High on the Sussex Downs, near the village of South Harting, stand some curious ruins. The jagged and dilapidated stonework is all that remains of the wonderful ornate tower built by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh of Uppark (or Up-park) in the 1770s and later known by the curious title of the Vandalian Tower.
Sir Matthew (1714-1774) commissioned architect Henry Keene (1726-1776) to design the tower in the early 1770s. The site was a pre-existing prospect mount in the park, and this he topped with an exquisite pinnacled pavilion. It is square in plan, and originally there was a kitchen in the basement where the servants could prepare meals, and above it a grand room for entertainment.
Few contemporary accounts of the tower survive, although happily a number of images are extant, including the two shown here. A tourist saw the ‘new building’, which he called ‘Uppark tower’, when visiting in 1771, so it must have been substantially complete by that date. The estate archive showed that bills were still being settled in 1775, so either work continued on the finishing touches for many years, or Sir Matthew was a tardy payer, with things further delayed by his death in 1774.
The builder was Mr Brooks, and the sculptor Mr Carter also submitted a bill: this was presumably Thomas Carter who specialised in ornamental fireplaces. Mr Rose was paid for plasterwork: the Rose family, Joseph senior and junior (uncle and nephew), were amongst the preeminent ornamental plasterwork specialists of the day, and created the ‘neatly decorated ceiling’ of the upper apartment. The windows were ‘partially filled with stained glass’, which must have cast an enchanting light on the interior of the ‘elegant picturesque erection’, as it was later remembered.
The bills call the structure the ‘Gothic Tower’, and it is not clear when it first became known as the Vandalian Tower. It is just named as ‘Tower’ on Ordnance Survey maps, and no references to the ‘Vandalian Tower’ have been found before Christopher Hussey’s articles on Uppark in Country Life in 1941. The name has nothing to do with our modern use of the term vandal to refer to persons causing wilful damage, but instead ‘Vandalia’ was the name given to a proposed settlement on the banks of the Ohio, America (although it does not seem to have been widely used outside the circle of investors). Sir Matthew had given his support to the project in 1769, although the plans were abandoned after the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775. Sir Matthew is said to have built the tower to commemorate his involvement in the scheme (he died in 1774 so would never have known that the scheme had failed).
Sir Matthew was succeeded by his son, Sir Harry (1754-1846). It has been suggested that the tower was built to mark his coming of age, although there seems little evidence. But he did put the tower to good use, throwing lavish parties there. In her book Uppark and its People (1965) Lady Meade-Featherstonhaugh recalls the tale that the feasts were on such a gargantuan scale that diners had to be carted back to the house in wheelbarrows.
Curiously, a writer in 1877 knew the tower by a different name. Mr Weaver, who contributed a chapter to Revd. Gordon’s History of Harting, told the story of the proposed settlement and the tower commemorating it. However he recorded that it was ‘fancifully named Daedalia’. Perhaps Weaver had just misheard verbal reports and assumed the tower was named after Daedalus, the skilful architect of Greek mythology? After all, the adjective ‘daedalian’, perfectly described the tower: ingenious, or intricate. This name was repeated in a couple of later texts and then seems to have disappeared from the tower’s history.
Unfortunately the glorious tower would have a short life: on midnight of Monday 27 June 1842 the ‘beautiful belvidere’ was discovered in flames and the county for miles round was ‘soon roused from their slumbers to witness its destruction’. The blaze was initially believed to have been caused by a fire that had not been adequately put out, but the Brighton Guardian concluded darkly that ‘we fear it will turn out the fire was not altogether accidental’. The damage was later attributed to a ‘notorious gang of poachers’.
Gordon’s History of Harting (1877) included a view of the ruined tower, and Weaver concluded that the structure had been so substantially built that ‘many years may yet elapse before it becomes a heap of ruins’. The tower did indeed stand strong, and a postcard dating from around 1920 shows little had changed in the forty or so years since Gordon’s history was published.
By 1934 Sir Harry Meade-Fetherstonhaugh was having problems with trespassers, and reluctantly he closed the gates to Uppark. He was at pains to stress to the people of Harting that they would always be given a ‘hearty welcome’, but that he had to act to stop the ‘foreigners’ who had been damaging the tower and other buildings in the park. More day-trippers would no doubt have arrived at Sir Harry’s gates a couple of years later: in 1937 the Shell petrol company featured the folly on a poster encouraging motorists to jump into their cars (after filling up with Shell fuel of course) and visit such sights.
The grade II listed tower was consolidated in 1982. It stands on private land and can now only be viewed from a distance as, ironically, it is fenced off to deter… vandals.
Most readers will know that another devastating blaze features in the history of Uppark (a National Trust property). In August 1989 fire swept through the house, causing terrible damage to the interiors and although some of the contents were saved many more were lost, including archival and pictorial references to the tower.
F.G. Aldsworth investigated the tower in 1982, when consolidation was underway, and fortunately recorded archival materials later lost in the fire, including the building accounts noted here. His account, with reconstructions of the plans and elevations, is in Sussex Archaeological Collections Vol. 121 (1983), pp. 183-224.
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