Biography of William Beckford Eccentric Builder Part 2

About the eccentric English builder and aristocrat William Beckford and the strange construction projects at his abbey.

WILLIAM BECKFORD (1759-1844). Eccentric builder.

The 1st step was the building of a wall around the construction site to keep out the curious. Beckford commissioned the noted architect James Wyatt to design the wall, and when it was completed it measured 12' high and 7 mi. around. With work on the tower itself ready to begin, Beckford rounded up some 500 workers--hiring many of them away from projects they were already working on by offering generous wages.

Beckford, who all his life had acted on impulse, often at great expense, now showed all the signs of the classic obsessive-compulsive personality, insisting that work continue around the clock, even under inclement conditions and poor lighting--even when lighting was virtually nonexistent. The site continually buzzed with activity, and even at midnight--with a torrential rain falling and an impenetrable fog obscuring the trees--onlookers and casual passersby could see a steady procession of workers, lighting their way with torches, working on the scaffolds. The workers and those who lived nearby were all convinced that Beckford was mad.

He was so obsessed with speed that the workers had to slap the wood-and-concrete tower together haphazardly and with no thought at all to its strength or safety. Dubbed Fonthill Abbey, the cathedral-like structure rose 300' into the air from an impossibly narrow foundation, like a candied apple balanced on a stick; and even before the final touches had been put on this colossal architectural outrage, a mild breeze snapped it in 2 like a piece of balsa wood, and it came crashing to the ground.

Beckford surveyed the damage--briefly--and then issued an order: "Build me a new tower--at once!" The original foundation was too narrow and that was why the tower had collapsed in the 1st place, but it would simply have to do: Beckford would not wait for a new one to be built. He paid over a quarter of a million pounds to have stone added to the wood and cement, and his workers moved faster than ever. By December 20, 1800, Beckford had his tower.

Beckford's housewarming party was as bizarre as his new home itself. Beckford supervised the hanging of several thousand colored lanterns in the dense undergrowth that separated the abbey from his ancestral estate nearby, where his most distinguished guests at the party had been staying after arriving from the Continent. They included Admiral Nelson and Sir William Hamilton, and when they arrived at the abbey with their host, they were struck dumb by the opulence and vastness of it all. Rich tapestries hung on the walls, plush purple curtains draped the windows, and the house was furnished with inlaid ebony furniture.

You Are Here: Trivia-Library Home » Footnote People in World History » Biography of William Beckford Eccentric Builder Part 2
« Biography of William Beckford Eccentric Builder Part 1Biography of William Beckford Eccentric Builder Part 3 »
DISCLAIMER: PLEASE READ - By printing, downloading, or using you agree to our full terms. Review the full terms at the following URL: /disclaimer.htm