The ruinous shell of the Whitehill Tower stands on high ground with extensive views across Surrey and down towards the south coast. It was built by Jeremiah Long in the middle of the 19th century as an ornament in the grounds of his Surrey villa, but has been neglected for years and desperately needs attention before it topples to the ground.
Long (c.1804-1886) described himself as a ‘builder’ in the 1841 census, but over the next decades promoted himself to ‘Surveyor, Valuer and Estate Agent’ and ultimately ‘Landed Proprietor’. His portfolio of properties included several houses in London, a seaside retreat in Brighton, and Arthur’s Seat, a country estate near Caterham, described as a ‘delightful residence situated on one of the prettiest hills and overlooking one of the most magnificent landscapes to be found in the picturesque county of Surrey’. By the time of his death in 1886 he was a ‘Deputy-Lieutenant of Tower Hamlets, a governor of Christ’s Hospital, and of numerous other London & provincial charities.’
His first son Jeremiah William was born in 1829 and there was then a gap of ten years before further sons joined the family. By this time Long seems to have been expecting great things from his boys, and named them accordingly: Caesar Alexander, Claudius Horatius and Arthur Antoninus. The younger three attended St Nicholas College (now Lancing College) in West Sussex, and it was here in 1858 that young Arthur and two schoolmates were tragically drowned, whilst bathing in the river Adur (the story has, as ever, become twisted in the telling, and some accounts incorrectly state that he was drowned at sea, or at Chelsea Reach). Arthur was buried in a ‘1st Class Family Vault’ in the then new City of London Cemetery, and the Register of Internments poignantly records that he was aged ’13 years and 364 days’: he died the day before his 14th birthday.
Legend has it that this sad event caused Jeremiah Long to erect the tower near his Surrey home. Whilst the building may have been in part a tribute to his lost son, a plaque on the tower records a much simpler explanation: the tower was erected to enable Jeremiah Long, of Arthur’s Seat, White Hill, to ‘have a rich view of the country’. The tower was also an eye-catcher within the grounds of the house. There’s no explanation for the choice of ‘Arthur’s Seat’ as the name of the house – one will read that it was because Long was a Scotsman (he was born in Warwickshire), or that there is an ancient earthwork nearby by that name (nothing is shown on maps). And if the name was some sort of tribute to his youngest son, then it was made during his lifetime as the house was known as ‘Arthur’s Seat’ by 1857.
A second plaque on the tower tells that it was erected in 1862. The designer of the tower and of Arthur’s Seat was probably Long’s architect son Caesar (1839-1898). Jeremiah had invested in land in Caterham, and as well as erecting his own home he and Caesar advertised plots of land on which to build ‘first class villa residences’.
There was little praise for Caesar, and the scant information we have on his career is buried in the pages of local newspapers. The buildings he is most associated with were all endowed or supported in some way by his father, suggesting a degree of nepotism. His major work was the Vestry Hall in Shoreditch, later extended as Shoreditch Town Hall, and it was during the construction of that building that he fell out of favour with some of the committee for making decisions without their authority. In one of the more peculiar defences offered to a committee a Mr Turner begged that they ‘make allowances for Mr Caesar Long’ on the grounds that he ‘was no ordinary mortal’, but one whose ‘idiosyncrasies should be respected’.
Since the late 19th century Caterham Barracks had been a depot for the foot guards regiments, and during the First World War the tower was used as one of their guard rooms. In March 1915 one of the soldiers wrote a brief account of life there on the postcard above. He recalled how ’22 of us used to “hang out” & cook for ourselves in this old watch tower […] each room was only 10 feet square, so you may guess that with equipment & rifles we were some squash’.
The uppermost section of the tower does not match the style or materials of the lower storeys (the quoins are brick, not stone), and may have been a later addition – perhaps to give more distant views. This would have made it perfect for military purposes and would account for its alternative name of the ‘Sight Tower’
Sadly, the last one hundred years have not been kind to the tower, and it has become dilapidated. It is not protected by listed building status and is in urgent need of consolidation to secure its future.
The tower is on private land but can be seen from the public road close to where War Coppice Road meets Whitehill Lane.
Thank you for reading. Further information and comment is always welcome, please scroll down to the foot of the page to get in touch.