The White Tower

In recent weeks I have frequently been asked about the origin of The White Tower, which is situated on the Aldwick Road. Some reports have called it a folly, others have been unsure as to its purpose and other reports are not even sure who built it. Therefore this week with the aid of local information and the World Wide Web I have compiled this look at the building and the builder.

John Cyril Hawes, who was born in 1876 in Richmond, constructed the White Tower at No. 16 Aldwick Road. John was the third son of a solicitor and he had two brothers. His parents were quite stern Evangelical Church of England members and thus he was brought up within a religious family partaking in regular family prayers. The family spent their summer holidays in both Bognor and Littlehampton. His boyhood interests included history, architecture and drawing. Following his early schooling in Brighton he eventually went to King’s school in Cambridge. Even in 1889 he had a leaning towards the church, but his father wanted him to become an architect.

He was eventually articled to a London company named Edmeston & Gabriel where he continued to study handicrafts at the L.C.C. Arts and Crafts Society. His brother became a solicitor in Chichester and was instrumental in introducing John to Frederick Harfield, who was a Bognor builder and Estate Agent.

In 1897 John Cyril Hawes celebrated his 21st birthday on 7th September and also became his own master and started work on his own premises, which included several cottages and a “curious looking building he named The White Tower.” This was to be a seaside house for himself and his brothers. The plan was to build a tower, which would enable him to look over the seafront hotels known locally as “The Rock Buildings” and have a view of the sea. Another report remarked that John greatly admired the architect Charles Voysay – who designed the present Bognor Town Hall.

His work as an architect continued and in 1898 he made a model of an imaginary church for the

Royal Academy Exhibition and received much praise for his work. His religious background was gaining strength and he regularly attended evensong at a London Church.

One evening when returning to Bognor he went into the Church of St. Thomas where Canon Rhodes-Bristow was speaking about vocation. John was very keen to become a missionary in Africa.

The following morning he went to London and visited the offices of the University Mission to Central Africa, to request an interview. Sadly he was turned down on medical grounds, but was granted permission to design a church at Gunnerton in Northumberland.

By 1902 the organisation of “The British Architect” remarked, “one does not, perhaps, expect to find much architecture at any seaside resort. But Bognor has two or three unusually good little bits. “The uncommon one is The White Tower.” The report continued, “this is a tower cottage with one bedroom only on each floor and one parlour out behind the tower above the kitchen and offices. Mr. John Hawes is the architect of this cleverly quaint little house; a sort of building which in its optimistic quality and simplicity might be emulated in thousands all over the kingdom.” This never occurred as John’s life took another twist.

At this time he started his training for church life at the Lincoln Theological College and John was finally ordained as an Anglican priest and became a junior curate at the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Clerkenwell, London. Eventually in 1908 he travelled to the Bahamas as a Protestant minister and noticed that there were only two structures that had not been damaged by a recent hurricane, fire or the local termites. John Hawes then introduced a new concept of building to the islands, by reverting to medieval methods of placing stone upon stone, and erecting ancient Roman arches for the stone roofs. During his stay he rebuilt other churches. Eventually in 1911 he was to be received into the Roman Catholic Church on the Hudson River, New York.

By 1915 John became a Catholic priest and went to Western Australia arriving at Mount Magnet, Geraldton. This was an extensive area of over 42,000 square miles where there had been a gold rush, which had brought the influx of Irish Catholics for him to administer to. John returned to England in 1920 for a six month period. He was created a Monsignor in 1937 and again returned to England in 1939 travelling via Rome where he asked permission to adopt the life of a hermit and his wish to carry out some mission work in the Bahamas. This was granted and during the period 1940 to the 1950’s he constructed numerous buildings and became a celebrity on Cat Island. A magazine named “Collier’s Magazine” described John Cyril Hawes

as “one of the most fascinating builders in the world.”

Sadly because of failing health due to his diet and strenuous activity the Bishop sent him to a monastery/infirmary at Nassau, but by 1956 he had suffered a fall and was taken to hospital in Miami Beach. He died on 26th June 1956 and was buried in a cave on Mount Alvernie, near his heritage, as he had requested.

There have been a number of books written about John Cyril Hawes. His own biography was published in 1957 and entitled “The Hermit of Cat Island” written by Peter Anson, who in 1945 had received instructions from John that he wished him to be his biographer.

In 1984 Mr. Evans in Australia wrote “The Conscious Stone.” He had actually visited Bognor Regis in 1970 and noted that the demolition of the Arlington Hotel next door was a “menacing reminder of the eventual fate of John Hawes’ striking building, a building which arrests all eyes in the Aldwick Road.” There were many concerns at this time that the road might be widened with the apparent loss of this building, which had received grade 2 listed building status in 1992.

Another publication titled “Between Devotion and Design” was fully about the architecture of John Hawes. John J. Taylor wrote this publication for which he won the Australian Christian Literature Award in 2001. The money for this publication was provided under a Heritage Grants programme which is given for “publications of rare material.”

An Australian History web site, named ‘Steeped in History’ provides information on the Monsignor Hawes Heritage Trail. Australians view John as having “written his signature across the landscape, leaving some remarkable buildings.” Another report mentions that John Hawes, the Architect preferred the ‘Arts & Craft school of William Morris to the gothic cathedrals favoured by Catholics,’ and he certainly left a heritage trail of churches in Western Australia.

When you next travel past The White Tower remember that this was the first construction of a man who was referred to in 1950 by the acting Bishop Bonaventure Hanseon as ‘he is our Christopher Wren. Tourists will be coming to look at his buildings a thousand years from now. This will occur I am sure around the world, especially in Australia and the Bahamas.’ Here in Bognor Regis we have a very unusual building that consists of four floors, which has outwardly not changed, although the surroundings have and new constructions have taken away much of the view that John designed his seaside cottage to enjoy. Next time I take a group of people around the town on a Local History Walk, I will now be able to comment on the Heritage Trail of his work in Australia. Worlds apart – just one architect.

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