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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://www.periodportraits.com/newmans-of-barwick-park
And more about Barwick and its follies here http://www.yeovilhistory.info/barwick-follies.htm
For more on the illustrator Charles Keeping visit http://www.thekeepinggallery.co.uk
Charles Causley’s memory is kept alive by https://causleytrust.org. 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 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/feb/10/mothers-boy-by-patrick-gale-review-imagining-charles-causley-life
Thank you for reading. Comments are most welcome – just scroll down to foot of the page to get in touch.