That sinking feeling

I realise we seem to have tipped over towards Lichfield a little this weekend, but this one is too good to hide away, really, and should provoke some interesting input from readers.

I’m sure most of us have heard the tale from tour guides, teachers or those ‘in the know’ that the famous – some would say infamous – statue of Captain Smith in Beacon Park, Lichfield was originally made for Smith’s hometown, Hanley, in the Potteries, but was refused in shame and Lichfield took it instead.

The Captain, of course, died on his doomed passenger liner Titanic when it struck an iceberg on the ship’s maiden voyage in 1912.

It seems the refusal is a myth, but there is still heavy debate. I, like Peter ‘Perdro’ Cutler was contacted by Young David Evans this week who was shocked to read the 2011 plaque on the statue, and was questioning it.

This enquiry prompted Peter to do some research of his own. Things are never quite what they seem. My thanks to David and Peter for this. I’m aware that the Lichfield folk – Gareth and Kate – are also looking into this to see what they can find.

For the record, I think the idea that Hanley refused the monument was bunkum, and the refusal legend started much, much closer to home. But do read on.

Peter wrote:

Statue of Captain Edward Smith, RD, RNR in Beacon Park Lichfield

The Captain Smith Statue in Beacon Park, Lichfield, as taken by Louise Marston and posted in her Flickr photo stream. I actually think it’s a great statue. So evocative.

In recent correspondence with Young David Evans, David sent me a picture of the statue of Captain Smith of the Titanic, situated in Beacon Park in Lichfield, and mentioned the controversy surrounding it. Being completely unaware of this I Googled, and one of the first things found was from the Birmingham Mail in 2012:

Experts sink the myth of Lichfield’s statue of Titanic skipper.

But now new research has debunked the well-known theory that the statue of Commander Smith ended up in Lichfield after being shunned by the outraged folk of the Potteries…

Joyce Berry, of the Lichfield Heritage Centre, said: ‘There’s the story that Stoke commissioned it and the people wouldn’t put it up – but that’s not true from our research.’

Having followed Bob’s Blog since it started, for some reason, the headline’s mention of ‘experts in history’ pushed me to check out whether the ‘myth’ had actually been fully debunked. My understanding of it being that the statue had been commissioned before 1914, had been shunned by the people of his home town of Hanley, and placed in Lichfield as it was on the road from London to Liverpool. Lichfield was also the diocese in which the Captain was born.

Captain Smith Statue Plaque, Lichfield

The latest incarnation of the plaque, which has caused some controversy, I think it’s fair to say. Image taken by Brainiac37 and posted in their Flickr photo stream.

A further Google came up with the book (albeit with one page missing just where you need it!) Titanic: A Night Remembered, by Stephanie Barzewski (2006). This is six years before the Mail article, and of course six years before the Centenary of the disaster. She does not seem as convinced as others as to the reluctance in Stoke. She says:

Even though Hanley did in fact have several memorials to Smith, there may have been more to the Smith Memorial’s decision to put the statue in Lichfield. Although this was never explicitly stated, the type of people who were Smith’s most ardent admireres were also the type of people who would be inclined to turn their noses up at Hanley’s industrial grime and to prefer instead the genteel cathedral city of Lichfield. Hanley’s Civic leaders voiced no objections to the decision to the placing in Lichfield. If they truly felt pride in their local hero, why did they not protest?

Stephanie goes on to note:

The statue was therefore installed, but not without some debate. Looking at it today, it seems that, for all their official enthusiasm for the project, Lichfield City Council may not have been quite so keen in their hearts. Certainly the position selected for the statue was neither highly visible nor easily accessible. There is no path directly leading to the statue, and anyone wishing to stand in front of these has to snake through a series of flowerbeds. Moreover, the statue stands on the edge of a manicured lawn, and the low fence surrounding the lawn comes so close to the statute’s base that it is impossible to get a good look at the front of it without stepping on the pristine grass, something many people doubtless would be reluctant to do. Of course the park may not have been configured this way in 1914, but it has been since at least 1958 (described in Lichfield Mercury).

Lichfield, it seems, was not interested in showing off its memorial to the Titanic’s captain. One word missing from the inscription was ‘Titanic’…

Plaque for Captain Edward John Smith

There have always been plaques and memorials to Smith in his hometown. This recent one was pictured by Oildrum1 and posted in their Flickr photo stream.

