Hadlow Castle

While looking into the previous post and Shell’s advertising I found a lot of the Shell ‘Landmark’ posters – many of the locations in that poster set no longer exist, having been demolished. Hadlow Castle was one of the properties lost, but the tower still stands! It is incredibly similar in appearance to Fonthill Abbey.


 Denton Welch – Hadlow Castle, 1937

Hadlow Castle was built on the site of Hadlow Court Lodge, a country house. The Castle was built over a number of years from the late 1780s, commissioned by Walter May in an ornate Gothic style, it became known as May’s Folly. The architect was J. Dugdale.

His son, Walter Barton May inherited the estate in 1823. It was he, who added a 170 feet (52 m) octagonal tower in 1838, the architect was George Ledwell Taylor. The tower was based in part on James Wyatt’s at Fonthill Abbey.

A 40 feet (12 m) octagonal lantern was added two years later in 1840 and another smaller tower was added in 1852. This was dismantled in 1905. Walter Barton May died in 1858 and the estate was sold.


 An Edwardian postcard of Hadlow Castle

The property passed from many owners in the early twentieth century. During the Second World War it was used as a watchtower by the Home Guard and Royal Observer Corps. The unoccupied castle changed hands several times after the war too, until it was demolished in 1951, except for the servants’ quarters, several stables and the Coach House, which was saved due to campaigning from the society portrait painter and local resident, Bernard Hailstone. The Tower was Listed as a historic structure on 17 April 1951.

Now the entrance gateway and lodges of the Castle still stand – a heavy Gothic presence on the street – as does the Stable Court with two turreted pavilions, which are all in private ownership, and new homes have been built in the grounds.


In the Great Storm of 1987 the tower was damaged and three of the decorative pinnacles fell. The remaining stonework was removed until restoration could take place, in 1995 this still hadn’t happened and the council removed the lantern element of the tower and put it in storage with the other pieces. The tower was bought in 2011 by the Vivat Trust who between 2012 and 2013 restored the tower.

In 1953, the artist Barbara Jones wrote this about the tower:

In 1850 May built himself a vast gothic revival mansion outside Tonbridge, ten years later he added the tower, of brick covered with roman cement. The rest of the house was recently pulled down, but the tower remains, soaring above the monkey puzzles of the garden, taller than any neighbouring church. It is octagonal and divided into tiers by strong horizontal mouldings, the whole gothic in the extreme, and crowned by a tall and slender turret. 

There are various reasons given for why it was built. The perennial story of folly builders that they want to see some distant object – is probably the origin of the story that he wished to see the sea, and forgot the downs. 

The others are more picturesque; that his wife deserted him to live with a farmer, and that he built the tower so that whenever she was in Kent she should be reminded of him; 

or that he wished to thwart a prophecy that the house would go out of his family on his death if he was not buried above ground, and that his coffin was to be deposited on top of the tower. 

He is in fact still above ground, but in a mausoleum. Whatever reason may have caused him to build his tower, it is one of the largest and most sumptuous follies in the country. †


Eric de Mare – An interior shot of Hadlow Castle before it was demolished.


 Eric de Mare – One of the fireplaces from Hadlow Castle before it was demolished.

† Barbara Jones – Follies and Grottoes 1st Edition. Constable, 1953