Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey - also known as Beckford's Folly - was a large Gothic-style building built in the turn of the 19th century in Wiltshire, England.

Fonthill Abbey was a brainchild of William Beckford, son of a wealthy English businessman and student of architect Sir William Chambers. In 1771 when was ten years old, he inherited 1.000.000 and annual income of 100.000. After years of traveling abroad and a failed marriage he decided to have a Gothic cathedral built.

Construction of the abbey begun 1795 in Beckford's estate near Hindon in Wiltshire, England. He built a 12-feet (3.6 meters) high and 7 miles (11 km) long wall around his estate to keep out unwanted spectators and hired James Wyatt as the leading architect. Over the protestations of his builders, Beckford decided that earlier foundations that had been made for a small summer house would suffice and decided to use faster materials like timber and cement - instead of more appropriate stone or bricks.

Beckford's 500 laborers worked in a day and a night shifts. He bribed 450 more from the building of St George's Chapel in Windsor by increasing an ale ratio to speed things up. He also commandeered all the wagons to transportation of building materials. To compensate, Beckford delivered free coal and blankets to the poor in cold weather.

The first part was the tower that reached about 300 feet (91 meters) before it collapsed. Beckford later said that he was sorry he could not see it fall himself.

The new tower was finished six years later, again as 300 feet tall. It collapsed as well. Beckford immediately started to build another one, this time with rock and this work was finished in seven years.

The abbey part was decorated with silver, gold, red and purple. Four long wings radiated from the octagonal central room. Front doors were 35 feet (10 meters) tall. It was declared finished in 1813.

Beckford lived alone in his abbey and used only one of its bedrooms for his own use. His kitchens prepared food for 12 every day although he always dined alone and sent other meals away afterwards. Only once, in 1800 he entertained guests when admiral Horatio Nelson and lady Hamilton visited the Abbey.

Once he demanded that he would eat a Christmas dinner only if it would be served from new abbey kitchens and told his workmen to hurry. Kitchens collapsed in the middle of the meal.

Beckford lived in Fonthill Abbey until 1822 when his income from the sugar marker plummeted. He was forced to sell it for 330.000 to an ammunitions dealer John Farquhar. The tower collapsed for the last time in 1825. The rest of the abbey was later demolished. Only a gatehouse and a small remnant of the north wing remain to this day.

William Beckford died in 1844 in Bath, England.