architecture, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape garden, Monument, Obelisk, Suffolk

The Obelisk, Woolverstone Park, Suffolk

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.

The Woolverston estate overlooking the river Orwell in 1783, after the new house had been built, but a few years before the obelisk was erected. From William Faden’s map of the County of Suffolk, 1783. Courtesy of McMaster University, Ontario, Creative Commons.

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’.

Woolverston Park with the obelisk to the left. Engraving by Henry Davy, 1843. ©The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-Sa 4.0.

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.

View across the Orwell taken near the obelisk. Engraving by Henry Davy, 1843 ©The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-Sa 4.0.

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.

Undated early 20th century postcard of the obelisk and bovine bystander. Courtesy of a private collection.

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.

View of the obelisk by Issac Johnson of Woodbridge (1754-1835). Reproduced by kind permission of Suffolk Archives, Fitch Collection HD480 vol. I, p.245.

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.

Postcard sent in 1905 courtesy of a private collection.

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.

Early 20th century postcard of Freston Tower. Courtesy of the Dave Martin Collection.

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.

Early 20th century postcard courtesy of a private collection.

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.

Woolverstone Hall. Photo courtesy of Ipswich High School.

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.

Photo courtesy of Cliveden Conservation.

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

Thank you for reading and please scroll down to the foot of the page to share any thoughts or comments.

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10 thoughts on “The Obelisk, Woolverstone Park, Suffolk”

  1. Simon says:

    I throughly enjoyed reading this and the rest of your posts, Karen. Keep up the good work.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Simon. Your help was invaluable. It’s always great to find a knowledgeable ‘local’ with whom to swap notes. Loved our brisk walk round on that beautiful bright day.

  2. John Holland says:

    Fascinating as ever, but one of the best! I really don’t know how you manage to keep posting these amazing articles. Keep them coming, please.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. Thank you for the kind comments. I think I have a few more subjects to explore so keep tuning in on a Saturday morning!

  3. Nick Addington says:

    Not many hilltop monuments in Suffolk (where I grew up), so a shame to have lost such a fine one. I’d read about this but not seen an image – wonderful to see the postcard photos! Thanks for another fascinating article.

    1. Editor says:

      Yes, not so much scope in Suffolk for ‘Hilltop Monuments’. Very pleased to have introduced you to pictures of the obelisk. It’s such a shame it has gone, but I’m envious of the lucky villagers who salvaged fragments.

      1. Ian says:

        Fascinating article. My Mother born in the neighbouring village of Chelmondiston in 1928 often recalled walks to the obelisk.

        1. Editor says:

          Good morning Ian. I’m very pleased that you enjoyed the article and that you have family memories of it before it was lost. Thanks for getting in touch.

  4. ChampChump says:

    This is the folly I decided I wanted as soon as I read it is no more. I was plotting one of my flying forays and even from its nonexistence, it eclipsed all those I included from East Anglia.

    It’s good to see that something was saved. Somewhere inside, a voice in me is muttering ‘the seed that saved a species’ but that voice maybe doesn’t belong in the 21st century.

    1. Editor says:

      It’s a beautiful area and I imagine it must look magical and majestic from the cockpit of your plane. It is great that fragments of the fabric survive to tell the story, but the destruction of the obelisk is a sad tale.

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