Horton Tower, also known as Sturt’s Folly, is one of those enigmatic erections whose history is vague and usually explained in sentences that begin ‘said to have been…’. What is not in question is its magnificence: seven stories of red brick soaring skywards in the middle of a field.
Many sources will tell you it was built in 1750, a few give a date of 1700, and Pevsner amongst others says 1726. All are agreed that it was built by Humphrey Sturt, but just to complicated matters there was a Humphrey Sturt senior (1687-1740), and his son Humphrey Sturt junior (1724-1786).
The tower was there by 1765 when ‘Horton Observatory’ was marked on Taylor’s Map of Dorset, published in that year, and a coloured vignette appeared on the 1795 edition of the map (above). Over the next couple of decades it is mentioned by the occasional tourist who passed by, but seldom with any further detail. The only account that gives any description is that of the historian Edward Gibbon: he saw the tower in 1762 and admired the ‘elegant turret 140 feet high’, but complained that the estate was in ‘no order’, and the tower used as a granary.
It seems unlikely that Humphrey Sturt junior would neglect such a wonderful tower only a decade or so after building it, so 1750 seems wrong, and it is equally unlikely that Humphrey Sturt senior built a tower when he was 13, so by deduction 1726 seems the most likely date, although the source for that date remains elusive. Thomas Archer has been suggested as the architect, but again evidence seems hard to find. What we do know is that the vast tower quickly became known as ‘Sturt’s Folly’.
One local story is that Sturt built the tower to overlook the Earl of Shaftesbury’s adjacent estate at Wimborne, the two men being said to be ‘at variance’. If there is any truth in this tale, then the Ashley-Cooper family must have secretly admired the lofty building, for they bought Sturt’s estate in the late 18th century and left the tower standing.
This is prime hunting country, and the tower would have been used to view the hunt and take refreshments, as well as being an ornament to Sturt’s deer park, which also featured a large piece of water (now lost). At the end of the 18th century the folly was put to a very different use by the Royal Ordnance: lofty towers across the country were used for the huge trigonometrical survey that allowed highly accurate maps to be produced. As the 19th century progressed the tower remained a focus for the hunt, with the East Dorset Hounds and other packs meeting at the building.
By the start of the 20th century the building was falling into disrepair, and falling out of fashion. In 1906 Sir Frederick Treves published a celebration of his birth county called Highways and Byways in Dorset. Treves was better known as a surgeon specialising in appendectomy, and is credited with saving the life of Edward VII in 1902. It seems fair to say that he would have liked to remove Sturt’s Folly, as he described it thus: ‘The only blot on the landscape is the nightmare tower of Horton, built for an observatory, and now happily falling into decay.’
There was a resurgence of interest in the 1940s when the artist John Piper, always fascinated by ‘faded gorgeousness’, painted a view of the tower under a starry sky. He also took a number of photographs of the folly which are now in the Tate collection (links below). The romantic ruin continues to attract a new generation of artists…
In January 1947 the National Trust’s James Lees-Milne and Eardley Knollys went to look at the tower at the request of the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, who wished the charity to take on the care of the tower. ‘Only a calcined beam or two’ was left of the interior, and concluding it was ‘rather ugly’, the pair concluded that it was ‘best not to accept it’.
The tower soon shrugged off this insult, and found a new role as a film star. In 1967 it featured in the film adaptation of Dorset boy Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Sergeant Troy (a rather dashing Terence Stamp) is filmed galloping away across the field with the tower as a dramatic backdrop. Hardy would have known the tower, as he lived in nearby Wimborne Minster for two years. In that period he wrote Two on a Tower, in which the protagonists fall in love as they watch the stars from the top of ‘a tower in the form of a classical column’. Horton Tower has been suggested as a model, but scholars have found evidence in his papers that the ‘two real spots’, which inspired Hardy, were the tower at Charborough Park, and the monument to Admiral Hardy on Black Down, both in Dorset.
Hardy would have sympathised with the difficulty in establishing a correct history for Horton Tower, as he was aware that historians couldn’t always agree. In Two on a Tower he described the mount on which his fictional tower stands: ‘The fir-shrouded hill-top was (according to some antiquaries) an old Roman Camp, – if it were not (as others insisted) an old English Castle, or (as the rest swore) an old Saxon field…’
Despite a grade II* listing in 1955, the tower continued to decay, and when it was described in the 1975 Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, it was as an empty shell.
In 1990 the tower was offered for sale, with the story being picked up by newspapers across the country (thanks to its lasting fame from the film role). An unexpected saviour appeared in 1991, when Vodafone was granted permission to use the tower as a transmission mast for mobile phone signal. As part of the deal the company consolidated the tower, and the conservation project was recognised with a Royal Town Planning Institute award in January 1995. The tower remains home to the transmitters, and is regularly upgraded.
The tower can be seen from miles around, but for a close-up try the adjacent public footpath.
View more of Christopher Gee’s work here https://christophergeepaintings.com
You can see John Piper’s mixed media view of the tower here https://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/piper/horton-tower-dorset-1942-mixed-media/nomedium/asset/34203
You can see John Piper’s photographs of the tower here https://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/items/tga-8728-1-10-40/piper-photograph-of-horton-tower-in-dorset
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