Be it ever so humble, a home has a special meaning to everyone, a meaning full of childhood memories and times long ago. The variety in homes is astonishing and as far ranging as the personalities of the people who built them. For places so bound up in feelings and emotions, it is hardly surprising that homes can be places that have incredible stories to tell, and secrets to be discovered.
Beckford’s Folly- The strange story of Fonthill Abbey
They say you can’t pick your parents, but if you could, William Beckford could have hardly done better. In class conscious eighteenth century England, Beckford’s mother was descended from Mary Queen of Scotts and his father was Lord Mayor of London and a member of Parliament. They all benefited from the substantial income of scores of Jamaican sugar plantations started by his grandfather. When he took piano lessons, his parents could afford the best; his teacher was Mozart himself.
When William Beckford was just eleven, his father died and he inherited a million pounds, the equivalent of about 200 million today, along with an income of 70,000 pounds a year, and became the richest commoner in England. William Beckford completed his education and traveled extensively. He was interested in literature and published a novel in 1780. He married, but his wife died after three years and he did not remarry.
He returned home at the age of 37 and proceeded to enclose the family property in a six foot high fence six miles long. Then he began to demolish the family home of his father to make way for something even more grand. The new house was Fonthill abbey, a massive construction that resembled Salisbury Cathedral. Fonthill Abbey was the first of the so called Gothic Revival structures, secular buildings that resembled medevil cathedrals. The abbey featured soaring vaulted ceilings, arched windows, 37 foot high doors, vast interior spaces, and a Gothic tower 270 feet high. The place could be seen for miles, rising out of the farmlands. The style became immensely popular and was used some years later to construct the iconic Houses of Parliament.
Of course, stone cathedrals took many years to construct and required armies of stonemasons. William Beckford, however, with the impatience that his wealth made possible, wanted results quickly. To speed things up, the building construction was not dressed stone, but a technique called “compo-cement” that consisted of plain masonry or even wood frame and timber members covered with stucco and made to look like solid stone. In order to construct so rapidly and on such a scale, Beckford bribed 500 workers currently employed on other projects to come and work for him. The workers included over 400 that were lured away from work on the Royal apartments at Windsor Castle! What the king thought of this is not known, but can be imagined.
Partly as a result of the construction methods and partly the result of the haste with which the work proceeded, the project was plagued with structural problems. The tower, while impressive, was unstable, and collapsed several times during construction. Soon, locals were referring to the project as Beckford’s Folly.
The finished product was certainly impressive, but Beckford didn’t utilize its vast spaces fully. He lived there alone, and had 20 plates prepared for each meal. He ate one and sent the rest away. In spite of the entertainment possibilities of such a house, Beckford only hosted once, when Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton visited during Christmas.
After suffering some financial problems with the sugar plantations that provided his income, Beckford sold the abbey to an ammunition dealer in 1822. Three years later, the tower collapsed again.
The building was eventually demolished and is mostly a ruin today. The gatehouse remains, along with part of one of the abbey’s walls.