Somerset has more than its fair share of folly towers, but one of the most audacious examples is sadly long gone. This was the slender tower built by John Turner in the hamlet of Faulkland, near Bath, in 1890. It stood for less than 80 years, having become progressively shorter before its eventual demise in the 1960s.
John Turner (c.1818-1894) was born in Devon but later moved to Faulkland, in Somerset. Here he settled as a gentleman farmer and developer of houses and cottages: according to the 1881 census return Turner had 160 acres and was employing 12 men and 5 boys. Later that decade he suddenly decided to branch out into the entertainment business, and started to build a tower, with a ballroom at its base, all set within pleasure gardens. The grand opening ceremony was held on 25 September 1890 and five thousand people were said to have visited that day. According to reports in the local paper and the building press Turner had invested £4,000 in the project.
Standing 200′ (60m) high, the first section was built of stone, and atop this was a wooden structure, which visitors were assured was fixed with ‘powerful bolts and iron work’. This section had two viewing platforms, and was finished with a wooden spire. The ‘architect & builder’ was ‘Mr J. Wilcox of Terry Hill’: this was Job Willcox, who described himself more humbly as a ‘carpenter’ in the 1891 census.
Most people climbed the belvedere to appreciate the view, and there were window seats where the weary could rest as they climbed the internal staircase. But the tower was also an early theme-park thriller, and the more intrepid visitors could climb out onto the wooden spire and ascend a ladder into an iron cage. Four shillings per annum bought membership of the ‘Faulkland Tower Club’. This was strictly ‘non-political and unsectarian’, and existed to ensure the ‘social and moral welfare’ of its members – which sounds somewhat more sedate than climbing the tower.
Sadly this benevolent enterprise came to an end when Turner died in January 1894. His executors sold his farm stock, his furniture, and finally in April there was the ‘Highly Important and attractive sale’ of his estate. Lot 21 was ‘the substantially-erected tower’ with adjoining dancing and tea rooms, skittle alley, pleasure grounds cottages, houses, shops, stables and coach house. The purchaser, at £900, was Hedworth Hylton Jolliffe, 2nd Baron Hylton who lived at nearby Ammerdown Park.
So far, so factual (assuming one believes what one reads in the papers), but it wouldn’t be a good folly without an equally good story. Going back in time, Turner was said to have built the tower out of spite because (a) Lord Hylton built an 8′ wall around his estate (b) Lord Hylton reneged on a property deal or (c) that Lord Hylton built the 164′ (50m) high Ammerdown Column overlooking Turner’s land. The latter can be discounted as the column was not erected by Lord Hylton, but by his cousin Thomas Robert Jolliffe: Hylton did not inherit his cousin’s estate at Ammerdown until 1872. It seems unlikely that Turner waited more than three decades to exact his revenge on a man who had been dead for almost 20 years when the tower was completed.
But there was definitely some local rivalry, which may have given rise to the stories. Turner was keen for it to be known that his tower gave views to the Ammerdown Column and two more distant Somerset follies: the Cranmore Tower, and King Alfred’s Tower on the Stourhead estate. And crucially, he boasted that his ‘most formidable’ folly was 50′ (15m) higher than the tallest of these structures.
Another story tells that the building of the tower bankrupted Turner. It is true that Turner did not die a wealthy man, and had perhaps exhausted his resources on the tower project, but he left a modest estate of a little over £450. Another local tale is that the 2nd Baron Hylton hated the tower so much that he bought it just so he could pull it down. But although the wooden superstructure was taken down in 1895, after being badly damaged by a lightning strike, it wasn’t until 1910 that a substantial 80′ (24m) section of the tower was removed. The truncated tower and ballroom continued for some years as a social club (where miners ‘used to drink more than other people thought good for them’), but in 1968 a letter in Country Life magazine announced that the tower was ‘now in the hands of the demolition squad’.
The tower was brought to the attention of a wider audience in 2016 when the independent publishing house Little Toller Books republished In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). In 1913 the writer, later to become an acclaimed poet, went on a cycling tour with his son Merfyn, taking photographs along the way. Passing the tower, which he at first took for a church tower or a chimney, Thomas asked about its history and was told that ‘Mr Turner used to go up and down it, but it served no other purpose’ – a true folly. The new edition of In Pursuit of Spring is illustrated with Thomas family photographs, and the cover star is Turner’s Tower.
For more on Thomas’s book see https://www.littletoller.co.uk/shop/books/little-toller/in-pursuit-of-spring/
Edward and Merfyn’s cycling tour (they are thinly disguised as ‘David and Philip’) is mentioned in the memoir Edward’s wife Helen wrote to help with her grief after his death. It has recently been republished by Persephone Books https://persephonebooks.co.uk/products/as-it-was
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