Robert Elam bought the Woodhouse Grove estate at the end of the 18th century and set about improving his new home and laying-out new pleasure grounds. On a wooded mount, overlooking this new landscape, he erected a tall stone belvedere which survives today.
Elam (1759-1826), a member of the Society of Friends, rebuilt the house and landscaped the grounds, adding a stone bath house and a network of gravel walks. There was a hot-house and a green-house with vines and he planted ‘English Fruit Trees’ and ‘most kinds of American Apple Trees’. These had been imported by Elam himself, presumably through his contacts in the Quaker world of merchants. A visitor in 1802 admired the ‘extremely beautiful’ gardens.
The grounds already featured a mount, and a vignette on a late 18th century map shows it topped with a summerhouse. Elam replaced this with a square belvedere, and planted the mount with larches and firs through which winding walks led to the summit. Like many follies of the period, the tower is said to have been constructed to give employment in a time of economic hardship: local legend says that Elam had all of the stone carried by hand to create more work.
The ‘nearly Forty Feet high’ tower was built of red brick faced with stone, and roofed with lead. From the castellated rooftop there was an ‘extensive and varied View of the surrounding Country’. Elam and his guests could enjoy views of the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The passage of boats on these two busy waterways added much to the ‘picturesque beauty of the scene’.
Sadly Elam would not enjoy his new home for long. Having spent extravagantly on his new home, the story goes that he found himself in financial difficulties and was forced to put the estate on the market. This may be myth, but for some reason the estate was offered for sale in 1802, and when a buyer was not found the ‘justly-admired Residence called Woodhouse Grove’ was offered at auction in Leeds a year later.
In 1811 the estate was back on the market, having been advertised as ‘very cheap’. It was purchased by the Wesleyans to be used as a ‘large seminary of education’, and has continued as a school ever since.
Elam settled in Roundhay, near Leeds, but his brief period of ownership of Woodhouse Grove was remembered. William Greenwood’s The Vale of Apperley, published in 1822, featured his folly:
Charming the view which here the eye commands,
To Woodhouse Grove, where Elam’s Tower stands,
And Aire is seen to glide with devious flow,
‘Neath it’s fair banks where spreading osiers grow…
The tower inspired a schoolboy drama written by Old Grovian Arthur Lincoln Haydon, who was a pupil at the school in the late 1880s. He went on to be the editor of the hugely popular Boy’s Own Paper and author of ripping boarding school yarns such as Terry’s Thrilling Term.
In 1929 Haydon published The Secret of Tuff’s Tower, in which Harrowcliffe school, with its folly tower on a mound, is a thinly-disguised Woodhouse Grove (the author admits as much in his dedication). What dastardly deeds are underway in the ‘square turret of the tall building [which] stood out sombrely above the tops of the elms’? It goes without saying that the plucky pupils solve the mystery, and outwit the ‘villainous, rough-looking’ gang printing counterfeit money in a vault below the tower.
Known to generations of pupils as the ‘Observatory’, the leaded roof is now gone, as is the staircase, but the hollow shell of the tower remains a dramatic landmark. Woodhouse Grove continues as a school, with the tower a prominent feature of the school badge. The grounds are strictly private, but Elam’s Tower can be glimpsed from nearby roads, particularly in the winter months when the surrounding foliage has died back. The tower is listed at grade II.
R.A.H. Goodyear was another Woodhouse Grove old boy who wrote a schoolboy adventure featuring a folly. You can read about it here https://thefollyflaneuse.com/faringdon-tower-faringdon-oxfordshire-and-a-novel-idea/
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