Inscription on the plaque:
This Tower marks the termination of the City Wall, and at one time marked the commencement of an impassable swamp, which extended to Layerthorpe Postern, the position of which was near the existing Layerthorpe Bridge; the Tower suffered severely in the siege of 1644 and has undergone many restorations since that period rendered necessary by the nature of the ground on which the foundations are laid. Formerly the Tower was known as Brimstone House after a manufactory carried on within its walls.
In 1068, William the Conqueror dammed the River Foss at Fishergate, raising the water level by approximately 2m, flooding the moat of his new castle and creating a large lake known as the King’s Fishpond. A map of 1610 by John Speed shows how the water provided a very effective defence as it spread over low ground to the east of the city and also some distance up Tang Hall Beck. It shows the medieval city walls surrounding Walmgate from Fishergate Tower to Red Tower, each ending next to the waters of the flooded river Foss.
The first reference to defences on the east side of the River Foss is to Walmgate Bar in 1155. This is probably when the first earth rampart and timber palisade defences were built around this part of the city. It is also likely that there was a timber “tower” where the rampart and palisade ran into the water of the King’s Fishpond. A deep ditch was dug in front of the rampart, along the modern route of Foss Islands Road and Paragon Street, discharging into the Foss at Fishergate. There are records of the City Corporation granting fishing rights so the channel must have been of a significant width and depth. Part of this ditch still existed when Foss Islands Road was built in the 1860s, as shown on the Ordnance Survey map of York of 1852.
The masonry walls were built in the 14th century; a contract of 1345 still exists in the City Archives for the replacement of the timber palisade at Fishergate with the masonry walls we see today. Master Mason Thomas de Staunton was paid £7 per perch to build a wall 6 ells (9m) high, and 2-2.5m thick. The contract included an option for building more walls in Walmgate on the same terms which is probably when the walls from Walmgate to Red Tower were built. It is also possible that these walls ended with a masonry “tower” on the site of the Red Tower, perhaps a small building similar to the corner tower in Fishergate.
Construction of the tower
Before his defeat in 1485, Richard III agreed with the City Corporation the allocation of funds for the repair and improvement of the walls. Negotiations continued with his successor, Henry VII, who visited York a number of times to impose his authority and ensure the loyalty of the city. The mayor, William Todd, paid for 60yds of wall repairs near Fishergate Bar in 1485 and, in 1487, he was knighted by Henry VII after the city repelled a rebel attack on Bootham Bar. However, unrest continued and, in 1489, a further rebellion severely damaged both Walmgate and Fishergate Bars after which Fishergate was walled up. In 1491, the king was still ordering repairs and improvements to the city walls, bars and defensive ditches and for guns and powder to be obtained. Similar instructions were issued by the mayor to every ward in the city in 1493. These works must have included Red Tower as it was under construction in 1490. Fishergate Postern Tower was started in 1503.
Red Tower is the only brick tower in the city, hence its name. It was first mentioned by name in 1511 when artillery was assigned to it. The lower levels of the tower appear to be masonry so either the brickwork was built on an earlier masonry structure or stone was used for the part which was under the waters of the King’s Fishpond. The top of the tower was originally similar to Monk Bar and Fishergate Postern Tower with a flat lead roof and battlements.
Infilling the King’s Fishpond and building Foss Islands Road in the 19th century has raised the ground level, burying the original ground floor and making the tower look surprisingly short. Although largely the result of Victorian restoration, including the dramatic-looking roof, the present building does incorporate some materials and features from the original tower including the shape of the windows. The long and thin Tudor bricks were reused by the Victorian builders on the exterior and some can also be seen inside.
Masons versus Tilers
The decision to use bricks for the construction of the tower caused friction between two of York’s powerful guilds of craftsmen. To save money, the City Corporation decided to commission the Tilers’ Guild to construct Red Tower in brick rather than more expensive stone. The Masons’ Guild, which controlled all stone work in York, was angry that the tower was to be built by tilers (tilers were also bricklayers). This sparked a vicious feud and the tilers soon complained that their tools were being broken or stolen and asked for protection from the corporation.
