High life with the railway pioneer and his philanthropist wife

IT looks as though it belongs somewhere else in Europe, and is the highest point in Barnsley. From the time it was built in the 1860s until 1990, members of the public could ascend the winding stairs to the wooden viewing platform near the top of Locke Park Tower and from there see not only Yorkshire but distant glimpses of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Like so many of the county's follies, the Grade II listed Tower – in the public Locke Park on Doncaster Road at the edge of the town centre –was not built with any practical purpose in mind, but as a memorial to an important person. Many people think the tower was built in memory of Joseph Locke, the famous Barnsley railway engineer who set up the world's first locomotive factory with George and Robert Stephenson, of Stephenson's Rocket fame. In fact, Locke Tower was built to commemorate Locke's wife Phoebe, and her own sister paid for it to be built.

Miner's son Joseph Locke was born in 1805 in Attercliffe, Sheffield, and moved to Barnsley with his family when he was about five. He attended grammar school until he was 13, worked as an apprentice engineer at the local Porter's pit and then was apprenticed under George Stephenson in 1823. Locke worked with Stephenson on the building of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Locke's reputation grew and he was appointed with Stephenson as joint chief engineer of the Grand Junction Railway. Stephenson did not find it easy to share power with his former pupil and in 1835 left the project.

The Grand Junction Railway opened on July 20, 1837, was over 82 miles long and linked Birmingham with the Liverpool & Manchester line. On some parts of the line, Joseph Locke used double-headed rails held in chairs mounted on wooden sleepers. This proved to be very successful and this became the usual form of track on British railways for many years. Locke developed a reputation for building straight railway lines that avoided expensive tunnelling. In doing so, he was forced in some places to adopt gradients that were too steep for economical running. But by the 1840s improved locomotives meant that Locke was able to build railway lines with gradients as steep as 1 in 50.

Locke's success resulted in him being offered commissions to build railways all over Europe, notably the railway between Paris and Rouen and he was also MP for Honiton in Devon from 1847.

After his death in 1860, his wife Phoebe bought 17 acres of land in Barnsley known as High Stile Field from the Duke of Leeds for 1,830. She had it laid out with gardens and lawns and then gave it to the people of the town in memory of her husband. A statue of Locke was erected in the park, a special Locke commemorative medal was cast, and Phoebe went further than her late husband's will stipulated by also giving 1,000 to Barnsley's Catholic schools, and 3,000 to the grammar school to found 10 Locke scholarships.

Phoebe Locke died in 1866 and a few years later her sister Sarah McCreery gave another 20 acres of land adjoining Locke Park to the public of Barnsley to extend it to a high point where she had a magnficent observation tower designed by French architect R Rene Spiers built in memory of her sister. Locke Park opened in 1877, complete with the eye-catchingly ornate tower as its focal point.

"It was open on high days and holidays and cost threepence to go to the top back in the 1960s before it closed," says Alan Mills, Barnsley businessman and member of the Friends of Locke Park. "It had sadly fallen into disrepair, and the authorities felt it was no longer considered safe to let anyone go up inside it."

The Friends of Locke Park have applied for 250,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and have been promised 57,000 by Barnsley Council to stage major restoration works to both Tower and Park, which currently only has two full-time gardeners. Local personalities including Michael Parkinson, businessman Paul Sykes, sculptor Graham Ibbeson and painter Ashley Jackson have thrown their weight behind the fundraising effort.

"Locke Park, with its winding paths, fountain and many amenities is very important to Barnsley," says Mr Mills. "Many people passing through the park don't realise the story behind its existence, or the importance of Joseph Locke. He was as important as Brunel and the Stephensons, but is not so celebrated. Restoring this beautiful Victorian park to prime condition is what he, Phoebe and the people of Barnsley deserve."