“The only great man the shire has produced, and what he did for England and the world is rightly deemed the grandest of all their local associations, but they have not yet dared to raise a statue in his honour on the soil from which he sprang.” – Lord John Russell speaking of Cromwell.
Whilst we may think that it is only today that the subject of statues has become politically and socially contentious, this has been the case for centuries; especially for that most marmitical of historic figures – Oliver Cromwell. The eventual unveiling of the well loved statue of Cromwell in St. Ives marked the end of a convoluted and seemingly impossible process that begun on the 250th anniversary of Cromwell’s birth in 1849.
The First Attempt
In the middle years of the nineteenth century, there was a growing drive to commemorate Cromwell in one of the Huntingdonshire towns which could lay claim to him. On 4th August 1849, the People and Howitts Journal (a liberal weekly periodical) told how “active measures are in preparation for the collection of a sufficient sum … for the proposed monument to Oliver Cromwell in St. Ives”.
The drive to erect a statue was driven by two main factors. The first was the sestercentennial of Cromwell’s birth. The second was that in 1848, Old Slepe Manor, reputedly the residence of Cromwell in St. Ives, was pulled down and rebuilt further away from the railway, leaving the site vacant and no other surviving Cromwell monument in the town. Despite various fundraising attempts, such as selling copies of Rev. Paxton Hood’s poem “The Farmer of St. Ives”, this Victorian ‘GoFundMe’ was not successful, and the idea was shelved for half a century.
The Second Attempt
In 1895, as the tricentennial of Cromwell’s birth loomed, the idea of a statue of the Lord Protector was raised again, this time far from the markets and taverns of St. Ives. The Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, proposed that a statue be erected outside the houses of Parliament. The idea was debated heatedly and when the government was badly defeated (220-83) it proved the end of Lord Rosebery who resigned a few days later.*
The idea was taken up by the Daily Chronicle, who began to publicly canvass and raise funds to raise a statue elsewhere in London. The Hunts County Post seized the idea and argued that the statue should be in Cromwell’s home county, in his birth-town of Huntingdon or else in St. Ives where he “matured his plans”. The day after The Hunts County Post begun their public campaign, the ailing liberal government lost a vote of no-confidence, and the paper announced a suspension of the campaign until after the election. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten all about it, and the campaign never resumed.
The Third Attempt
The eventual erection of a Huntingdonshire statue had an unlikely beginning. In February 1899, whilst debating how to celebrate three hundred years since Cromwell’s birth, Huntingdon town council received an unusual offer from the Coalbrookdale Company of Shropshire, who happened to have a spare statue of Cromwell available for purchase**.
The town council called a public meeting in early March to discuss the idea, but realised too late that they could not afford to buy the statue outright. The meeting unanimously decided to pay for a new statue by public subscription instead. Incidentally, the original statue that started the process off seems to have been purchased by Warrington Council and erected in Warrington in Cheshire on the Cromwell tricentennial instead.
Despite unanimously deciding to install a statue, Huntingdon town council seems to have been rather lukewarm on actually raising any money. Delays to the start of fundraising (due to wanting to simultaneously launch the campaign in America) meant that by Cromwell’s actual 300th Birthday on 25th April 1899, not a penny had been raised. The day was celebrated with a crowd of thousands, historic pageant, speeches and toasts, with train companies running special excursion trains to Huntingdon for the occasion – an occasion the town council declined to attend!
Two Towns Alike in Dignity
In the Huntingdon town council meeting of May 1899, a fierce argument broke out about why so little had been raised. At this point, nobody in Huntingdon had donated to the fund, and not unreasonably, recriminations flew as to whether the fund raising committee was even trying. The following week the St. Ives town council met, and the mayor (Councillor Hankin) suggested they might erect their own statue of Cromwell. A committee was formed to fundraise for the St. Ives statue, and they speculated that the cost would be £4000-£5000 (approximately £550,000 – £650,000 by modern reckoning!).
It seems inconceivable that the St. Ives council did not know about the plan to erect a Cromwell statue in Huntingdon – and they must have known how badly it was going. The St. Ives statue was announced in June and donations began to pour in. By the end of September they had raised £600.
The August town council meeting for Huntingdon was the end of the road for the Huntingdon statue. They had received just thirty donations, only one from America (of $5) and none from a resident of Huntingdon. These donations were returned and the path was clear for St. Ives to proceed.
A Fortuitous Fire
By the turn of the century, St. Ives council had not only reduced their statue target to £2000 and fundraised over £900, they had also found a sculptor. Frederick Pomeroy had recently completed a statue of General-at-Sea Robert Blake***, one of the leading naval officers of the Republic for Blake’s hometown of Bridgwater. Pomeroy was one of the most renowned sculptors of his generation. He would later create the statue of Lady Justice which still stands atop the Old Bailey in London. The only question now was where would the new Cromwell statue stand?
