At Salthouse, on the Norfolk coast, there once stood a rather doleful looking little building. It was built by Onesipherus Randall (1798-1873), a local boy who became a London publican and then made a fortune in property speculation: in a superb case of nominative determinism Onesipherus means ‘bringing profit’.
Randall’s main residence was in Poplar, East London, where he developed residential property, but in around 1861 he bought a house in Holt called Woodlands (now part of Gresham’s School), and in 1870 he bought the Manor of Kelling and Salthouse. When he built the folly that bore his name is less clear.
The 1838 tithe map for Salthouse shows ‘Lodge and Greenburrow Hills’, close to the shore of the ‘German Ocean’, as the property of Phoebe Maria Girdleton, whose family owned nearby Kelling Hall. The 1st series Ordnance Survey map of 1841 shows ‘Old Lodge’ on ‘Lodge Hill’, so there was a building of some description on the site by then. An exact date for Randall’s association with the folly seems hard to find, and the first account discovered to date that specifically links him to the building is 5 years after his death, when it is described as ‘the house built […] by the late O. Randall Esq.’ Presumably Randall used it as a beach retreat, but no evidence has been found. It did however go on to have a very interesting, and practical, purpose.
After Randall’s death in 1873 the building was bought for use as a coastguard station with a cannon (or rocket) ready to fire a Breeches Buoy lifesaving device, quickly becoming known as the Rocket House. The cannon fired a line to a stricken boat – the line was attached to the mast and allowed passengers to be pulled to safety. The local newspapers reported on the many lives saved, including those onboard the Peter of Riga and the Hey Dick of Goole in 1874. Shortly after the Captain of the Hey Dick, his crew, and his family (‘a woman with a babe at her breast and five children clinging round her’), were rescued rumours began to circulate that the Salthouse rocket brigade was to be disbanded by the Board of Trade. The brigade did not give up, and raised funds locally to buy their own kit, using it to save the crew of the John & Harriet in 1878.‘Why the rocket apparatus should be removed from Salthouse when there are men ready and willing to work it […] is difficult to understand’, was the perplexed comment of the Norfolk Chronicle’s reporter.
By the 1920s the building had become a holiday home and was marked on the Ordnance Survey maps as Beach Lodge, although still known locally as ‘Randall’s Folly’ or the ‘Old Rocket House’. In 1931 it was offered for sale: the ‘unique situation overlooking the sea’ came with 2 acres of land, and the agents thought it ideal for pursuits such as fishing and shooting.
Over the winter of 1950-51 the folly was home to the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) and her poet partner Valentine Ackland (1906-1969), both of whom enjoyed sojourns on the Norfolk coast. They were looking for a seaside rental and, loving the building on first sight, ‘instantly decided to take it – much to the bewildered exhilaration of the owners, who do not often find such maniacs’. The eccentric house, by now known as the Great Eye Folly (after the mound of land on which it stood), had no drinking water, but did have a Bechstein, and the couple were very happy there while Warner worked on her last novel, The Flint Anchor.*
In November 1950 Warner wrote that she would like to live there forever, but accepted that no one would be that lucky, ‘for in five years the sea will have eaten it.’ Sadly she was over-optimistic. There was a great flood in January 1953, and Warner saw an aerial photograph of the devastation in her newspaper. She recognised the village of Salthouse, and could see that ‘crazy Great Eye Folly, right on the sea edge, still stands’. Sadly, she was only partly right: what she couldn’t have seen in the birdseye view was that half of the building had been washed away in the storm, and the remainder was deemed unsafe and demolished soon after.
Local fisherman-turned-artist John Craske also captured the Breeches Buoy process in action in the unusual medium of embroidery. Craske (1881-1943) was in poor health, and when painting became too much for him he began to stitch, an activity he could manage from his bed. ‘Rescue by Breeches Buoy’, showing one of the cannon-fired lines in use, was appropriately in the collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland. It is now in the care of Britten Pears Arts, Warner being a great friend of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Onesipherous Randall, he of the memorable name, is largely forgotten. Sylvia Townsend Warner remains such a local hero that one of the Coasthopper buses that serve the north Norfolk coast is named after her.
* The Folly Flâneuse diligently read the novel, hoping that a thinly-disguised version of the folly might make an appearance. Sadly not, although there is the briefest of mentions of a shell-encrusted summerhouse, orangery, chapel, and mausoleum.
There’s a photo of the folly after the storm here www.salthousehistory.co.uk/1953(2).html
For more on John Craske see A Life in Threads by Julia Blackburn (2015).
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