Made Sure’.
Little more than a decade after Wilson’s death, the tranquil hamlet of Braystones would be overshadowed by the development of the nuclear plant at Windscale, later renamed Sellafield. Today the Jubilee Tower is an empty shell, with no public access allowed, although it is easily viewed from the roadside.
The Beacon Museum in Whitehaven has 2 portraits of Wilson (not on display). After a truly determined attempt The Folly Flâneuse failed to get permission to feature one in this piece, but you can see him here https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-henry-watson-143335
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