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The stories behind our best-known statues

By Mark Andrews | Wolverhampton | Nostalgia | Published:

The role of statues is in the spotlight. Today we look at figures from our history remembered in stone or bronze.

The Prince Albert statue in Wolverhampton

1. Prince Albert

The Prince Albert statue in Wolverhampton

Queen Victoria's husband, who was just 42 years old when he died in 1861, had requested no effigies be made of him after his death. No chance. The plethora of monuments which sprang up in his honour over the coming months led to Charles Dickens remarking that he wanted to find a cave to hide from them.

But while there were plenty of memorials to the late consort, it was this one which brought Victoria out of her five-year seclusion, where she vanished from public life following the death of her husband.

The queen had privately vowed to make Wolverhampton her first port of call when she came out of mourning after being touched by a letter of consolation signed by 220 widows from the town who collectively offered her their deepest sympathy.

Her visit to Wolverhampton in 1866 was the first time the queen had been seen in public for almost five years, and she was so moved by the occasion that she knighted the town's mayor on the spot.

As an ardent campaigner against slavery, one would expect Albert to be fairly safe from the protesters. On the other hand, it was Albert who persuaded Victoria to end her antipathy to Robert Peel – who was on the 'hit list' of statues to be targeted by the campaigners.

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2. The Celebration Statue

Brendon Batson pictured with The Celebration Statue

The statue of legendary West Bromwich Albion players Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson and Cyrille Regis celebrating a goal was erected outside West Bromwich's New Square shopping centre in May last year, with the help of a £38,000 grant from the Professional Footballer's Association (PFA).

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When the trio played together in the late 1970s, it was the first time a top club had fielded three black players together, and Albion manager Ron Atkinson dubbed them The Three Degrees after the chart-topping pop group.

Regis, who died in January, 2018 at the age of 58, won five England caps and made 297 appearance for Albion, scoring 112 goals, and later went on to play for Villa and Wolves. Cunningham received six England caps, and won the FA Cup with Wimbledon in 1988, but died the following year in a car crash aged 33.

Batson made 172 appearances as a defender for Albion, but in 1982 his playing career was cut short by a knee injury. He is now a trustee of the PFA and a leading campaigner against racism in football.

As pioneering black footballers, they would surely be seen as role models by the Black Lives Matter movement.

3. Samuel Johnson

The Samuel Johnson Statue in Lichfield

Lichfield's most famous son, the poet, playwright and dictionary compiler Samuel Johnson is celebrated with a statue outside his birthplace in Market Square, sculpted by Richard Cockle Lucas in 1838.

The monument, which portrays him seated in his academic robes, was donated to the city by the chancellor of Lichfield Diocese James Thomas Law. A statue of Johnson's biographer James Boswell was added to the square in 1905.

Johnson, best known for his work A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, was a somewhat complex character. A devout Anglican and staunch Tory nationalist, he befriended the homeless poet and convicted murderer Richard Savage, living with him on the streets for a while. And while Boswell, one of his closest friends was a Scotsman, Johnson was known for his anti-Scots prejudices.

He was also a vocal opponent of slavery, but when he was offered a Jamaican-born slave as his personal valet, he viewed it as an opportunity to show true Christian compassion by treating Francis Barber like a son. The two became lifelong friends, and Barber was the principal beneficiary of Johnson's will.

4. Duncan Edwards

The Duncan Edwards statue in Dudley

The statue of the Dudley-born football legend, whose career was tragically cut short by the Munich air crash, was installed in Dudley marketplace in 1999.

Edwards was born in Dudley in 1936, and was just 15 when he was snapped up by Manchester United manager Matt Busby.

In April, 1953, he became the youngest player to start a top-flight football match at the age of 16 years, 158 days, and two years later he became the youngest player to win an England cap since the Second World War.

By the time he was 21, the powerful midfielder had 18 England caps under his belt, and there were rumours that the top clubs in Italy were competing for his signature.

His last appearance came in a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade on February 6, 1958, which saw United progress to the semi-final of the European Cup. But on the flight home, the United team's plane crashed on take-off, having stopped to refuel in Munich. Seven players and 14 other passengers died at the scene, while Edwards died from injuries sustained in the crash on February 21. He was just 21 years old.

The £38,000 statue, designed by artist James Butler, was originally unveiled opposite the town's landmark fountain by Duncan's mother Sarah-Anne Edwards, and his Manchester United team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton. It was moved to the opposite end of the marketplace in 2015 as part of a redevelopment scheme.

