John Powell Powell (1769-1849 – the double Powell acquired to meet the conditions of an inheritance) was passionate about bell-ringing and erected this ‘light, elegant and fanciful building’ at Quex Park, his seat in Kent, where his hobby could be indulged. Not content with a lofty tower, he almost doubled its height with a unique cast iron spire – years before a certain Parisian landmark took shape.
In 1819 construction work on the first stage of a brick bell-tower was complete and 12 bells were installed. These were made at the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry in east London, and the tenor bell was engraved with the words ‘This peal of bells was cast for John Powell Powell of Quex House, Isle of Thanet, by Thos. Mears of Whitechapel, London, for the amusement of himself and friends’. At that date the tower was the only structure in Kent with a set of 12 bells, and was all the more curious as it was a secular, rather than an ecclesiastical tower. The story is told locally that the bells were originally to have been a gift to Birchington church, but when the parish was slow to accept a frustrated Powell decided to erect the tower.
John Mockett was invited to see the tower on June 4 1819, the King’s birthday, and recorded the event in his journal:
‘John P. Powell, Esq., of Quex Park… having erected a tower in his park, in which he placed a complete set of bells for his amusement, being very partial to bell-ringing, had the same opened, this day, with a merry peal, by a select set of ringers; and, in his usual liberal manner, entertained a large party of his friends at his mansion.’
Throughout July local groups of ringers visited to try the bells and compete to produce the most perfect performance. The official opening was held on 4 August 1819, when the Royal Society of Cumberland Youths (named for the Duke of Cumberland) was invited to ring the bells.
The bell-tower was not the first such structure to be built at Quex Park, as shown in the centre of the engraving above. A few years earlier, in around 1814, Powell had started work on a tower from which he could signal out to sea (only a mile away) and which was fitted up with a ‘ring of 12 handbells rung by means of lines from each, so arranged that one person could command them all & play tunes on them’. Rather less musical was Powell’s collection of cannon: these were displayed in front of the tower and sometimes fired. A Kent county history of 1830 records that the Round Tower was ‘appropriated by its munificent owner to the pastime of discharges of canon [sic], which with the peals of his bells constitute a favourite amusement of the gentleman in question’.
Powell was described as ‘the only gentleman in the kingdom who keeps in his service a regular band of bell-ringers’: his ‘servants, labourers and workmen’ were trained in the art by one of the ‘college youths from London’ (the Ancient Society of College Youths was founded in 1637 and promotes ‘excellence in ringing around the world’). Early in 1820 George III died, and the ringers were called upon to mark the occasion. On the evening of his funeral the bells in the Waterloo Tower were muffled, and ‘solemn mourning peals performed on them […] in sacred remembrance’.
In that same year the tower’s curious metal crown was put in place. Visiting just before the tower was opened, John Alfred Parnell (known as ‘the Gothic Traveller’ because of his pedestrian perambulations to gothic cathedrals) noted Powell’s plans for the tower: ‘N:B: Mr Powell will have a lofty Spire on his Tower. two thirds of Cast Iron and to be sprung with 4: Quarter Circle Arches. then it will be a Noble Sea-Mark, being only one Mile from that Briney fluid’ (a later writer would ponder what mariners thought when they saw the curious structure above the trees).
Frustratingly the architect is not known, although Gustav Eiffel can presumably be eliminated as he was only a child when the spire was erected. We do know that William Mackney was paid for ‘iron castings for the ringing tower’, and plates on the metal spire reveal the involvement of ‘John Clark Ramsgate 1820’: probably the John Clark of Ramsgate who was Powell’s head carpenter but who had progressed to ‘Master Builder’ by the time of the 1851 census.
The building quickly became known as the Waterloo Tower, although it was named simply as the ‘Bell-tower’ on 19th century maps. Inside it was ‘fitted up in a very beautiful manner with mahogany stair-cases’. Powell was a ringer himself, and ‘assisted personally’ with the ‘choice and beautiful pieces of melody’ played to mark the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838. Many events were commemorated by the ringers over the years, and it must have been a solemn occasion in 1849 when a ‘mournful peal’ was rung at the tower on the death of Powell himself.
Throughout the 19th century ringers were welcomed at Quex. The New Inn at nearby Birchington was kept busy with parties such as the Saint Mary’s Society of Battersea who visited in 1885: after a ‘refreshing sleep’ the members enjoyed an ‘invigorating walk on the sands and a substantial breakfast’ to fortify them before a strenuous morning in the Waterloo Tower.
In 1896 the tower was restored and one of the four corner pavilions consecrated as the family mausoleum (some remains were moved and reburied at that time, but John Powell Powell rests in Birchington church). For this reason public access is limited to occasional open days.
In the 1930s the prolific writer Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) used Quex Park as a setting in one of his highly popular thrillers: Contraband was published in 1935 and in it the Waterloo Tower, topped with ‘a miniature Eiffel tower’, plays a leading role in a story of international intrigue and dodgy dealings.
Barbara Jones visited when researching for Follies & Grottoes, which was published in 1953. She admired the ‘beautiful structure’ and declared the Waterloo Tower to be the ‘best kept folly in England’. Both towers are listed at grade II and the Waterloo Tower is still home to The Quex Park Society of Change Ringers.
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