Jezreel's Tower - a huge structure that "could not be removed"

E&T recounts a fascinating story of the now-defunct Jezreel's Tower, the largest religious structure to have ever been engineered in Britain.

Although its existence is now only indicated by the name of a bus stop, there are still people in the town of Gillingham in south-east England who remember Jezreel's Tower. Lifelong resident Ron Baker, who was 15 at the time of the tower's demolition in 1961, recalls "a very impressive building near the top of Chatham Hill that could be seen from the Isle of Grain 15 miles away".

Doreen Swain also remembers the tower dominating the south-east skyline, and it was a source of fascination for her as a growing child. She writes: "it was a sad day in the 1960s when the tower was pulled down. I had moved away from the area by then and always knew I was coming home when the tower loomed into sight. I felt that Gillingham had lost something special when it had gone."

Baker even recalls seeing the very few remaining Jezreelites, members of the religious sect responsible for the tower's construction, with their untrimmed beards and long hair tied up at the back. As the brickwork came crashing down, they must have realised that the end had finally come to the fantastic plans of their founder.

Like many small religious sects, the Jezreelites came to be dominated by one strong leader. Private James White, a soldier of 16th regiment of Foot, based in Chatham, was a man whose talents would have taken him far in any profession. In 1875, he joined a small sect of Christian Israelites. Rapidly declaring himself "a messenger of the Lord", he set out his beliefs in the 'Flying Roll' manifesto and took over. He soon adopted the name James Jershom Jezreel and, while stationed in India, maintained his leadership of the sect. Its basic belief was that its followers had come from the scattered tribes of Israel and would form part of the 144,000 people who would achieve immortality.

On his discharge from the army, Jezreel returned to Gillingham - then known as New Brompton - and began building up his following, gaining adherents in America and Australia as well as locally. He was a clever businessman and established a bakery, grocery and provisions stores as well as a carpentry and joinery workshop, a blacksmith, a printing firm and other enterprises. He carefully invested the profits and other money, which came in from donations.

Jezreel's Tower specs

As he put the money aside, he may already have had the idea of a huge tower, but he announced it had come to him suddenly in a dream. It would be a sanctuary, assembly hall and the offices for his "new and latter house of Israel". Based on the book of Revelation 21:16, it would be "foursquare… the length as large as the breadth… the length and breadth and the height of it are equal". In a letter, Jezreel further expanded on his ideas: "It will be three storeys 144 feet [44m] square. Its subterranean passages will extend for miles. The holy of holies will form the topmost graft into the building, lit by a revolving electric light. It is to be the grandest building in the whole of these parts. The lower storey will contain twelve [printing] presses, the whole worked by a large steam engine… the second and middle storey will be in the great hall seating many thousands…"

For technical reasons and on grounds of cost, Jezreel was persuaded by his architects Margetts of Chatham to moderate his grandiose plans. However, as PG Rogers says in his book 'The Sixth Trumpeter', in many respects "they tried faithfully to carry out [his] far-reaching ideas, many of which were original and far in advance of his time". The cost was estimated to be £25,000 - about £1.5m in today's money.

By early 1885, a contract had been issued to build the basement at a cost of £1,500 and later in the year a further deal was sealed for the construction of the ground floor up to 5m at a cost of £5,350. This would house the 12 printing presses.

The building was proceeding well when, quite unexpectedly, Jezreel died.

In accordance with the beliefs of the sect, his death was not mourned and after a failed attempt by James Cumming to take over the sect, Jezreel's wife Esther seized control. A mass of letters that passed between her, the architects and the builders, James Gouge Naylor of Rochester, show that she was intimately involved with every aspect of the building and determined that it should be finished. To start with, regular amounts of money were paid to the builders as donations flowed in from converts in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

By June 1887, the whole of the outside except for the roof was finished, while inside the ground floor was complete with the newly installed steam printing-presses rapidly turning out the sect's publications - the 'Flying Roll' and 'Messenger of Wisdom'. On the floor above, large quantities of steel girders had been installed to construct the meeting hall, balconies, the hydraulic choirs and preacher's revolving platform.

End of the dream

However, payments to the builders began to slow down. In November 1887, the building was ready for its concrete and asphalt roof but this had to be delayed, and as the money finally ran out in March 1888, work ceased. So, roofless and surrounded by scaffolding, Jezreel's fantastic tower lay exposed to the elements. By that time, £30,000 had been spent and it was estimated that another £20,000 would be needed. There was a possibility that the building could have been finished, but the sudden death of Esther in June 1888 removed the Jezreelites' unifying influence and almost certainly ensured that this would not happen.

With her death, the sect was split and lost ownership of the tower. It is not difficult to imagine the feelings of the Jezreelites who watched the first attempt at demolition in 1905. The women wept as bricks fell from the top of what might have been a truly amazing and unique structure. But even if the sect had fallen apart, the building did not crumble so easily and the labourers after some initial success had to admit defeat.

For over half a century, the structure remained derelict, though occasionally used for storage and, for a time, as a hard tennis court. But, with the local council refusing to take the tower on as an historical relic, the end came in 1960. Even then it did not go easily. The demolition schedule of three months stretched into 13. Maurice Brown of the demolition firm told local newspaper the Kent Messenger: "The tower was like a fortress - very strong." He added that some of the 3m walls had almost defeated him in what he termed "the toughest of all the tough jobs". In the end, his workers succeeded and the tower that according to Mr Mihan, an American Jezreelite, "could not be removed by the powers of Earth or hell" was now a heap of rubble.

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