architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, Mausoleum, sham castle, Tower, Well

Follies and Freaks: a 1908 view.

In 1908 T.W. Wilkinson submitted an article on ‘Remarkable Follies’ to Wide World Magazine. This popular publication was launched in 1898 and was aimed at men, and in particular what one writer has called ‘armchair adventurers’. It specialised in true-life tales of derring-do with titles such as ‘The Underground Pirates’ and ‘Across Africa by Boat’. One wonders what the readership made of Wilkinson’s article: exciting as follies are, they don’t quite have the drama of ‘A Subterranean Duel’.

‘I was on my feet in time to fire twice at them’. Illustration to ‘Fallen Among Thieves’ which appeared in Wide World Magazine immediately before the article on follies. Although the magazine insisted that all of its stories were genuine, it was widely agreed that many were entirely fictional.

Perhaps it was to compete with such adventures that Wilkinson launched into a dramatic introduction:

‘There is no stranger human foible than that which finds vent in the erection of what are popularly known as “follies”. It impels men to begin building without counting the cost, and to create freakish and unnecessary structures, with a consequent enormous waste of money; and its results are seen all over the countryside in half-finished undertakings, architectural atrocities, sham antiquities, and other more or less ridiculous objects. Incredible though it may seem, it is none the less a fact that millions – literally millions – of pounds have been spent on such superfluities’.

After that controversial conspectus Wilkinson goes on to discuss, very briefly, around 20 follies – all fairly well-known examples, with some accompanying photographs. Despite his introduction he isn’t particularly disparaging in most cases, and he even concedes that Ralph Allen’s sham castle on the Bath skyline is ‘picturesque’. A curiosity of his paper is that he uses the word “freaks” as a synonym for “follies”, and to stress this both words almost always appear in inverted commas. Thus the Egyptian Well at Hartwell in Buckinghamshire is a “freak” which ‘appears as if it has just strayed from the British Museum’ (Wilkinson seems oblivious to the fact that this was the builder’s intention).

A postcard that is roughly contemporary with Wilkinson’s article.

And Beckford’s Tower on the edge of Bath is noted as ‘one of the most elaborate towers of the freak variety’.

Wilkinson’s photograph of Beckford’s Tower.

As well as isolated “freaks” such as the foregoing (as Wilkinson wrote) there were also examples of groups of follies built by one man ‘in whom the passion for erecting such things developed into a monomania’. Wilkinson picked out the Brightling “follies” of Mad Jack Fuller and the scattered “follies” of J.S.W.S Erle-Drax on his Dorset estates.

The pyramid in Brightling churchyard as seen in Wilkinson’s article.

As well as Drax’s elegant tower at Charborough there were, according to Wilkinson, two or three sham antiquities, a huge mausoleum, and other “freaks”. The mausoleum stood in the churchyard at Holnest and was indeed huge – Wilkinson would no doubt have approved when it was pulled down in 1935.

Image courtesy of the Friends of Holnest Church.

The Charborough Tower still stands and is claimed as inspiration for Thomas Hardy when he was writing Two on a Tower.

The Tower in Charborough Park from a picture postcard roughly contemporary with Wilkinson’s article. Courtesy of a private collection.

Wilkinson ended with the question ‘Is “folly” building dying out now?’. His conclusion was that it didn’t look like it. But he picks the most unlikely structure to argue his case – a factory chimney in Bingley in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire. Whilst a very functional feature of the Roundhill Tannery, the chimney must have qualified as folly in Wilkinson’s eyes as it was unlike any other chimney, and would have been much more expensive than a conventional design. According to another contemporary account of the chimney, each brick was placed 3.16 of an inch out of place so that when it reached a height of 50 feet each face would be opposite the compass point where it had started. Sadly the chimney was pulled down in the early 1970s.

The chimney as illustrated in Wilkinson’s article.

In conclusion Wilkinson makes the bizarre and unqualified statement that “folly” houses are ‘actually now under construction in various parts of the country’. The Flâneuse would love to know which structures he had in mind.

Thanks to Sheila Donaldson of Bingley and District Local History Society for telling me the history of the chimney.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are very welcome – please scroll down to the bottom of the page to get in touch. Please note that only your name will be published and not your email address.




The Needle’s Eye, Wentworth Woodhouse. Subscribe and discover many other fascinating follies.


Subscribing to The Folly Flaneuse ensures you will never miss a post. All you need to do is provide me with your contact information and you will automatically receive an email each Saturday when I post new content on Your email address will never be sold or shared

 You can remove yourself anytime by contacting me.

* indicates required

7 thoughts on “Follies and Freaks: a 1908 view.”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    What a wonderful discovery! I’d never heard of this article, or the wonderful chimney or mausoleum. What sad losses. Well done you!

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Gwyn. Yes it was an exciting discovery and a delight to read such a stirring definition of follies! I’ve been to the site of the mausoleum, but the chimney was entirely new to me.

  2. gwyn says:

    GWYN, SAT. 2 MAR 24

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Thomas. It is always heartening to know that these folly stories bring a smile to the face of readers. Thank you for taking the time to get in touch.

  3. Adrian Fisher says:

    Dear Gwyn and all
    My wife Marie and I planted a hedge maze in our garden in Durweston, Dorset in 2003; built a brick-and-flint folly tower (with mirrored chamber, spiral staircase and battlement walk) in 2013; and a Gothick Pavilion in 2023. The Gothick Pavilion is ideal for wedding photography, and its first nuptial event is being held this summer. I’ve been flying drones for nine years, and have photographed folly towers from the air especially in recent years. Thus in two different ways, mazes and flying, I am following the example of Daedalus!

  4. Valerie Greaves says:

    Your mention of a chimney reminds me of the spectacular Italianate India Mill chimney in Darwen that you would have seen from Darwen Tower. It is said that when it was completed there was a party at the top. I don’t think it is still used as a chimney but is a useful place for peregrines to nest.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Valerie. I went to see the amazing chimney when I was researching the Darwen Tower. It is every bit as impressive as the hilltop monument.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.