architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, Observatory, Tower, West Yorkshire

The Spy Tower, Fagley, West Yorkshire

Early in the 19th century Benjamin Farrer built a tower close to his home in Fagley, then a village on the edge of Bradford. The elegant edifice declined after its builder’s death and survived for less than a century. But that was time enough to accumulate the usual fanciful folly stories.

Farrer (1761-1833) built the tower in 1828 and placed upon it a tablet with the inscription:


In 1876 the local historian William Cudworth painted Farrer as a man who was very careful with his money, calling him a ‘bachelor miser’. He told how Farrer, a wool merchant, would walk to York to sell his goods rather then pay for transport, and concluded that few lamented his death. According to Cudworth those named on the tower had scraped together ‘bits of property’ which they left to Farrer, a man as ‘penurious as themselves’.

Postcard sent in 1911, courtesy of the Dave Martin Collection.

Published more than forty years after Farrer’s death, it is not clear how much of Cudworth’s account of his parsimony was fact, and how much had been embellished in the intervening years. Later published sources have been based on Cudworth’s writing, so the story has been perpetuated now for almost 150 years.

What is certain is that the four people commemorated by the tower are Farrer’s mother, Susan (or Susannah) and her three younger siblings: Samuel, Joseph and John. As each of the siblings died, their money and property passed to the last surviving brother, John, and it was he who chose his nephew Benjamin as his heir.

Undated photograph of the tower with the plaque still in situ. Courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford, 44D91/1.

John died in 1826 and Farrer then erected the tower in memory of his mother and uncles, which must surely redeem his character a little: he can’t have been such a skinflint if he was willing to invest some of his fortune in a fancy folly? The roof of the tower was completed by Farrer’s builder, Joseph Watson, in the autumn of 1828, with finishing touches to the interior the following year, when the ‘cubard Doors’ were fitted. Sadly, what purpose the tower served has long been forgotten, but presumably it served as a belvedere, eye-catcher and pic-nic pavilion. It is marked on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map simply as ‘Tower’.

By the time Cudworth was recounting the history of the tower in the 1870s the tower had become a ‘conspicuous object’ in the grounds of Thomas Milner’s Spire Nurseries in Fagley (the area around the tower was known as Spire Fields). Milner leased the ground from the Farrer family from sometime before 1859 until 1882 when the business was liquidated: locals recalled that Milner used the lower storey as a tool shed.

A rather murky view of the tower in decline.

Farrer’s descendants sold the Fagley property, including what had become known as ‘Tower Fields’ in 1899. Sometime around then the upper storey was occupied by a ‘fish hawker’: an undignified end for this once fine tower. Picture postcards of the tower were produced in the early 20th century, but by then the turret was roofless and had become known as the Spy Tower (possibly a contraction of Spire Tower), with the accompanying story that children used to climb the tower to spy on courting couples in the lane below. And of course there were tales that it was haunted, and local children would dare each other to run down the narrow lane that passed it.

In May 1915 it was reported that one side of the tower’s base was bulging, and that ‘it does not seem probable the tower will stand another twenty years, let alone endless ages’. In fact it didn’t survive another year, and by early January 1916 had been ‘reduced to a heap of stones’. The Bradford historian Arthur Harrison remembered seeing the plaque ‘leaning against a shed’ in a nearby quarry in the 1930s, but it is not known to survive today. For some years ‘hummocky rubble’ marked the site of the tower, but the land has since been developed and no trace of this fine tower remains.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are always welcome, as is any further information about the tower. You will find the comments box if you scroll down the page (only your name will appear online, your email address remains private).

The Needle’s Eye, Wentworth Woodhouse. Subscribe and discover many other fascinating follies.


Subscribing to The Folly Flaneuse ensures you will never miss a post. All you need to do is provide me with your contact information and you will automatically receive an email each Saturday when I post new content on Your email address will never be sold or shared

 You can remove yourself anytime by contacting me.

* indicates required

11 thoughts on “The Spy Tower, Fagley, West Yorkshire”

  1. Barbara Howard says:

    Hello. As I read through this account I thought that I must ask my husband exactly where this tower is (he began his education at a school in Fagley Woods in the mid-1950s). But, alas, reading through to the end, like so many follies, it is no more. Another interesting read on Saturday morning. Thank you for the research.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Barbara. Yes I’m afraid this is a lost folly. A great shame, as ever, but I’m pleased to have recorded its history.

  2. Judy Popley says:

    Another masterly story and again, another lost folly. I came from near Bradford and hadn’t even heard of Fagley! All long gone. Thanks for another great piece – I look forward to the “ping” on my phone every Saturday morning!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Judy. It’s always a little depressing writing about the losses, but I love to find the histories and images of follies that are no more. Delighted you enjoy the weekly stories, thanks.

    2. Gand says:

      A fascinating story.
      Just round the corner from an excellent museum too.

      1. Editor says:

        Good point. Thanks for mentioning that Gand. Although the tower is gone the area has another attraction in the form of the Bradford Industrial Museum.

  3. Gwyn Headley says:

    I think you’re very unfair on us poor fish hawkers.

    1. Editor says:

      Follies. Music. Publicity. Mah Jong. And now Fish Hawking. What a colourful life you have had Mr Headley.

  4. Gwyn Headley says:

    I think you’re very unfair on us poor fish hawkers.

  5. Irene Lofthouse says:

    Excellent piece of research – and a sad story of another ‘folly’ disappearing – as much in Fagley has over recent times. RIP Blue Pig, Fagley Lodge changed beyond recognition (or Gamekeeper’s Lodge as some locals knew it) , Throstle Nest Riding School, Cherry Tree Farm ( I remember daffodils nodding at the front gate and Mum buying milk there) … As a walker around Fagley as a child/adult, I’ve never come across a mention of this Tower, so I shall hunt out on the referenced map for a nosy. Many thanks.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Irene. I’m very pleased you enjoyed the story of this lovely lost tower. You can easily find the tower on old OS maps, but sadly you will have to imagine its situation as so much has changed. Happy New Year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.