The Smedmore Estate has been owned by the Clavell family since the 1420s (today, by marriage, the Mansels) and has been united with the manor of Kimmeridge since 1554. Its seat, Smedmore House, was built by Sir William Clavell in the early 17th century and added to during the 18th century. In 1774, George Clavell died without issue and the estate passed to his nephew, William Richards, on condition that he changed his name to Clavell. William had a younger brother, John, who went into the church and served quietly as rector for Church Knowle, Steeple and East Lulworth. In 1818, William too died without offspring and so Reverend John Richards inherited the Smedmore estate as William’s nearest kin at the age of 58. He too changed his surname to Clavell.
We know little about the Reverend Mr. Clavell. His signature appears faithfully through the decades in the various parish records and a silhouette of him at Smedmore House shows an unremarkable middle aged profile in a wig, at a date when such things were going out of fashion. He turned 70 in 1830 and it may have been this that prompted him to build his tower on the cliffs above Kimmeridge. An account in the Dorset County Chronicle for 21st July 1831 describes the newly completed tower as supposedly viewed from the fashionable Esplanade in Weymouth, calling it ‘as elegant a building as the county of Dorset can boast of.’ This article and building accounts held at Smedmore House also tell us that the builder of the tower was Robert Vining. Vining was a Weymouth man and associate of architect William Hamilton, with whom he built the Esplanade there in 1795 (Vining would also rebuild it after the Great Tempest of 1824). Robert Vining also built the octagonal Spa House at Nottington, just north of Weymouth, in the same year as Clavell Tower. The tower was built of very local materials, some even quarried from the estate or taken from the beds at Kimmeridge Bay.
The Reverend Mr. Clavell died in 1833 and the estate passed to his niece, Louisa Pleydell Mansel. Smedmore House became a happy family home through the next decades, the tower a destination for picnics and family expeditions (and courting couples – Thomas Hardy drew the tower as a frontispiece for his Wessex Poems and may well have courted his sweetheart Eliza Bright Nicholls here, the daughter of a Kimmeridge coastguard). From the 1880s until 1914 the tower served as lookout post for the coastguards but was then left empty and increasingly derelict. Meanwhile cliff erosion was taking its toll. Originally, it is said, a coach and four could be driven between the tower and the cliff’s edge, but the friable Kimmeridge shales are continuously crumbling away here at an average of 13 meters every century. By the late 1980s the tower was in real danger of falling off the edge. The Mansels set up the Clavell Tower Trust and English Heritage agreed to the principal of relocation, but the project proved beyond the Trust’s resources. In 2002, the Trust approached the Landmark Trust for help, whose Trustees gave cautious acceptance.
To read more about the history of Clavell Tower please click here.