In the middle of the 18th century the area around Dunston was unenclosed heath, and travel was a dirty and dangerous business, especially in the dark winter months. Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), 2nd baronet, of West Wycombe and Hell-fire Club fame, came into property in the area when he married Sarah Ellys of nearby Nocton in 1745. Dashwood erected the Dunston Pillar in 1751 as a beacon to guide ‘the peasant, the wayfaring stranger, and the horseman with his dame on pillion’.
Described a few years later as an ‘exceedingly lofty tower’, a staircase led to the top where a glass lantern was lit each evening. Around the tower was a ‘neat square court’ with small pavilions at each corner. Dashwood engraved the miles to London and to Lincoln respectively on two of column’s faces, with the inscription ‘Dunston Pillar’ on the third, and on the south face:
Soon after the tower was constructed, the land around it was enclosed, new roads were constructed, and the Light House was slowly rendered redundant. As early as 1771 one passer-by worried it would soon become a ‘useless obelisk’.
With Dashwood’s reputation as something of a rake, it’s not a great surprise to learn that instead of becoming redundant, the tower and grounds entertained the Lincoln Club. This was a sort of northern outpost of the Hell-fire Club, the mock-religious society dedicated to the pleasures of the table and the bedroom, which met at Medmenham Abbey, on Dashwood’s Buckinghamshire estate.
By 1776 the tower and its enclosure were likened to a London pleasure garden and called the ‘VauxHall of this part of the world’. A ‘kind of Banquetting room’ was built against the north wall, and there was a fine bowling green. The whole was surrounded by plantations which promised to be the ‘Paradise of Lincolnshire’ within a few years. The pillar may also have provided a very grand stand from which to watch horseracing, as the final straight of Lincoln’s first racecourse was aligned with the tower. Further views of equine interest would have featured the hunt, and Armstrong’s 1778 map of Lincolnshire comprehending Lindsay, Kesteven and Holland (Holland being a historical subdivision of Linconlnshire) has a vignette of Dunston Pillar with the horses and hounds passing by (not illustrated).
In 1792 Sir John Dashwood King (1765-1849), who had inherited the baronetcy from his half-brother Sir Francis, tried to get a licence to serve alcohol. He was unsuccessful but presumably did not give up as the following year he had plans drawn up by Mr Lumby, a Lincoln architect, to further extend the banqueting room. An even more spectacular design proposal, undated, unexplained, and unexecuted, would have seen the whole tower encased in a two-storey house.
By the end of the century parts of the Lincolnshire estate had passed to Robert Hobart (1760-1816), 4th earl of Buckinghamshire. In 1810 he commemorated the fifty year reign of George III by replacing the pillar’s lantern, which had collapsed in a storm, with a huge statue of the monarch, and added an inscription of his own:
THE STATUE UPON THIS PILLAR
WAS ERECTED AD 1810
BY ROBERT EARL OF BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
TO COMMEMORATE THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE REIGN OF HIS MAJESTY
KING GEORGE THE THIRD
Modelled by Joseph Panzetta, who worked at Mrs Coade’s artificial stone manufactory in Lambeth**, the statue was 14 feet high and showed the king in his coronation robes with crown and sceptre.
Tragedy struck when a stonemason fell to his death as the figure was being erected atop the pillar. John Willson was buried in nearby Harmston churchyard, and he is remembered with this wonderful headstone. Like the original pillar, the column is surmounted with a Coade Stone statue, presumably sent from the Lambeth factory and inserted into the stone. Willson is remembered with both a Latin inscription and the English translation:
He who erected the noble King,
Is here now laid dead by Death’s sharp sting
By 1931, His Majesty was also meeting an undignified end as a storm had cost him his right forearm. It could be found, alongside his sceptre, ‘in a hedge bottom near the foot of the pillar’. Ten years later, with World War II underway, the Royal Air Force considered the column a danger to aircraft coming in and out of Coleby Grange Airfield. Initially, the Ministry of Defence decreed that the whole tower must be demolished, but after discussions it was agreed to take it down to a height below the maximum tree line, a reduction of about one-third of the original extent.