The author further describes how, from the mid 1980s the Titanic became popular, and later details the squabbles between Stoke and Lichfield:

Suddenly Lichfield recognised that what had long been the statue’s greatest liability, it’s association with the Titanic, was now its greatest asset. In 1985 the words ‘Captain Smith was Captain of the Titanic’ were added to the plinth in order to identify the statue, in the hope that it would help to lure visitors to the city.

Lichfield accepted the statue only over the protests of some of its most prominent citizens, and it stood almost ignored ignored in Beacon Park for nearly three quarters of a century. It was only when the statue began to have the potential to attract tourism in the 1980s and 1990s the the cities began to complete for it.

Stephanie mentions a reluctance to the statue’s placing by the Reverend of St. Chads, Wilfrid Fuller and other leading citizens. A look in the Lichfield Mercury Archives for 1914 reveals two of his letters of protest to the Editor, a detailed description of the unveiling, a detailed description on the Council meeting involved, and a list of petitioners against.

In his first letter the Rev says:

In your issue of last Friday you inform us that a few persons, strangers to our City, have made a request for permission to erect a statue in our Memorial Gardens to the memory of the late Captain Smith… It seems a fair question which should first be answered ‘What are we going to memorialise’?

I feel great care should be taken before we place a second statue in association with the only one that is present there, namely, that of our late Sovereign.

In his second letter the Rev says:

My letter of June 5 has caused far greater publicity to be given to the erection of the statue than the consideration by the City Council of the proposals from the founders last November. The few lines reporting what then passed in the Council I had not seen, nor had I heard anything until I read it in your issue on May 29…

The petition was refered to the Council, and the paper reports the farcical proceedings as Councillor Longstaff called for it to be discussed in public. It could not be in public, the time was too short, the date had been fixed for the unveiling. Councillor Raby said the Council would be doing ill to themselves and the City if they listened to that belated and ungracious petition. He moved that the petition lie on the table. He was seconded by Alderman Harrison. [That Harrison? – Bob]

staffs - titanic brewery burslem exterior 30-6-06 JL

The Potteries has more unconventional ways of remembering the bold Englishman. The Titanic Brewery named one of it’s finest beers after him, and is very popular for it’s quality real ales. Image from the Flickr photo stream of johnmightycat.

The unveiling was certainly a momentous occasion for the City with anyone who was anyone beng mentioned, from Queen Alexandra downwards. (For Lichfield Lore)

Mr. AO Worthington proposed a vote of thanks… The statue would, he was sure, remind them of a very brave man, and they were very proud to receive it in Lichfield.

It seems to me that the ‘myth’ has not really been debunked. The modern researchers had the same evidence from the newspapers, but have chosen to be selective. The idea of the statue must have arisen before November of 1913, but I doubt, as Stephanie suggests, it was ever destined for Hanley. From Wilf’s letter, and the Council meeting, it could be said that Lichfield Council was keeping its cards close to its chest.

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5 Responses to That sinking feeling

  1. Pedro says:

    I would wager that the statue was never offered or even destined for Hanley. It seems to have been commissioned by the Captain Smith Memorial Fund, led by Bishop Boyd-Carpenter.

    Some cynics might say that the time was right for a statue of this nature, the outbreak of war being only weeks away.

    • morturn says:

      You make a good point, it seems to me that at the time there was a national desire for a hero.

      Days away from the First Wold War, there were no Wellingtons or Nelsons for the country to unite around.

  2. David Evans says:

    HI Bob
    Do we know what formal connection Bishop Boyd- Carpenter had with the diocese of Lichfield at that time?

  3. Pedro says:

    From The Times, September 27, 1913, p.8

    “A committee has been formed for the purpose of arranging for the erection of a suitable memorial to the late Commander Edward John Smith RNR, the Captain of the Titanic.
    It is proposed that it should take the two-fold form of a monument with inset medallion at Lichfield, in the county where he was born, and of a stained glass window and tablet in the new Cathedral at Liverpool. Queen Alexandra has been graciously pleased to express her sympathy and interest in this project. Lord Pirrie is a member of the committee.”

    So it seems that it was already decided in September of 1913 that the statue should be placed in Lichfield. From the Rev Fuller’s letter we see that Lichfield was approached in the November.

    This would be a great honour for Lichfield, especially as Queen Alexandra was involved. So the question remains, did Lichfield Council discuss by closed session in November and deliberately keep stum, knowing that there would be considerable opposition?

    (Boyd-Carpenter was Chairman of the Memorial Committee, and probably had no connection with Lichfield whatsoever!)

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