In 1491 a tiler, John Patrick, was murdered and two masons, William Hindley and Christopher Horner, were charged with his murder. Hindley was a leading official of the Masons’ Guild and was the Master Mason at the Minster responsible for work including the great stone screen incorporating statues of the kings of England. It is said that he could not be arrested by the city authorities because he stayed in the Minster precinct. Within the Liberty of St Peter, as the precinct was called, the archbishop had complete jurisdiction. Hindley seemed totally unashamed of his actions and it is reported that he employed a man to shout news of his whereabouts through the streets of York so that all who had business with him should know where to find him. Neither man was convicted of the murder, probably reflecting the high status and influence of masons in the city compared with tilers. The tilers finished the Red Tower but no other brick towers were built. The bricks were probably made in the long-established brickworks that existed in the James Street area until the 20th century and which can be seen on a map of 1852.
Civil War damage
During the Siege of York in 1644, Red Tower, Walmgate Bar and adjoining walls suffered major damage when canon on Lamel Hill and in St Lawrence’s churchyard bombarded the area. Although it was June/July and flows in the Foss were likely to be minimal, the marshy ground and King’s Fishpond must have presented a significant obstacle, preventing the Parliamentary army from entering the city. In the latter stages of the siege, preparations were made to cross the River Foss near Layerthorpe. This would suggest that Red Tower and the adjacent walls were well defended by the Royalists.
After the siege, some initial repairs to the walls were started in February 1645 including enlarging the ditch in front of Red Tower. Work also commenced on Walmgate Bar in October of that year, financed by fines on the Royalists. Repairs continued to 1648, as the date on the Walmgate Barbican confirms, and further repairs were undertaken on the walls between Walmgate and Red Tower in 1673
Red Tower in ruins
A book by Henry Keep of 1680 describes the city as being ‘encompassed with strong, lofty, magnificent and new walls which add much to the grace and beauty as well as to the strength and security of this city’. However, a drawing of 1776 by Edward Abbot shows the Red Tower in a very decayed condition with one wall missing and no roof. Some repairs to the tower had been by 1800, when it is known to have been rented as a stable, and a drawing by George Nicholson dated 1825 shows it with a pitched tile roof but also one lower corner wall missing. Around this time, it was known as Brimstone Tower possibly derived from its use as a store or manufactory of gunpowder. William Pumphrey, the pioneering York photographer, recorded Red Tower in 1853 with the same roof as depicted by George Nicholson. By this time the walls had been crudely repaired to safeguard the building.
York Corporation took over the Foss Navigation in 1854 and the King’s Fish Pond was filled in, raising ground levels in the area around the tower. York Archaeological and Architectural Association (YAYAS) raised £800 in 1855 to help pay for Foss Islands Road to be built on the present alignment, avoiding any damage to Red Tower, Walmgate Bar and the walls in between. As part of these developments, the architect George Fowler Jones undertook a major reconstruction of the tower in 1857-8. This is how we see it today, with dormer windows in the hipped tile roof, a replica garderobe and “arrow-slit” windows. Floor levels have been raised to correspond with the higher ground outside and do not relate properly with the windows. The entrance door is also likely to be from the Fowler Jones restoration but the concrete ground floor and first-floor timbers probably date from works carried out in 1958.
New use for Red Tower
An open day for Red Tower held in 2014 stimulated interest in the building and a team of local residents came together to secure a new future for the tower. A community interest company – a company which utilises its assets and income to benefit the local community rather than shareholders – was set up and City of York Council granted the new organisation, Red Tower York, a 30-year lease. Architects Holland Brown were commissioned to design the new interior; on the ground floor is a kitchen and WC and a glass-enclosed staircase leads to a meeting room on the first floor. The project was completed in 2018 and received a York Design Award in the same year.
‘City walls, bars, posterns and bridges’, A History of the County of York, the City of York, ed. P.M. Tillott (London, 1961), pp. 510-520. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp510-520.
‘The Walmgate Area’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences (London, 1972), pp.139-159, British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol2/pp139-159.
Very special thanks to John Oxley, City of York’s principal archaeologist, for his generous encouragement and facilitating the first public opening of Red Tower for York Residents Festival in January 2014 organised by Christopher Rainger of the Friends of York Walls. Imelda Havers was one of the visitors and, seeing the tower’s potential, she started the project to adapt it for community use led by Barry Beckwith.
For further information, visit www.redtoweryork.org.uk
The original article on which this history is based was written by Christopher Rainger.