Specific instructions were issued to the contractors to dismantle the statue with the greatest care, and to number both the pieces of the King, and the courses of masonry from the tower. However, taking down the statue was more difficult than planned, and pieces of the Coade Stone fractured and fell during the process. The statue was likened to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and there were quips about ‘putting King George together again’. However with the nation at war, little attention was paid to the issue and the fragments were stacked in the base of the pillar and the door secured.
There they remained until 1953 when the owner of the pillar, Mr Parker, began to press for restoration. After initial misgivings by the MoD, who thought the tower had only a ‘limited and sentimental value’, it was accepted that under the terms of the Compensation (Defence) Act 1939 a contribution to the costs of restoration should be paid. Plans were drawn up to rebuild the tower, and erect a new lantern on the top, but ultimately Lincolnshire County Committee couldn’t commit their share of the costs at a time when the country was still focussed on economy. The owner then gave the fragments of the statue to the Lincolnshire Local History Society, and they were moved to a council depot where, like a Lincolnshire Ozymandias, the shattered visage and other fragments lay in a ‘nettle bed’ before being transferred to the stone mason’s yard at Lincoln Castle. Margaret Jones (known to her colleagues as ‘Boadicea’), was an archaeologist working with the Ministry of Works in Lincolnshire. Writing to Country Life in 1959, she reported that the mason, Mr Freestone (nominative determinism?), was at work on the king’s head, which was in about 12 pieces.
But yet again restoration plans ground to a halt. There was a revival of interest in the 1960s, when it was agreed that part of the statue would be erected on a plinth in the grounds of Lincoln Castle. Plans were drawn up showing two alternatives: the bust, ie head and shoulders, was the first option, and a second showed the statue rebuilt down to the knees (most peculiar in the opinion of this writer). The MoD offered funds but no further action was taken.
The hero of the hour was Brian Loughborough, the Curator of the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, in whose care the fragments of the statue had been placed by the local history society. In the early 1970s he resurrected the idea of erecting the bust at Lincoln Castle and recruited the local MP, the Hon. Joseph Godber, to the cause. Godber went straight to the top: Defence Secretary Peter Carrington, later Lord Carrington. In 1972 the MoD sent a cheque for £450 in full settlement, and with a further £100 from the Department of the Environment, the museum was able to go ahead and place the order for the restoration work to begin in June 1972. The statue was finally complete in 1974 when crowds gathered to see the crown lowered into place.
In 2010 the bust in the castle grounds was further restored by Coade Ltd, the company which has successfully redeveloped the Coade Stone process.
The tower still stands in its truncated form, it is on private land but can be seen from the A15. The inscriptions are badly deteriorated with only odd words still legible. The surviving portions of the tower and the statue are both listed at grade II.
With the remaining fragments safely in storage, and developments in artificial stone technology, it would be amazing to see the statue of King George restored to its full height. But there remains not only the tricky question of money (of course), but also where to put a massive statue that was designed to be viewed from several metres below?
Meanwhile, another version of the Dunston Pillar, with statue intact, can be found in Australia. A sterling silver model of the tower was created by the renowned 18th century silversmith, Paul Storr, in 1811. It was apparently created as a table centrepiece for Sir Joseph Banks, who had an estate nearby, and carries the botanist and voyagers crest on the base. It stands 79cm tall but is not an exact replica of the pillar as King George is not wearing his crown, and some florid acanthus leaves have been added to the column. It was sold by auction at Christies by his descendants in 1992 and was purchased by The Australiana Fund, a not for profit organisation with the aim of collecting furniture and artworks to display in the country’s official residences.
It is appropriate to find a Sir Joseph Banks connection 200 years after his death in 1820. There are events around the country https://www.joseph-banks.org.uk/2020-2/but The Folly Flâneuse is particularly looking forward to a trip to the seaside https://www.cookmuseumwhitby.co.uk/whats-on/2020-exhibition.html
* The Folly Flâneuse is no Latin scholar but this can (hopefully) be translated as This column for the use of the public Francis Dashwood gave and dedicated as a gift (DDD – Dono Dedit Dedicavit) 1751
** He also modelled the statue of Rowland Hill on its column in Shrewsbury as well as the Nelson pediment at the Royal Naval College in London.