On the banks of the river Orwell in Suffolk there once stood a lofty obelisk. It proclaimed to all the filial piety of Charles Berners, who erected it in 1793 in memory of his father, William. At 96 feet tall, and topped with a golden sun, it was a prominent landmark but sadly it came to a sorry end when it was damaged by fire and then demolished in the middle of the 20th century. But as the image above shows, fragments were salvaged and survive today.
William Berners (1709-1783) acquired the Woolverstone (or Wolverstone, Woolverston) estate in 1773 when it was described as being ‘capable of great and immediate improvement’. Berners commissioned a new mansion which was built to the designs of the architect John Johnson. The house was described in 1784 as ‘fine enough’, but it was the hilltop location with views of the river Orwell that gave it ‘all its merit’: the numerous small boats which sailed up and down the river brought to life this ‘superb view’.
After his death his son and heir Charles (c.1734-1815) commissioned the architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811) to design an obelisk in memory of his father. The plan was drawn up early in 1791, and the situation decided in September of the same year, with an Ipswich mason called Edward Tovell given the job of erecting the monument.
The obelisk was square in plan and surmounted with a golden metal ball surrounded by sun-rays (possibly inspired by the obelisk to the Duke of Cumberland in the park at Windsor of 1765 or the one at Stourhead in Wiltshire which was topped with a gilded bronze sun in 1748). But unusually it had a hollow centre which contained a wooden staircase, and presumably the circles near the top of the shaft were peepholes through which to admire the view, although as the engraving above shows the view was pretty impressive even from ground level.
Old postcards record how the obelisk looked, and show it to have been decorated with decorative roundels. These are very likely products of the Coade artificial stone manufactory in Lambeth, as that the company is known to have supplied the huge plaque featuring Diana the huntress which adorns the pediment of the mansion, as well as vases, urns, consoles and capitals. There were two inscriptions which were recorded on a pen and wash drawing by Issac Johnson of Woodbridge.
The first inscription translates as ‘In memory of William Berners Esq., best of fathers and well meriting the building of this obelisk by his son Charles Berners 1793’. The second plaque recorded that William was born on July 10 1709 and died on September 18 1783.
Sadly it was the internal void which brought an end to the obelisk. In July 1943 a fire was started at the foot of the wooden stairs which quickly spread (naval ratings returning from the pub were blamed). Considered beyond repair, the monument was demolished with explosives soon after.
But all was not lost: a few lucky villagers salvaged ornamental fragments which survive in private gardens, including what seem to be some of the Coade stone plaques from the obelisk.
The keen-eyed will have spotted two further landscape curiosities in the earlier illustrations to this post, both of which were once part of the Woolverstone estate. The map shows Freston Tower (top left), a ‘tall, imposing and picturesque bit of Tudor brickwork’ now a holiday home in the care of the Landmark Trust.
The engraving of Woolverstone Park shows a small ornamental building (bottom right): this ‘pretty little lodge’ became known as the Cat House, with the tale told locally that a stuffed cat was displayed in the window to warn local smugglers that the authorities were in the area. It has since been substantially extended and is now in the grounds of the MDL Woolverstone Marina.
Woolverstone Hall (grade I) was requisitioned during the Second World War and has been in use as a school since the 1950s. The views which the obelisk once enjoyed can be seen from a public footpath.
The Woolverstone obelisk is a sad loss, but the obelisk in Windsor Great Park, also topped by a golden sun, was recently restored by Cliveden Conservation, and looks rather handsome on a bright day.
The Folly Flâneuse wishes to thank Simon Pearce of Woolverstone for sharing his research and for being an excellent guide to the area. Thanks also to the owners of the surviving plaques for permission to view.
Woolverstone Hall is currently home to Ipswich High School. There are excellent views of the house on its website https://www.ipswichhighschool.co.uk
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