30 July 2022

Foredown Tower, Portslade

Judy Middleton (2002 revised 2022)

copyright © J.Middleton
Foredown Tower was photographed in April 2003 with the foreground dominated by a vibrant field of oil-seed rape

Plans for a Water Tower

In 1900 plans were drawn up for enlarging Foredown Hospital (also known as the Isolation Hospital). The following is an extract from H.H. Scott’s report dated 19 August 1903; he was Hove’s Borough Surveyor and the plans were for Hove Council.

At present the Hospital is supplied with water from a cistern of 1,000 gallons capacity, situated in the roof of the administration building, the water being pumped into this from a tank in the ground by means of a windmill. This cistern is, however, not high enough to supply the new ward pavilion nor is it large enough for the requirements of the Hospital if extended, and it is now proposed to erect an elevated tank having a capacity of 31,000 gallons in the north west corner of the Hospital ground, which is its highest point. The tank will be of cast iron 32 feet by 28 feet by 6 feet deep, supported on brickwork and fitted with a galvanized iron roof; the bottom of the tank will be 29 feet above ground level. It is proposed to put an intermediate floor in the tower, and this, together with the ground floor, will provide excellent storage space. From the tank the water will gravitate to the various buildings through a 2-inch main, upon which it is proposed to place three hydrants for use in case of fire.

In July 1904 the estimated cost of constructing the water tower was put at £1,460 plus the cost of the mains. Originally, Messrs Peerless, Dennis & Co of Langney Road, Eastbourne were going to build the tower but there was a dispute about the contract and so in 1909 the work was given to Hove firm Messrs J. Parsons & Sons instead.

The well-known ironworks of Every at Lewes was given the task of constructing the tank; it was made of 20 mm thick cast iron panels with flanged and bolted joists and internal stays. The tank could hold 27,500 gallons of water (less than the recommendation by the borough surveyor) and the weight exerted a pressure of 123 tons on the structure. This meant that the tower had to be very strongly built and indeed the walls were 27 inches thick. In 1990 when a survey of the tower was undertaken, it was found to be sound with no sign of distortion. As a measure of the stoutness of the walls, it is amusing to note that when an opening was required it took a day and a half to achieve despite the use of the most modern equipment.

Saving Foredown Tower

Foredown Hospital closed in the 1980s and Persimmon Homes acquired the ten-acre site with a view to constructing housing. They had no use for the water tower but Tony Gimpson, director of Persimmon Homes, was prepared to let Hove Council have it for a small consideration if the tower could be put to community use.

The idea behind saving the tower arose from a conversation between, Tony Gimpson, Paul Briault (architect) and Peter Martin, Gordon Sommerville and Dr John Packman on behalf of Hove Council.

There was no shortage of ideas but finance was the main stumbling block. However, Peter Martin did meet with a favourable response from Peter Hall, vice-president of American Express, who was prepared to donate £20,000 from their community budget. Once this offer had been made, it became slightly easier to obtain additional funding; thus the Countryside Commission gave £30,000, Hove Council gave £48,500 while East Sussex County Council chipped in with £5,000. This was still not enough to get the project under way but then American Express increased their grant to £35,000 with a promise of £5,000 for the next five years.

One of the ideas for the use of the tower was to make it the base of the Hove Downland Ranger and also a countryside centre. (This is where the grant from the Countryside Commission came in).

copyright © J.Middleton
This old postcard view across the valley underlines the one-time remoteness of Foredown Tower. 

Camera Obscura

The most innovative idea was to install a camera obscura in Foredown Tower. The camera came from the Gateshead Garden Festival and David Sinden had built it especially for them at a cost of £125,000. Hove Council purchased the camera for £30,000.

When the camera came to be installed, it was discovered that the tower was somewhat short of the ideal, which meant the lens had to be re-ground.

On 15 April 1991 the camera obscura was in action at Portslade for the first time and the topping-out ceremony also took place on the same day. In July 1991 Councillor Audrey Buttimer, Mayor of Hove, cut the ribbon and Foredown Tower was officially open. Peter Hall and Councillor Peter Martin were photographed standing by the viewing dish. Unfortunately, the weather was misty on opening day, which blurred the image on the viewing dish.

In the first six months there were some 6,000 visitors.

Other Camera Obscuras

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Brighton Herald 5 September 1807

It is interesting to note that the camera obscura at Portslade was by no means the first one at Brighton and Hove, and there were at least two others. Clifford Musgrave in
Life in Brighton states that there was one either inside, or close to, Russell House on Brighton seafront. This once grand house was demolished and the Royal Albion Hotel was built on the site in 1826. Meanwhile, the camera obscura was re-located to the seaward end of the Chain Pier, and later was moved to Marine Parade opposite the entrance to the Chain Pier.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Camera Obscura is on the left, on the right is a shop within one of the towers of the Chain Pier. The Camera Obscura was originally situated in Russell House, south of the Steine and moved to the pier head in 1825. It was then moved to above the bazaar about a year later.

