In the early 19th century the Reverend William Wordsworth (1783-1869) built an observatory on high land near the village of Monk Bretton. The lofty landmark was demolished in the mid-20th century, and is known today only from a few photographs.
Wordsworth (a distant relative of his namesake the poet) studied at Oxford and was then ordained into the priesthood. He was curate at Mersham, in Kent, and Domestic Chaplain to Viscount Palmerston, before moving to the parish of Ardwick on the edge of Manchester. By 1824 he and his wife had moved to Monk Bretton, near Barnsley, where he had inherited his grandfather’s estate. There Wordsworth lived the life of a country gentleman, and became a respected magistrate.
No architect is known for the tower, which is also known as Wordsworth’s Folly, Burton Castle (Burton being a corruption of Bretton widely used in the 18th and early 19th centuries) or Monk Bretton Castle. Originally it was called the Summer House, and it is marked as such on the 1st series Ordnance Survey map published in 1841. The surveyors would have been sure of its name, for they used the tower as a triangulation point when working on the map series. A sketch map, copied from the surveyor’s drawing, survives showing that the tower had views to the ‘dome on Pontefract Church’ (St Giles), 10 miles away, as well as several other churches and another pleasure pavilion, the belvedere at Bilham, almost 8 miles away.
By the time the revised 1st edition map was published in 1855 the tower was called the Observatory, and the village held their 1857 Floral & Horticultural Show in the adjacent ‘Observatory Field’.
Wordsworth’s tower was his ‘calm retreat’, and from the summit he enjoyed a panorama that encompassed views to Barnsley, Wakefield, and the great estates of Wentworth Castle, Wentworth Woodhouse and Bretton Park. Every lofty tower in Yorkshire claims a view to York Minster, but at least Wordsworth admitted to the use of a telescope, as described in this extract from On the Observatory at Monk Bretton by the Barnsley Poet Thomas Lister:
Should optic power assist the sight,
The eye may speed its joyful flight,
Where nobler scenes expand-
See Ebor’s sacred splendour smile-
With awe regard that mighty pile!-
The glory of our land.
In 1895 locals appealed for the Observatory Field to be made into a recreation ground, and the tower to be made accessible to the locals, many of whom had ‘no idea what a noble prospect there is from the top’. Such a park it was argued would be unrivalled locally ‘in the matter of beauty of situation and the extent of prospect it would command.’ The campaign was a partial success, and maps from the first years of the 20th century show a ‘Cricket and Football Ground’ had been established in the shadow of the observatory, although there is no evidence that the tower was opened to visitors. Monk Bretton Cricket Club still play at the ‘Castle Ground’.
In 1953 a beacon was lit at ‘Monk Bretton Castle’ to mark the coronation of the new queen. Sadly this was its last hurrah, and Barnsley Council demolished the deteriorating tower for safety reasons a few years later.
For some years the tower was framed by the twin columns of Monk Bretton’s very unusual and attractive war memorial, erected in 1920 to remember those who did not return from the First World War. The columns, which now also commemorate those lost in World War II, were moved across the road in 1978, where they are sited in a neat little garden of remembrance.
It is still possible to stand on the site of the tower, close to an O.S. trig point (at the time of writing inexplicably painted to represent a minion from the Despicable Me film franchise), and see a vast panorama over Barnsley and beyond. And the tower is at least remembered in the street names of a recently-erected housing development.
The belvedere at Bilham is a subject for another day, but to whet your appetite…
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