architecture, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, Somerset

Jack the Treacle Eater, Barwick Park, Somerset

This unique structure, topped with a statue, stands close to Yeovil, in Somerset, one of a small group of curious constructions erected in Barwick Park. The folly was probably built by John Newman (1717-1799) in the middle of the 18th century, but by the early 20th century it had become know as ‘Jack the Treacle Eater’ and strange stories were told about Jack’s career and nocturnal activities.

John Newman c.1768, attributed to Thomas Beach (1738-1806). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Barbara Jones saw the portrait above at Barwick when she was researching the first edition of Follies and Grottoes, published in 1953 (it was one of her favourite follies, a ‘wonderful thing’ and featured on the cover of the book).  The portrait enabled Jones to roughly date the folly for the first time – a close look reveals the date 1768 on the document in Newman’s hand – and to disprove the story that the folly was built in the 19th century. The portrait, with a companion piece of Newman’s wife Grace (also with a folly backdrop – they were clearly proud of their landscape ornaments), was offered at auction by Sotheby’s in 2018.

When this postcard was sent in 1906 the folly was known as the ‘Roman Tower’. Sadly, the limits of photography at that date mean that the statue finial is barely visible. Courtesy of a private collection.

The figure atop the folly is often said to be Mercury, but as the postcard above suggests it is more likely his Roman counterpart, Hermes, messenger to the gods, wielding his caduceus.

A picture postcard sent in 1915. After initial excitement that the photographer had somehow captured a plane flying over the folly, a closer look revealed that it was a small cross drawn by the sender to draw attention to the figure of ‘Jack’. Courtesy of a private collection.

But by the early 19th century the figure had become known as Jack the Treacle Eater, with the accompanying tale that Jack worked as a messenger at Barwick. Jack could cover vast distances, thanks to his habit of fortifying himself with a diet of treacle.

This constant intake of the sticky syrup was said to have given him a terrible thirst, and so in the dead of night he would climb down from the folly to drink deep from the lake. The sender of the card above, posted in 1915, had heard another tale, and told a friend that Jack ‘takes a drink from the Pond which is quite close every time he hears the clock strike’. And a correspondent with Country Life in 1943 was told as a child that Jack came down every time he heard a Yeovil clock strike 12, and that the implement he held aloft was his ladle for scooping up the treacle.

Jack in action, as drawn by Charles Keeping for the 1987 first edition of Causley’s collection of poems. Image courtesy of the Keeping Gallery

The story appealed to the poet Charles Causley (1917-2003), who in 1987 published an anthology of poems with Jack as the titular character. Jack the Treacle Eater was illustrated by Charles Keeping (1924-1988), and the book won the Emil prize for the best combination of words and text. The enchanting poem (it must be read aloud) begins:

Here comes Jack the Treacle Eater,
Never swifter, never sweeter,
With a peck of messages,
Some long, some shorter,
From my Lord and Master’s quarter
(Built like a minaret)
Somewhere in Somerset.
Jack, how do you make such speed
From banks of Tone to banks of Tweed –
And all the way back?
‘I train on treacle,’ says Jack.

The collection was reissued in 2002 with illustrations by Tony Ross (born 1938). Both collections are out-of-print but are well-worth seeking out.

The cover of the 2002 edition of the anthology, with Jack, trailing treacle, as imagined by Tony Ross.

Part of the mystery of the folly was solved in 2005 when Jack the Treacle Eater was renovated. Bob Osborn, who masterminds the Yeovil History website, had a look inside the little room above the arch during the works, and found it was full of nesting boxes. But why was a dovecote built on an arch and topped with a figure of Hermes, and how did it become known as Jack the Treacle Eater? Rhetorical questions, as this is one folly that must keep some secrets.

And finally, just to add another wonderful illustration, here is Jack on the cover of the 1st edition of Follies and Grottoes by Barbara Jones (1953)

You can see Jack up close from the path between Two Tower Lane and Rexes Hollow Lane, but a haha and nettle-bed stop a good appreciation of the structure. For that, take the footpath down the drive towards Barwick House.

There’s lots of interesting extra reading this week…

You can read more about the Newman portraits here

And more about Barwick and its follies here

For more on the illustrator Charles Keeping visit

Charles Causley’s memory is kept alive by By complete coincidence the Folly Flâneuse recently picked up a copy of Patrick Gale’s latest novel Mother’s Boy, and was delighted to discover that it is a fictionalised account of Causley’s life. The Guardian review is here

Thank you for reading. Comments are most welcome – just scroll down to foot of the page to get in touch.

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10 thoughts on “Jack the Treacle Eater, Barwick Park, Somerset”

  1. John Davies says:

    Fascinating story, what a great folly! Could the dovecote have been for messenger pigeons, as Hermes was the messenger to the gods…. ? Sorry, deep thought not my best point at this time of the morning!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. I’m pleased you find Jack fascinating, it’s one of the very best of follies. And what an intriguing idea about it housing messenger pigeons rather than ones bred for the pot. I’m afraid I have no idea if this could be the case, but it is certainly food for thought!

  2. Steven Myatt says:

    Thank you for these posts; they’re a great delight. I suspect that I’m your perfect reader, having been fascinated by architecture – and the more curious the better – since I was a child. In my teens I wanted to become an architect, but no one would ever have built any of the lunacies I designed.
    Regards, Steven

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon Steven and thanks for taking the time to let me know that you enjoy my ramblings. I hope you can keep on having fun dreaming up curious structures – even if they never make it off the page.

  3. Edmund (Ed) Stone says:

    Thanks for ‘sharing’ that very interesting Folly. Such a great story, although I’m not sure how ‘Jack the Treacle Eater’ can be associated with Hermes! Maybe ‘Jack the Olive Eater’ or is that too much greek mythology? Of course I am biased because of the 2 great Folly stories you did for “Shell House” @ Staunton” and the Sydenham Hill follys.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Ed. Good to hear that you enjoyed this post. Jack the Treacle Eater or Hermes? Who knows! That’s the great joy of this enigmatic structure

      1. Kaitlyn says:

        I live and grew up in this neck of the woods and spent much of my childhood sat here. The rumour has it that ‘jack’ was a london messenger boy who used to live in the top of the building (don’t know the technical lingo sorry but the bit at the top with a door) he is known as jack the treacle eater because apparently he was paid in treacle for his work – Hope this helps

        1. Editor says:

          Good afternoon Kaitlyn. It’s always great to hear the local stories attached to follies so thanks for sharing this one and taking the time to get in touch.

  4. Julia Abel Smith says:

    The Mercury/Hermes figure at the top is a version of Giambologna’s delightful 16th century statue, now in the Louvre and much-copied.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia. It’s great to have that extra information, many thanks.

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