Dates on the removal are hard to come by, but at least we know it was still in place at Brighton on 7 August 1837 because it was mentioned in a contemporary diary. This information is made doubly interesting because of the man who wrote it. We are used to diaries being written by the great and the good but this one was penned by an ordinary working man, William Taylor, who earned his living as footman to Mrs Prinsep of Marylebone. When the household stayed at Brighton, Taylor took every opportunity to explore Brighton. He makes a charming admission that he was a ‘wretched bad writer’ but he hoped that regular entries in his diary would improve matters.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
1830 View of the Chain pier from the cliff looking south east, the buildings of the bazaar can be seen on the left topped with the dome of the Camera Obscura.

Here is Taylor's account, warts and all. ‘Have been and saw the Camera Obscura. Its machinery, fixed in a house, by which they can bring the shadow of everything for miles round in at a hole of the house, on to a table. So that if a person was commiting a theft half a mile away and thinking no one was looking at him, any person mite see him if they was in the Camera Obscura and looking at the table.’

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Brighton Herald 18 December 1886
It is clear from the evidence illustrated above, that the public
were still able to view the wonders of the camera obscura at
Brighton in 1886 for the bargain price of two pennies.

The other camera obscura was situated on Hove seafront, south of the coast road (Kingsway) and opposite Hove Terrace. Charles Howell was the wealthy man who had it installed. He died on 8 December 1867 at the age of 83 and there is a memorial to him in St Andrew’s Old Church, Hove. Although he was wealthy enough to indulge himself in his hobbies of building fishing boats, gardening, and the latest scientific gadgets, he also had a social conscience, erecting the Howell Almshouses at Brighton.

Apparently, there were other structures on Hove seafront too and a reporter described them as a ‘cluster of little round houses with conical and hemispherical roofs’ and ‘one of the little white houses (…) contained a very large camera obscura, the largest we have seen.’ There was an up-to-date observatory with a large equatorial telescope in another little white house. Howell was said to be ignorant of mathematics and not a trained astronomer but he loved to gaze at ‘celestial phenomena’. Howell was happy to share with the professionals too and on 13 October 1856 Captain Shea watched a partial eclipse of the moon, a beautiful sight, from Hove. The little houses were marked on the Ordnance Survey of 1861.

Other Attractions

Foredown Tower needed to be attractive to visitors whatever the weather. In May 1992 an advanced computer system was installed to help educate and entertain them. The scheme cost £23,000 and it was a joint effort between American Express and Hove Council.

Also in May 1992 there was an exhibition of old photographs of Portslade and Hangleton while in July 1993 Brian McClave was the artist in residence and he held photographic workshops during August.

In 1992 Foredown Tower won a Civic Trust Award and in November of the same year it was highly commended by the Royal Institute of British Architects in its Downland Design Awards. A Diploma of Merit from Europa Nostra soon followed with the citation reading For the imaginative conversion and re-use of a redundant Water Tower to stimulate an understanding of the countryside and the South Downs. In June 1993 Peter Hall from American Express and Councillor Peter Martin, Mayor of Hove, unveiled a plaque commemorating the latter award at the tower.

In August 1994 Admiral Sir Lindsay Bryson, Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex, opened a new water sculpture depicting the water cycle sponsored by Southern Water Services.

Meanwhile work went on to clear footpaths and replace gates and stiles in the surrounding countryside. These were marked with colour-coded arrows that tied in with walks of varying distances outlined in leaflets on sale at the tower. A pond was created in the grounds and populated with frogs and newts while a nearby dewpond was restored.

In 1993 a weather station was established at the tower. In July 1994 it revealed that during the heat wave the ozone levels reached twice the amount set out by the World health Organisation. Sad to relate the advanced computer system, water sculpture and weather station are no longer in operation at the tower.

Escalating Costs

In January 1994 it was stated that the cost of running the tower was likely to rise from an estimated £36,960 a year to an actual figure of £69,140. The estimate for the next year was put at £72,170.

By January 1998 it was decided the tower should keep winter opening hours all the year through because during the summer an average of only twenty-five people visited during the early part of the week. The tower would be open between Thursday and Sunday but it could open at other times for special events or school visits. Staff could then spend time on developing educational projects.

Mike Feist and Astronomy

copyright © M.Feist
Mike Feist
Mike Feist, interpretive officer at the tower, demonstrated the camera obscura and he became so immersed in the subject that in 1995 he produced his own Pocket Guide to Camera Obscuras of Britain and the World. He initiated an archive on the subject at the tower that was constantly updated. He also produced a newsletter that was despatched worldwide, the first being sent in June 1995 while number 83 had been reached by August 1999.

Astronomy was another of Mike Feist’s interests. The subject had fascinated him ever since his schooldays when he lived in Preston Road, Brighton, and his father gave him a second-hand book entitled Descriptive Astronomy.

The tower was open during the solar eclipses in 1994, 1996 and 11 August 1999 as well as for the lunar eclipses in 1996, 1997 and 2001. Then there was the chance to view the comet Hyakutake in 1996 and the comet Hale Bopp in 1997.

