architecture, Banqueting House, belvedere, Column, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Observatory, sham castle, Tower

‘Famous Follies’: a Nineteenth Century View

In 1896 a new publication was launched in Britain. Pearson’s Magazine was a miscellany of fact and fiction, and is best known today for a landmark event of 1922: the appearance of the first ever crossword puzzle in a British publication. Only a year after it first appeared on newsstands the magazine was attracting writers of the highest calibre, including H.G.Wells whose The War of the Worlds was serialised in 1897. But of course what caught the eye of the Folly Flâneuse was an article from 1898 when Edward le Martin-Breton, wrote an illustrated article on ‘Famous Follies’.

Mr le Martin-Breton declared the raison d’être of follies to be the desire of men who are ‘possessed of more money than they know what to do with’ to proclaim their ‘wealth and position’. Whilst this is unarguably the case with some follies, le Breton-Martin seems to have been almost totally immune to the romance, charm or glorious eccentricity of the genre.

Leith Hill Tower. Undated postcard courtesy of a private collection.

At Leith Hill Tower (Surrey) le Breton-Martin read the Latin inscription claiming the edifice was built not only for the enjoyment of the owner, Richard Hull, but also for his neighbours and ‘for all’. But he remained sceptical: here, he thought, was a tower that perfectly fitted his definition of folly, and he suspected Mr Hull of ‘vainglorious motives’.

Broadway Tower, Worcestershire.

He found the view from Broadway Tower (Worcestershire) impressive, but dismissed the folly as ‘a monument to a woman’s whim’. Meanwhile, the panorama from the belvedere at Powderham (Devon) was thought not worth the effort of the climb.

Bond’s Folly as it appeared in the article.

And he described Bond’s Folly, aka Creech Arch (Dorset), an eye-catcher built by Denis Bond in the middle of the 18th century, as ‘a piece of useless architecture’ (surely the reason why so many of us are fascinated and delighted by it?).

The Sham Castle, Bath.

He wondered if the builder of the Ammerdown Column (Somerset) could not have found a better way to spend his money, and declared the Sham Castle on the Bath skyline to be a ‘hollow fraud’.

The obelisk as it appeared in the article.

The obelisk at Woolverstone (Suffolk) seems to have particularly irked him. The obelisk was erected in 1793 by Charles Berners in memory of William, ‘the best of fathers’.  Whilst admiring the structure itself, our hard-to-please Mr le Martin-Breton did not find this a noble gesture. Instead he wrote: ‘Filial piety is a very beautiful thing, but at the same time I fail to see why such piety should be made the excuse for perpetuating such a useless object’. Sadly, we can’t visit and judge for ourselves, as the obelisk was pulled down in 1943 after being damaged by fire. This was a particularly sad loss, as this most interesting obelisk contained a staircase leading up to a ‘huge globe’, representing the sun.

Peterson’s Tower, Sway, Hampshire.

Two follies built within his lifetime failed to impress, either. Turner’s Tower (Gloucestershire) ‘built within the last ten years’ was ‘hideous’ and a ‘monstrosity’ and Peterson’s Tower at Sway (Hampshire) elicited the response ‘Beautiful the tower can hardly be said to be’.

The Ruined Castle, Hagley, Worcestershire. Photo courtesy of Michael Cousins.

Happily two follies did meet with his approval. Conygar Tower on the Dunster Castle estate in Somerset was deemed to be ‘sufficiently picturesque enough to escape the censure that has been given to so many similar erections’. Top marks went to the sham ruined castle at Hagley (which he called Miller’s Folly, after its architect) and it was declared an ‘excellent example of the pseudo-antique’.

Edward le Martin-Breton would go on to write numerous articles for magazines, as well as publishing poetry and producing radio broadcasts. He was best known though to generations of Boy Scouts: his Boys of the Otter Pool was serialised in The Scout magazine in 1908 and it and its sequels were later published in book form with translations into French and Finnish.

Turner’s Tower (which featured in these pages recently) was demolished in the 1960s and Woolverstone Obelisk is gone. Happily, all of the other follies mentioned here survive to be appreciated today.

Thank you for reading. If you would like to share any thoughts or comments please scroll down to the box at the bottom of the page. 


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4 thoughts on “‘Famous Follies’: a Nineteenth Century View”

  1. Kate Dyson says:

    Le Martin-Breton sounds like a right old curmudgeon in the follies department!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Kate. Yes, he’s not their greatest fan! But hopefully his article sent readers off in search of follies, and they appreciated them more than he did.

  2. Moira Garland says:

    Well, I can see Mr le Martin-Breton’s point that follies are built by men ‘possessed of more money than they know what to do with’ to proclaim their ‘wealth and position’. All true, but it doesn’t stop me appreciating them for what they are! Thanks for another of your entertaining and informative blogs.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Moira. As you say, Mr le Martin-Breton has a point, and some follies are very much what we would now call status symbols. It’s just a shame that he fails to see the pleasure they brought to their builders, and to future generations.

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