In the town of Camberley a truncated tower stands on a hilltop surrounded by trees. This is the surviving remnant of an elegant tower, built by John Norris, which stood on the open country known as Bagshot Heath. It has been known since its earliest days as ‘The Obelisk’, for in the 18th century the term was sometimes used to describe any tall, tapering structure. Although only a sorry stump remains, it has the most fascinating history.
Norris (1721-1786) lived at Hawley House, just over the border into Hampshire, from where his tower would have been visible. Norris built the Obelisk in 1775 as a ‘Place of Pleasure’ and it quickly became a landmark alongside the ‘Great Road’ from London to Devon (roughly the modern A30). It was noted by 18th century tourists as a great curiosity, for they would have seen it from many miles away, on what was then bare heath, and wondered at its purpose. One who enquired was told it was built by Norris as something to ‘look at’: an eye-catcher from his house. It quickly became known as ‘Norris’s Whim’.
As an important landmark the Obelisk was marked on road and county maps, including Thomas Milne’s survey of Hampshire, which also shows Hawley House. Milne’s map, surveyed in 1788-90 and published in 1791, included sections of the bordering counties and has a lovely little representation of the obelisk on its hilltop. Its lofty situation was such that it could be seen from Hampstead (it’s not clear if a telescope was involved), and its prominence in the landscape was noted in a decidedly dull and clunky poem of 1793:
On Bagshot Heath an obelisk you see
Much easier to be viewed than any tree.
What ‘pleasure’ Norris took at his tower is not known for sure. There are stories that the King used it when hunting on Bagshot Heath, and the Obelisk is certainly mentioned in passing in reports of the King’s days in the field in the 1790s. It would certainly have been resorted to for picnic parties where the family and their guests could dine and enjoy the panoramic views. There is also a tale that Norris used the tower to signal by heliograph to his friend Sir Francis Dashwood at West Wycombe: the two men were certainly friends, but no firm evidence for any signalling activity can be found.
The sharp-eyed will have spotted that the map above does not feature a town called Camberley. The settlement only developed after the establishment of the Royal Military Academy, now better known as Sandhurst, in the early years of the 19th century, and as the caption of the watercolour above shows it was originally known as ‘Cambridge Town’. Young students at the college were responsible for much of the graffiti on the base of the Obelisk, but setting a precedent in 1801 was one William Cobbett (not the radical and rural rider). Cobbett recorded in his diary that he had paused on the ‘desolate heath’ and spent ‘an hour cutting my name in large and deep letters’.
Amongst those who left their mark was Gentleman Cadet B37, Edward Henry Clode Braddon (1844-1907) from Liskeard in Cornwall. He was admitted to the college on 1st February 1861 aged 17 years and 10 months and passed out on 31 December 1862.
John Palmer Brabazon (1843-1922), also a Gentleman Cadet, arrived at the college from Swinford in Co. Mayo in August 1860 and passed out on 31 December 1861. He went on to have a ‘distinguished military career’ and served as Aide de Camp to Queen Victoria. He spent his later years in London, where he was remembered as ‘the last of the Victorian dandies’. In 1913 Tatler magazine said he was ‘one of the best known men in the paddock and the shires, and is not unknown in the boudoir’.
By the later 19th century Camberley had spread and the Obelisk stood in the grounds of a house called The Knoll. Sometime around 1880 there was a fire in the tower which caused damage to the upper stories, and when a new owner bought The Knoll in 1882 he ordered the ‘removal of the defective part’. Mr Allcock of Camberley successfully tendered for the work, and with great enterprise recorded the process in photographs which were then sold locally: the bad news is that they don’t seem to survive.
In 1889 the owner tried to sell off a parcel of land which included the Obelisk and, as evidence that estate agent hyperbole is nothing new, the site was described as ‘the healthiest spot in the world’. But it doesn’t appear that anyone wanted this ‘most choice residential retreat’, as the land remained undeveloped.
In the early 20th century The Knoll became a school. By 1965 it was home to St Tarcisius’s Roman Catholic school, and in 1965 the headmaster, Mr Aiden Mackey, began to push for the ‘dangerous’ obelisk to be pulled down. ‘I would like to see it gone’, he declared, adding that he would like the site to be an open space where children could have outdoor lessons.
George Poulter, Curator of the town’s museum, disagreed, and thought it would be a ‘very sad moment’ if the obelisk, the town’s most ancient building, was lost. All of this was reported in the Evening News which repeated the story that the tower was used to signal to West Wycombe in the 18th century. However the newspaper anachronistically suggested that the communication was by Morse code, which prompted a letter to the editor from the writer and art critic F. Gordon Roe pointing out the mistake. The News Editor accepted this was an error, assuring Mr Roe that the ‘reporter concerned has been taken to task’.
But the article had got people talking, and happily for the Obelisk public opinion was in favour of retaining the landmark. In 1966 Sir Francis Dashwood’s descendant Mr Francis Dashwood wrote to Surrey Heath Council suggesting that the tower be rebuilt, but whilst the idea was welcomed, the project was never going to meet the planning committee’s proviso that it must not ‘cost the taxpayer a lot of money’. Instead, the brickwork was repaired and the council took custodianship of the Obelisk. In 2002 the Surrey Heath Local History Club pointed out that the town’s Local Plan of 2000 committed the council to felling a small number of trees to ‘create important views both to and and from the obelisk’, which was by then totally hidden by the surrounding wood. The Council voted against four trees being removed to open up the vista.
Today The Knoll/St Tarcisius’s School is gone: the site has been redeveloped for housing, and the remains of the Obelisk are lost in trees on the edge of Camberley Park, which was created in 2000 with the Obelisk on its mount as the main feature. Sadly the grade II listed Obelisk is currently inaccessible behind a sturdy security fence because of problems with vandals (who by the standards of their ‘work’, did not commit an hour of their lives as William Cobbet once did). This is a great shame as the Obelisk is the oldest building in Camberley and the graffiti makes it a rather unusual monument/museum to generations of young cadets at Sandhurst. Hopefully Surrey Heath Council can soon find a way to manage access and allow locals and visitors once again to enjoy the very attractive walk up to Mr Norris’s Whim.
Special thanks to Steve Harris of Surrey Heath Council and Nick Clifton of Surrey Heath Museum, and to Dr Sebastian Puncher of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst who identified two of the cadets who left their mark.
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