The Revd Dr Thomas Sharp (1693-1758) was a son of Dr. John Sharp, Archbishop of York. He followed his father into an ecclesiastical career and became Archdeacon of Northumberland, Prebendary of Durham and Rector of Rothbury. During his incumbency in Rothbury he built this tower as an observatory, and to create employment for the local population.
Sharp moved to Rothbury soon after the death of the previous incumbent, the Revd John Thomlinson, in 1720. His rectory was Whitton Tower, a 14th century pele tower on the hill above Rothbury. Restored and extended over the centuries, it was sold by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1934 and is now a private residence. The observatory is a short walk uphill from the former rectory.
Pevsner dates the tower to the 1720s. English Heritage also cite this year, and this early date is reflected in the grade II* listing as it is believed to be the oldest folly in the county. It has proved difficult to find a source for this date, except that it is the year in which Dr Sharp arrived in Rothbury, and therefore the terminus post quem. The tower was certainly complete by 1754, when it was sketched by Dr Sharp’s son, Granville – an interesting character who later became one of the key players in the fight to abolish slavery in Britain. An early printed reference to the tower is in the travel journals of Richard Pococke, who visited Northumberland in 1760, and in a letter to his sister described Whitton: ‘The parsonage house is an old tower-castle with an addition to it. Near it, the late incumbent, Dr. Sharp, prebendary of Durham, built a round tower about 30 feet high, with battlements at top from which, they say, there is a prospect of the sea.’ That the tower was used solely as an observatory is evident: there is little internal space other than a spiral staircase to the rooftop viewing platform.
It seems likely that the tower would have been used by Thomas and his son John (1723-1792), who held the living of Hartburn about 13 miles to the south. Father and son typify the polymathic 18th century clergyman, whose interests included astronomy, as summed up in lines on John written by his younger brother:
In him the Sister arts united shine
Physician, Chymist, Architect, Divine,
Here Medels, Marbles, Butterflies, we see
Here Music, Fossils, Guns, Philosophy.*
Dr Sharp died on the 16th March 1758 and is buried in Durham cathedral. He was a great philanthropist and his son Granville recalled that his father ‘retained at his own expense five, if not more, different schools in the village…for the instruction of poor children whose parents could not afford to send them to school’. His obituary in the Newcastle Courant was fulsome in its praise, ‘It is scarce possible to describe the loss sustain’d by the Death of so truly Valuable, & worthy a gentleman… A Promoter of Every Charitable Undertaking.’
The construction of the tower was one of the ways in which Sharpe was able to help the less fortunate. Mackenzie’s history of Northumberland of 1811 explains: ‘Near to Whitton Tower stands a circular observatory which commands a most beautiful and extensive prospect. It was built by Dr Sharp in a severe winter, in order to give employment to the industrious poor in the neighbourhood, from which circumstance it acquired the name of the Doctor’s Folly.’ A tourist who visited the tower in the 1820s admired the doctor’s philanthropy and wrote ‘Well would it be for mankind, were folly always to exert itself in similar acts of benevolence!’.
The tower looks magnificent as a distant object on the approach to Rothbury over the hills from the south, which incidentally would have been John Sharp’s route from Hartburn when visiting his father. Sadly at close range the crumbling state of the folly becomes apparent.
The tower was listed at Grade II* in the 1950s but without adequate maintenance it continued to fall into disrepair. In 2001 there were proposals that would have seen the tower conserved to prevent any further deterioration, but discussions with the owner stalled and the project was abandoned. A 2008 report on Whitton Conservation Area noted that the folly ‘deserves to be celebrated not only as a current treasure of the hamlet, but also as a fine product of the combined aristocratic and charitable thinking that so characterised eighteenth century England.’. Suffering from ‘neglect and the ravages of the weather’, the tower is on the Heritage at Risk Register and still in need of consolidation to ensure its survival.
* For these lines of verse The Folly Flâneuse is indebted to The Good Sharps, Hester Grant’s fascinating new book on the family. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1114606/the-good-sharps/9781784742133.html
For John Sharp’s pleasure garden at Hartburn see https://thefollyflaneuse.com/hartburn-tower-and-grotto-hartburn-glebe-northumberland/
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