Now near neighbour to a Rotherham housing estate, Keppel’s Column originally stood in open ground on the edge of Scholes Wood on the Wentworth Woodhouse estate. An obelisk had been proposed for the site as early as 1769. Its original purpose was as an eye-catcher to terminate the southern vista from the new principal front of the Wentworth House mansion, balancing the pyramidal Hoober Stand to the north which is dated 1748. Keppel’s Column was clearly visible from the top of Hoober Stand, as was the Lady’s Folly, which featured here recently https://thefollyflaneuse.com/ladys-folly-tankersley-south-yorkshire/. All three ornamental buildings could be seen from each other, and when guests were taken by carriage to climb a tower, or take tea in a summer house, they served to display the vast size of the Marquis of Rockingham’s estate.
Rockingham originally asked his architect John Carr to build an obelisk on a pedestal base. This early design was to incorporate one of the four obelisks which stood on the lawn by Wentworth House. Carr designed a 45 foot tall tower on which the obelisk would sit. This first plan was abandoned.* The next iteration of the eye-catcher was discussed in 1776. By this date it had been decided to add another 78 feet to the structure as it currently stood and to finish it with a balustraded viewing platform. This became known as the Great Column or the Scholes Column.
In 1779 Rockingham asked Carr to remodel the Great Column as a ‘Naval Column’ to commemorate ‘Naval Honour and Naval Integrity’. The impetus for this change was the inconclusive battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778 following which there was a dramatic dispute between Keppel and one of his commanders, Sir Hugh Palliser. This led to Keppel being court-martialled on charges including undue haste in quitting a battle and failing to pursue the enemy. Keppel was a Whig and Palliser a Tory and the court-martial was as much, if not more, about Tory and Whig political rivalry as it was about the events at sea, and both parties used it to gain political advantage.
Keppel was acquitted and the charges against him dismissed as malicious. Rockingham was a friend and political colleague of Keppel, and had attended his trial in the company of other prominent Whigs who claimed Keppel as a hero. Prints, coins and gold boxes were circulated celebrating the acquittal and hailing it as a victory for justice.
Keppel himself visited Wentworth in August 1779. By that date the column must have been practically complete and the Admiral ascended the ‘true Doric column’ with Rockingham and John Carr to admire the view of ‘rivers, towns, gentleman’s seats’ as well as the ‘smoke from the foundries on the Don’. The column is described as being ‘inscribed to Naval Justice’, but if this was a literal inscription, in the form of a tablet on the column, it has been lost. In December of that year it was decided that the column was to be terminated by a 30 foot high statue of Admiral Keppel, and the base embellished with carved ships’ prows in in the style of the rostral, or victory, columns of ancient Greece and Rome. For reasons unknown, the statue and prows were never added and the column shows the scars today of the constant changes to the design. When calculating the height of the column John Carr would have planned the entasis, a technical term for the slight bulge in a column which allows the eye to see the sides as parallel (if built straight, the sides of the column would have appeared to be concave). Because the column was terminated at a lesser height than originally planned the column appears to bulge as the entasis is not correct.
The formal event to ‘christen the Naval Column in honour of the Admiral’ took place in October 1780 when a ‘number of the nobility and gentry assembled’. As they approached a 21 gun salute was fired, and three cheers were raised by the gathered crowd. A band played and an ‘elegant cold collation’ was served. The party then ascended the 220 steps and a number of loyal toasts were drunk. The union flag was flown along with the words ‘Admiral Keppel for ever, the pride and glory of Great Britain’.
Newspaper reports of the monument and celebrations frustrated the Tory press, as lines published in response show:
Heroic deeds immortal are,
And need nor Stone nor Brass;
But Keppel’s must be told by these,
Or in Oblivion pass.
Do let the Stone, Good Rockingham!
A trust for once declare;
His Party Deeds, and not his brave,
By you recorded are.
The column was publicly accessible well into the 20th century, but was boarded up in the 1960s as unsafe. Sadly it became separated from the Wentworth Fitzwilliam estate and current owner, Rotherham Borough Council, urgently needs to address the building’s future. Thanks to the advent of drone photography there are short films on You Tube that show both the stunning views that were once to be enjoyed and worryingly the poor condition of the building. Despite occasional repairs the grade II listed structure is now urgently in need of restoration and is on the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register.
UPDATE October 2021: In March 2021 listed building consent was granted conditionally for works to repair the column and restore access. In October 2021 the column was one of the beneficiaries of a grant from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. Work is now underway.
The column can be accessed from the nearby road, the heroically named Admiral’s Crest. Lady’s Folly is gone but you can read more here https://thefollyflaneuse.com/ladys-folly-tankersley-south-yorkshire/Hoober Stand, the Rockingham Monument and the other estate follies can be visited in the summer season https://wentworthestate.co.uk/visiting/monuments-follies/as can the Wentworth Woodhouse mansion, now in the care of a preservation trust https://wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk
*Rockingham’s heir, Lord Fitzwilliam, was determined to recycle the obelisks, and after an aborted plan to incorporate one into his monument to his uncle, Fitzwilliam eventually relocated all four obelisks to form a sort of guard of honour around the Rockingham Monument.