Jezreel’s Tower, which once stood on Chatham Hill in Gillingham, was one of those unfinished fantasies that became folly after their original purpose had failed. This architectural extravaganza was built as home to the ‘New and Latter House of Israel’, a religious group founded in the late 19th century which had a short and very colourful history, and left behind a unique building.
James White (1840-1885) was a former soldier who became leader of the New and Latter House of Israel. He changed his name to James Jershom Jezreel and his followers became know as Jezreelites. Very briefly, as we are mainly concerned here with the structure he built, their beliefs were centred on a prophesy in the bible that said that 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel would not die, but would live on with Christ.*
Jezreel travelled widely at home and abroad spreading the word, and published a book of sermons called Extracts from the Flying Roll, being a series of Sermons compiled for the Gentile Churches of all Sects and Denominations, and addressed to the Lost Tribes of the House of Israel. In the early 1880s he settled in Gillingham, and his community worked in a number of small businesses raising money for the construction of a permanent HQ (and a comfortable country house for Jezreel and his wife, known as Queen Esther). By 1884 the funds were in place, and Jezreel claimed that God led him to a site on Chatham Hill, high above the town.
The tower was originally planned to be 144 feet square, to represent the 144,000 Jezreelites who would achieve immortality. The architects, Margetts of Chatham, persuaded Jezreel to settle for a structure 124 feet square and 120 feet high. The foundation stone was laid on 19 September 1885 and the huge structure in ‘yellow brick with ornamental lines of blue Staffordshire brick’ began to rise. The outer walls were decorated with tiled panels featuring the Flying Roll (a trumpet with a scroll attached – the trumpet would be sounded to announce God’s message which was contained in Jezreel’s publication The Flying Roll), crossed swords, and the Prince of Wales’ feathers (representing the Spirit and the Trinity respectively). At its heart was to be a giant stage with seating for thousands of people, and there was also a restaurant, dormitories and in the basement a workshop where the Flying Roll and other tracts could be printed.
There was great interest in the rising structure, and the surrounding settlement, and in 1885 it was predicted that it would ‘soon to be known as the Utah of England’. It was reported that the Bishop of Rochester kept a careful watch on ‘this melancholy heresy’, and vowed to keep the district ‘supplied with the antidote of the Church’s teachings’.
Jezreel himself had died in 1885, leaving the tower roofless and inconveniently disproving the central doctrine of the Jezreelites. Although a number of members left the community, ‘refusing to believe any longer in the promised immortality’, Jezreel’s wife, took over leadership. She herself died in 1888, and some elements of the press were not kind to the Jezreelites, calling them ‘poor deluded mortals’ and reporting that Esther had ‘paralysed her followers by yielding to the weakness of mortality’. From this date the community dwindled until only a dedicated few remained.
Meanwhile the builders, Messrs Nayler, had not been paid and a court order gave them possession of the incomplete tower. In autumn 1897 they put the building up for sale, with the particulars announcing that the tower, with 7 acres of garden grounds and a range of offices and outbuildings, was the perfect investment for ‘manufacturers, capitalists, syndicates, speculators’. It caused great amusement when on sale day the auctioneer suggested that one option was to convert it into a lunatic asylum. It was thought that it would at least sell to a salvage contractor who would demolish it for the materials, but the tower failed to reach the reserve and was withdrawn from sale.
The sale attracted attention across Britain, with reports in many regional newspapers. The members were viewed as benign, with travellers being ‘familiar with this strange community, quietly cultivating their gardens and engaged in handicrafts’, but there was little sympathy for the community as a whole and the press was filled with lurid tales. The Leeds Times concluded that the tower was a ‘peculiar monument to religious delusion’.
By 1905 the tower had been sold to a syndicate of businessmen, and an open day was held so that people could view the ‘structural monstrosity’ before it was pulled down. The early days of demolition were witnessed by a tourist in 1905 who sent a postcard to a friend saying ‘this card will be a novelty in the future’. Little did he know that the work would be abandoned with only a few dents to the upper storey: the contractor went bust having failed to dismantle the frame. An enterprising local company used this story in a press advertisement a few decades later.
Eventually in 1920 the tower complex was bought by the Co-op who adapted a range of ancillary buildings as shops. The tower became the rather eccentric home to a number of hard tennis courts.
The unfinished tower had inevitably become known as ‘Jezreel’s Folly’, and it was one of the buildings the writer Oswell Blakeston featured in his BBC radio broadcast on follies in October 1936. Blakeston said that the tower had been strongly built to withstand the conflagration at the end of the world, and that its great height was to bring the Jezreelites closer to heaven. The BBC received letters of complaint from a number of Jezreelite correspondents strongly disputing these claims (as the Jezreelites were to live on with Christ neither would be necessary). Mr Coffrey of Kew pointed out Blakeston’s errors, and offered to tell him ‘funnier stories about the temple’. History does not record if Blakeston took him up on the offer.
Contemporary with Blakeston’s lecture was a publicity campaign by Shell which featured follies on a series of posters. Tristam Hillier chose Jezreel’s Temple as his subject in 1936. Soon after, Thomas Hennell painted the tower for the Recording Britain project which documented Britain’s heritage during the Second World War.
Sadly, Gillingham Town Council did not share the interest shown by these artists and turned down an option to buy Jezreel’s Folly. In April 1960 work began once more to pull down the redundant tower. Demolition expert Mr Brown of Sittingbourne described it as ‘the toughest job of my life’, and the anticipated 3-6 month project continued well into 1961. The buildings which housed the Co-op survived until the 1980s when they too were lost.
P.G. Rogers published The Sixth Trumpeter: The Story of Jezreel and his Tower in 1963, soon after it finally disappeared. His book has been a major source for this piece, so he must have the last word: ‘aesthetically-speaking, the tower was not an architectural masterpiece [but] it had, nevertheless, a certain grim, brooding majesty that was all its own’.
* For a full explanation of the Jezreelite beliefs see the book above, or there is an excellent article here https://inkyn.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/the-jezreelites/
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