On the edge of Alnwick, in Northumberland, stood Swansfield House, an elegant villa that in the late 18th century was home to Henry Collingwood Selby (1748-1839), agent to the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland of Alnwick Castle. Following the lead of his monument-building patrons, he embellished his small estate with a tower, a column, and a curious gothic structure.
In 1789 Selby had married Frances Wilkie, and they settled at Swansfield with its ‘beautiful walks and plantations’. Soon after the couple commissioned a watercolour from the artist John Downman: the work is particularly poignant, for Frances died in childbirth on the first day of August 1790. The child survived, and was named Frances Wilkie Selby in honour of her mother.
Henry Collingwood Selby erected a monument to his wife in St Michaels’ church in Alnwick, and lived on at Swansfield for another five decades. As well as looking after the Duke of Northumberland’s affairs, he was also Clerk of the Peace for Middlesex for more than six decades. His story is not well documented, and the little we know tells that he was kind to the poor of Alnwick, but struck a hard bargain in business – ‘the Duke of Northumberland’s rapacious steward’, was Horace Walpole’s damning description.
On 30 May 1814 the Treaty of Paris was signed, and it seemed that the Napoloeonic Wars were over. Selby decided to erect a monument to commemorate the end of the war with France, and made plans for a column on Camphill, a ‘commanding eminence’ in the parlance of the day, above Swansfield House. Initially it seems he intended the column to be topped by a statue, and he paid 40 Guineas for a ‘fine 6ft Statue of Peace and Victory, with wings, a caduceus, olive branch, cornucopia etc’ from Mrs Coade’s artificial stone manufactory in Lambeth, London. The order also included 4 tablets for inscriptions to ‘fix on the column’ (16 Guineas), and the cutting of the letters for the inscriptions (£21 3s 9d). No architect is recorded, but a strong contender is Newcastle-based David Stephenson (1757-1819); he was architect to the Duke of Northumberland and a regular customer of Mrs Coade.
Three panels praised key figures in the war: Vice Admiral Horatio Viscount Nelson for the campaigns at sea and the ‘decisive victory at Trafalgar’; Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington for having ‘vanquished the armies’; and The Right Honourable William Pitt for his statesmanship during the conflict. The fourth praised the ‘persevering and victorious efforts of the British Empire by sea and land’, and of course preserved for posterity the name of Henry Collingwood Selby, erector of the column.
However, by the time the column was ready to be topped with the statue, it had become apparent that Britain would have to wait a little longer for the ‘peace and victory’ represented by the figure. The ‘downfall of Napoleon Buonaparte’ celebrated in the inscription was short-lived – in Spring 1815 he had escaped and was once more governing in Paris. The idea of the terminating statue seems to have been abandoned, and the Camphill Column is topped with a simple ball, as illustrated in William Davison’s A Descriptive and Historical View of Alnwick published in 1822 (above).
But the figure did find a home on the lawn in front of the house, as shown in another engraving in the same book, and this time it was accompanied by an inscription which brought matters triumphantly up to date with the Battle of Waterloo and Napoloeon’s subsequent surrender:
The Pillar on the Camphill
records the events which led to
the first overthrow of NAPOLEON BUONAPARTE
and the Peace of MDCCCXIV,
this Statue is designed to commemorate
the return of NAPOLEON from Elba, his triumphal entry into the capital,
and his resumption of the sovereign power
the annihilation of his army
by the DUKE OF WELLINGTON
and PRINCE BLUCHER
at the ever-memorable Battle of Waterloo,
his second abdication,
his surrender to the British Fleet,
and his confinement in the island
of St. Helena;
the second capture of Paris,
the second restoration
of the Bourbon monarch,
and the Peace of MDCCCXV
Another landscape feature stood not far away. This was an ‘unfinished tower […] intended as an observatory’, which the late T.L. Adams had begun before his death, and which Selby now owned. In 1815 Selby celebrated allegiances closer to home and inserted a tablet with medallions of the profiles of the Duke and Duchess, and the ducal coronet. These medallions may have been a gift from the Duke and Duchess, who must have ordered a number from the Coade manufactory. Two appear on the Brizlee Tower, and two at Hulne Abbey, both within Hulne Park, part of the Alnwick Castle estate. Others remain unused in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland.
Frustratingly, no views of the tower are known to survive, but again thanks to Davison we know that the inscription on the tower read:
To the memory of his early patrons the most noble HUGH and ELIZABETH DUKE and DUCHESS of NORTHUMBERLAND, not less eminent for their virtues than distinguished by their rank,
this tribute of grateful affection is dedicated by HENRY COLLINGWOOD SELBY MDCCCXV
Swansfield Tower became one of the noted landmarks on the Alnwick skyline, joining the monuments built by the dukes of Northumberland – Ratcheugh Crag, a hilltop eyecatcher (c.1783), Brizlee Tower (c.1781), and the Percy Tenantry Column in the town centre (1816).
Selby died at Swansfield in February 1839 at the age of 91. His estate passed to his great-nephew, who immediately tried to raise an income by letting the tower, by now known as the Stonyhill Tower, as a dwelling. Potential tenants were told that there was a ‘fine view of the sea’, and that it would make a ‘pleasant residence for a small family’. The tower was again offered to let in 1857 and 1861, but soon after it must have been abandoned. By the middle of the 1860s the ‘three storied castellated tower [which] forms a good feature in the surrounding Landscape’ was ‘getting ruinous thru’ neglect’. That deterioration must have continued as it does not appear on the subsequent maps, and is largely forgotten today.
Selby’s descendants sold Swansfield House to the Duke of Northumberland, and it stood until the 1970s when it was demolished, and a new house erected in its place. A substantial part of the former park is now home to the Alnwick Castle Golf Club, and the Grade II* listed column sits in a small copse within the grounds. The fate of the statue to Peace is sadly unknown.
Also surviving is a very curious feature with gothic detailing. Historic England lists the building at Grade II, and suggest it is early 19th century, which fits with Selby’s building spree, but neither they, nor anyone else, seem to be able to give it a history or a purpose. It is a short stretch of wall with gothic detail, echoing decoration seen at nearby Camphill Cottage and on Alnwick Castle. It is not marked or named on OS maps, and for now remains a total mystery.
For Ratcheugh Crag see https://thefollyflaneuse.com/ratcheugh-observatory-longhoughton-northumberland/
For Brizlee Tower see https://thefollyflaneuse.com/brizlee-tower-alnwick-northumberland/
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