In September 1998 Mike Feist set up the Foredown Tower Astronomy Group. When it was first advertised he had no idea how much interest there would be and he was astonished when around 100 people applied for the 50 available places. It was aimed at amateur enthusiasts and deliberately avoided complex theories. No more could be accommodated because of fire precaution regulations. As a result there was a waiting list and if you neglected to pay your subscription, the place went to one of those waiting to join.

For the solar eclipse on 11 August 1999 members of the public were advised to bring their own safety glasses to view the event and Mile Feist was on hand to give advice and information. There was a great deal of interest when Mrs B. Hogg of Hove donated a pair of special glasses made from an early form of plastic with which she viewed the total eclipse in 1927; she was living in north Wales at the time. Her father said to her ‘You might still be alive for the next one in 1999.’

Around 200 people descended on the tower for the eclipse and although the day started off with clouds, the skies soon cleared and the start of the eclipse was visible on the camera obscura. When the sun moved out of view, people went outside with special glasses or pinhole projectors. The maximum was reached at around 11.20 a.m. when daylight became dim and Venus could be observed shining brightly below the sun. There was a decided chill in the air that lasted for some time. The council promoted an archive of the big event that is kept at the tower.

In April 2001 the group looked at Saturn and Jupiter and the Mir space station before it crashed into the Pacific.

It is pleasant to relate that in 2014 the group is still in existence although they now prefer the title of Foredown Tower Astronomers. They meet on the third Thursday of every month in the Revive Café at Emmaus.

Today, Portslade Aldridge Community Academy have taken over the responsibility of running Foredown Tower. For information on opening days and times of camera obscura demonstrations, see this website:- Foredown Tower Learning & Visitor Centre.

Site Visit – 26 August 1999

copyright © J.Middleton
This close-up of Foredown Tower was taken 
in April 2003. Today after 100 weather-beaten 
years, the brickwork is still solid
Foredown Tower is approached from the west although to enter you must walk around to the door on the east side. There are red bricks at the base of the tower and in the arch of the doorway; some of which appear to have been glazed. There is an unexpected dripstone moulding around the arch of the doorway. The rest of the bricks are of yellow or variegated colouring. Resting on the bricks and on top of a sandstone plinth is the iron water tank with its weight pressing down on the sheet of lead that provides the seal.

The staff made most of the exhibits. For example, Louise Bristow constructed some beautiful models of insects including a spectacular dragonfly. Schoolchildren express delight at seeing them.

Christiane Berridge made an intricate and interesting model of Read’s Supply Stores in the High Street of Portslade Old Village with various items displayed for sale and the hoist in use. She also created a seaside scene with different activities taking place.

Paula Huntbach, senior interpretive officer, and Christiane’s sister, painted the backdrop. They are the daughters of well-known Portslade artist Barrie Huntbach who painted the mural in Portslade Town Hall and died in November 2006.

There was also a good model of the ruins of Portslade Manor plus an information panel about the wooden henge at Portslade discovered before the Brighton bypass was constructed.

Financial Pressures

The future of Foredown Tower looked very precarious in 2008. Indeed Brighton & Hove Council wished to shut it down with immediate effect because it needed at least £112,000 to meet current safety standards as well as making it accessible for disabled people. Closing the tower would save £20,000 a year; the tower was placed on the For Sale list. But following an outcry, councillors performed a U-turn and decided the tower would remain open. But as it turned out, it was only for a short time.

copyright © D.Sharp
Foredown Tower in January 2016, the original water
depth gauge is still visible below the windows
By September 2008 it was stated that the sum needed to put the tower in good order was £200,000. But the council hoped they had come up with a solution by leasing the tower for a peppercorn rent for a period of 25 years to Hove & Adur Sea Cadets to use as their headquarters. The group could then make a better bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

By May 2010 it was clear the arrangement had not worked out as hoped. Ian Wright, chairman of Hove & Adur Sea Cadets, said they had started off in good faith with a business plan based on a large number of visitors and a high level of spending. But this had not happened and it had also become much more difficult to secure funding. The cadets had since found an alternative site.

It was a shame that under this cloud of uncertainty, Foredown Tower celebrated its 100th anniversary on Saturday 15 August 2009. Paula Wrighton, museum learning officer, who has worked at the tower since it opened in 1991 commented ‘It would be a great shame to lose it, especially so close to its 100th anniversary.’

On 31 March 2010 a great swathe of the South Down was officially recognised as a new National Park. Hopes revived that perhaps the tower might become a gateway to the park.

On 9 December 2011 Mike Weatherley M.P. cut the ribbon at Foredown Tower and after being lost to the public for three years, it was now open for business again. Its status was as a learning and visitor centre run by Portslade Learning Community CIC. By 2014 the name had changed to Portslade Adult Learning CIC and various courses were run at the tower with public access to the camera obscura on two days a week.

 copyright © D.Sharp
View from Foredown Tower looking north to the South Downs National Park in January 2016

Brighton Herald
Hove Council Minutes
Encyclopaedia of Hove & Portslade
Lyons, P. K.
Brighton in Diaries (2011)
Morning Chronicle
(18 October 1856)
Musgrave, C.
Life in Brighton (1970)
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Copyright © J.Middleton 2014
page layout and additional research by D.Sharp