Skip forward five months and 7,300 miles south to Mafeking in South Africa, where British forces had entered the town besieged for over half a year, reportedly being greeted by the sentry with “oh yes, I heard you were knocking about”. The Boer War had begun with several disasters, and Britain needed a victory to celebrate – the relief of Mafeking gave them one. Massed riotous crowds gathered in British towns and cities to celebrate; singing, shouting, flag waving and of course drinking. The celebration in St. Ives must have been an especially lively one, as the crowd managed to completely destroy the derelict town pump in the centre by setting it on fire!
This central location, now empty, proved to be perfect for the Cromwell statue, and later that month Pomeroy and the mayor agreed the final design and height of the plinth. The two ideas put forward were Cromwell the military chief and Cromwell “the farmer of St. Ives”; the compromise was a melding of the two ideas, a Cromwell in civilian garb with sword buckled on and bible under his arm.
All that was left was to ensure sufficient donations were taken to cover the cost of the statue, and fundraising continued apace. Donations varied from £200 (made by the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and Thomas Coote a prominent non-conformist and corn merchant), down to 6d with every sum in between – in total, £1234 9s 0d was raised.
The total costs were:
£850 – Statue
£260 – Pedestal and lamps
£31 – Lamp posts
£60 – Fundraising costs and unveiling ceremony
£20 12s – Ongoing maintenance
With the funds raised and the details sorted, a date was set to unveil the new statue. The date chosen was Wednesday 23rd October, 1901 the 259th anniversary of the Battle of Edgehill. There would be speeches, a public lunch, a public tea and disgruntled royalists with a mind to sabotage the event…
The Jacobites of Holywell
Following the unsuccessful invasion of England in 1745 by Charles Stuart (the young pretender, or Charles III, depending on whom you ask), Jacobitism in England had been illegal and perhaps inevitably driven underground. Societies and clubs who supported the restoration of the House of Stuart existed across the country, and by the 1880’s had been amalgamated into the White Cockade Club.
One branch of the White Cockade Club was based in Holywell, just up the road from the Puritan heartland of Huntingdonshire. The branch was founded by Anderson Fraser, a well known landscape artist typical of the liberal romantic members that constituted the majority of closet Jacobites in the club. Angered by the statue being erected to this arch-enemy of the Jacobite cause, they decided to take steps to ruin the ceremony.
The national president of the White Cockade Club offered assistance by sending six nooses to an unspecified pub in St. Ives. The plan was that at the statue’s unveiling, the local members would add the nooses to the wreaths at the statue base, with notes attacking Cromwell and the local dignitaries.
Rumours swirled through the town that the Jacobites had dynamite intending to blow up the statue, causing some consternation. The local constabulary investigated, found no explosives, and foiled the actual Jacobite plot by seizing the nooses from the pub before the Jacobites arrived.
The statue was unveiled by Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, a liberal MP of the day, with a multitude of speeches to a market square packed with thousands of spectators, and not a Jacobite in sight.
Finally, after over fifty years, there was a statue of Cromwell in Huntingdonshire. It seems appropriate to end with the closing stanza of “The Farmer of St. Ives” written by Rev. Hood in 1848;
“Raise up, raise up the pillar! Some grand old granite stone.
To the prince without a sceptre, to the king without a throne.
To the brave old English hero who broke our feudal gyves
To the leader of “the good old cause”; the farmer of St. Ives”
*Of course Lord Rosebery did not give up on his statue and campaigned as a private individual, donating £3000 to the fundraising campaign. Even then the famous Westminster statue was unveiled at 7.30am on Tuesday 14th November 1899 to prevent any hostile demonstrations.
** The Coalbrookdale statue of Cromwell had been cast some thirty years earlier for the International Exhibition of 1862, they evidently decided that the tricentennial of his birth was the ideal time to find a buyer!
*** Col. Robert Blake was made General-at-Sea in 1649 and took to the navy like a duck to water, by the time he died aboard his flagship in 1657 he had built a reputation as an exemplary nail commander. He was one of Lord Nelson’s heroes and Nelson “reckoned himself inferior to Blake”.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
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1 thought on “Some grand old granite stone: The Long Battle for Cromwell’s Statue”
The father of one of my childhood friends claimed that he and some friends had once, after a night out in the 1930s, hung a yo-yo from Cromwell’s pointing finger. This he told me, had been considered vandalism, and gad been castigated in the local press. 🙂
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