5. Sister Dora

Sister Dora, Walsall

Dorothy Pattison was born in Yorkshire, and followed her sister Frances by joining the Sisterhood of the Good Samaritans in 1864, at the age of 32.

She began her nursing career at Coatham, North Yorkshire, but within four months she was sent to Walsall as a replacement for another nurse who contracted glandular fever.

Sister Dora, as she became known, spent the rest of her life in Walsall, which she devoted to nursing.

She treated thousands of patients during the town's smallpox epidemic in 1875, and caught the disease herself, being confined to her room for a time.

Dora overcome the anti-Catholic mood rife in the town at the time to become a much-loved figure, and developed a special bond with railway workers who often suffered in industrial accidents. She died from breast cancer on Christmas Eve, 1876, at the age of 46, and the whole town turned out for her funeral.

A marble statue was erected at The Bridge in 1888, but this was replaced by the present bronze statue in 1957, after the public contributed £1,400.

Skeletons in the cupboard? Well in her youth she went fox hunting.

6. Izaak Walton

The Izaak Walton statue on the banks of the River Sow in Victoria Park, Stafford

Walton's statue at Stafford's Victoria Park was a long time coming. His definitive book, The Compleat Angler, was first published in 1653, but the statue in his home town was erected in 2000.

Walton was born in Stafford in 1593, and later moved to London where he ran a drapery business.

Walton's literary career began with a biography of the famous poet John Donne in 1640. Izaak's aptitude for writing led to four more highly acclaimed biographies.

It was The Compleat Angler, though, which secured Walton's place in history, becoming one of the most reprinted books in the world, viewed not just as a guide to fishing but also as a window into life of 17th century Britain, and the English Civil War in particular.

His legacy is celebrated all around Stafford, with the cottage he lived at in later life now a museum. The Izaak Walton League, an American environmental group, was set up in 1922.

Controversy? Well presumably anti-fishing campaigners are not in his fan club.

7. Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill's statue in Kidderminster

Rowland Hill was just 12 years old when he started teaching at his father's school, and in 1819 he established Hazelwood School in Edgbaston.

But he is best known as the founder of the modern universal postal service and the pre-paid postage stamp. The 'Penny Post' was launched in January 1840, leading to an almost 120 per cent rise in the number of paid-for letters being sent, partly due to a reduction in fraud. In May 1840 he introduced the Penny Black, the world's first adhesive postage stamp featuring an illustration of 21-year-old Queen Victoria.

He went on to become chairman of the London and Brighton Railway, lowering fares and expanding routes, before serving as Secretary to the Post Office from 1854 to 1864.

Hill's statue in Kidderminster stands at the corner of Exchange Street and Vicar Street. It was sculpted by Sir Thomas Brock and unveiled in June, 1881.

One possible cause for controversy could be his role as secretary of the South Australia Colonisation Commission from 1833 until 1839. The commission worked successfully to establish a British settlement, without convicts, in what would become Adelaide. It should be stressed though that the colony was set up to embody British values of religious freedom and a commitment to social progress and civil liberties.

8. Frank Foley

Prince William with the statue of Frank Foley in Stourbridge

Described as the 'British Schindler', Major Frank Foley is credited with saving more than 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them with false papers to flee Germany.

Foley was posted to the British embassy in Berlin as cover for his role as an intelligence officer with MI6. Following the Kristallnacht attack on Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in November 1938, he began helping Jews to flee the city.

Despite having no diplomatic immunity and being liable to arrest at any time, Foley bent the rules when stamping passports and issuing visas so Jews could escape to Britain or Palestine, which was then controlled by Britain. On occasion he also went into internment camps to get Jews out, hiding them in his home, and helping them get forged passports.

At the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Foley was likened to the Scarlet Pimpernel for the way he risked his own life to save Jews. After the war he returned to German to hunt for ex-SS officers suspected of war crimes.

He retired to Eveson Road, Stourbridge, where he lived until his death in 1958.

The statue in Mary Stevens Park was unveiled by the Duke of Cambridge in September, 2018. The £40,000 life-size model was sculpted in bronze by Birmingham-based Andy De Comyn. It was paid for with money from fines imposed on bankers following the 2008 crash. The funding was allocated by then chancellor George Osborne following a campaign by Dudley North MP Ian Austin.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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