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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Paxton's Tower, a nabob's revenge.

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

There is a strange looking gothic tower standing high above the Towy valley between Carmarthen and Llandeilo which was built by a Scotsman, according to some, to snub the people of Carmarthenshire. William Paxton was born in Edinburgh in 1745. He joined the Royal Navy as a young man but, on arrival in India, realised that the new colony was a place of adventure and a land of opportunity. This was the place for an ambitious young fellow to make his fortune. Seizing his chance, Paxton resigned from the Navy and became a banker. He had a sharp mind and quickly won promotion. Within a few years he became the Master of the Calcutta Mint and, like other Nabobs of the time, amassed a huge fortune for himself.
In 1785 Paxton returned from India rich, and intent on becoming a country gentleman. He purchased Middleton Hall, a run-down estate in the Towy Valley, and started to improve it. Samuel Peyps Cockerell, a leading architect of the day, was commissioned to design a new country house. A country park was laid out and the house, described as the most perfect in the country, was completed in 1795.
Paxton was intent on winning respectability and used his great wealth to demonstrate his importance. Despite his grandeur, he had difficulty becoming accepted. The noble families, comfortable with their old money, were snobbish and thought him conceited and vulgar. The poor were afraid of him and distrusted him.
Middleton Hall
Despite his unpopularity, Paxton saw politics as a means to fulfil his ambition. He knew that his money and patronage would create the support he needed. These were the days of rotten boroughs when votes were bought and bribery common. Paxton used his money to good effect and was soon knighted. Local elections took place and Paxton was elected Mayor of Carmarthen. In this capacity he entertained Admiral Lord Nelson who was visiting the town.
Paxton soon realised that local politics would not satisfy his aspirations. He wanted a bigger stage to perform on and decided to stand for Parliament. He started campaigning during the 1802 general election, spending money to win votes. He made promises and bought beer for the voters. One particular pledge made by Paxton was that, if elected, he would pay for a bridge over the Afon Tywi. Despite his grand promises and a vast sum spent on bribes, the voters rejected Paxton and he failed to win the seat.
The reason Paxton failed to get elected was that someone, possibly his opponent, had started a rumour that he was insolvent and unfit to represent the people in Parliament. Determined to prove that the rumour was a lie but unwilling to build a bridge for the ungrateful electors, Paxton chose instead to spend the £15,000 that the bridge would have cost on a tower to celebrate the victories of Admiral Nelson.
It was to be a sweet and very prominent revenge. The architect Cockerell was summoned and a site high on Bryn y Bigwrn Hill selected as suitable. Cockerell proposed a 500-foot tall gothic style structure that would dominate the countryside. Work began using limestone quarried locally and the Scottish stonemasons that he employed gave the tower a character that reminded Paxton of his birthplace, Edinburgh.
The Welsh Folly Book
Apart from making a statement to the people of Carmarthenshire, the tower had a second purpose. It was designed so that carriages could arrive from Middleton Hall and drive inside the three cornered base, allowing passengers to alight in the dry and to climb up stairways to a grand dining room with superb views over the Towy Valley. It was here that Paxton entertained his guests and impressed his visitors. From the top of the tower you could see seven different counties. The walls of the rooms were clad in marble and there were three fabulous stained glass windows depicting Lord Nelson, his victories and his heroic death at Trafalgar. Nelson died in 1805, six years before the tower was completed.
If the tower was a snub, the people failed to understand its meaning and Paxton succeeded in winning election to Westminster at his second attempt in 1806. He lived to the age of 80, passing away in 1824. The estate was put up for sale the same year and the catalogue described the tower thus;
A Gothic Tower, Erected by the late liberal-minded Possessor, in Commemoration of our Noble Hero, Lord Nelson; A grand Ornament and Land Mark in the County. On the Ground Floor, Three Spacious Lofty Arches for the Admission of Carriages, On the Principal Story, A Banqueting Room, with Gothic Ceiling; A Boudoir and Closet, over which A Prospect Room or Observatory, with Turrets, Three of the Windows are fitted with Stained Glass, One Window representing his Lordship, the others emblematical of his Fate, From which there is a Panoramic View, of a grandeur and extent that may justly be said to stand unrivalled. On the upper Part a Lead Flat, and Two Entrance Lodges.

William Paxton never did build the bridge across the Afon Tywi. Today, Middleton Hall has been demolished and replaced by the world's largest single span greenhouse at the National Botanical Gardens of Wales and the Tower, which is free to visit, in now owned by the National Trust.
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