Shrewsbury's Lord Hill statue

PUBLISHED: 12:21 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:38 20 February 2013

The oldest picture in George Turner’s collection

The oldest picture in George Turner’s collection

The foundation stone of the Lord Hill column in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, was laid 195 years ago. George Turner describes his special relationship with the landmark which has watched the county town's evolution over almost two centuries

If only If only statues could talk! Better still, if only Lord Hill could climb down from his pedestal on top of the column at the head of Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury. What tales he would have to tell of the ever-changing street scene evolving beneath his feet.

I would sit him down on the nearby seat, buy him a bag of chips from the fryers shop over the road, and together we would reminisce.

There was a time when Lord Hill and I were really close. For more than 18 years I lived in the shadow of his statue. Our friendship began when I was very young. When youre an only child playing alone, its not unusual to adopt an imaginary friend, and mine was the famous old war general himself or at least his statue.

Often when entranced in a far-fetched game of make-believe I would stand in our back garden, gaze up and talk to him. In my pretend world I was his special soldier his right hand man. Which is rather ironical because years later I did my National Service, not as a soldier, but in the Royal Air Force.

I also regarded him as my protector. He was brave and famous, demonstrated by his stands in the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo. Whats more, he was standing on the largest Grecian Doric column in the world. Built in his honour. What a tribute was that!
Childhood turned to boyhood, then boyhood into manhood and over the 60-odd years that have since passed, my memories of the 1940s faded until the other day when a relative doing a loft clearance handed me a series of pictures of the column.

It brought memories flooding back and the realisation that the time elapsed since my childhood is a fraction of the monuments history. To date, Lord Hill has stood on his lofty plinth for 195 years.

The column took 18 months to build at a cost of 5,972, 13s and 2d. The first stone was laid on 27 December 1814 by the Salopian Lodge of Freemasons. The final stone was put in place on June 18, 1816 the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

So more than 55 years had passed before the oldest picture in my collection (opposite page, bottom) was taken. A close look reveals two figures with their Penny Farthing bicycles a popular mode of transport introduced in 1871.

Note the railings around the monument and the wide carriageway compared with the usual narrow streets of those times. Note too the street lamps, the long since demolished assembly room on the left of the column, the absence of motor traffic, and the milestone in the verge on the right which remained there for many years.

The other old picture (opposite page, centre), in postcard form, shows the columns Abbey Foregate approach. Here again iron railings bordered many properties, all to be cut down in the World War 2 clamour for armaments metal. The world had moved on since the first picture with motor vehicles beginning to gain popularity.

From here, the scene shifts back to the head of Abbey Foregate. The image bottom right, again on a postcard, was taken in 1955. I know the date because, by remarkable coincidence, the car parked on the right (an old black Ford Popular) was mine. It was the first I owned and with which I learned to drive, and I remember being home on leave from National Service. It is seen parked outside my late parents home The Woodlands Bungalow, Despite a wide search through many archives, it is the only picture I have of the place where I spent my childhood. These, I recall as the glory days in life around The Column. With the war over, the world felt safe, we were sure of a tomorrow, and that wonderful wartime community spirit still prevailed.

Off the picture to the left were the accesses to Belvedere Road and Preston Street and a large, well-stocked and lovingly attended allotment block. Plot- holders would come from all directions pushing wheelbarrows of manure or their tools to their precious patches and returning home with the fruits (and veg) of their labours.

The recreation ground further along Preston Street was a schoolboy's very own Wembley. For hours we would kick around one of those lace-up leather footballs which gradually became a lead weight as it absorbed moisture from the grass. Headers brought a real headache, lasting for most of the day. And in the end we all limped off the field as if related to each other.
Then there were the sports days on the field, and the talent contests organised for youngsters in the assembly room. Happy days.

But little more than five years later, the scene began to change, and not for the better. Suddenly the prospect of a new Shirehall loomed as large on the horizon as the building does today. It would replace the County Buildings in the towns Square, and would be built on the site of Nearwell, a large house in its own pleasant grounds in use at that time to board Shrewsbury Technical College students.

By tradition, local authorities have a habit of over-egging the pudding when it comes to a land grab. And in this particular instance The Shirehall plan engulfed the allotments, the recreation ground (now the site of the Courthouse), and a large chunk of the columns surrounds.

The biggest loss, without question, was the demolition of the columns caretakers lodge, built by public subscription. Throughout its 150-year history it accommodated an old soldier as caretaker. The first, a Sergeant Davies, was appointed as the columns key keeper at the express wish of Lord Hill himself.

The announcement of the demolition was greeted with anger by one of Lord Hills ancestors at his Hawkstone Park home. He described it as bloody iniquitous strong language in the early 1960s. His comment made front page headlines in the local press, though it did not prevent the lodges destruction.

But the devastation of what was arguably one of the most pleasant and stately gateways into Shrewsbury was by no means over.

Not so many years later, in the 1970s, came the towns inner ring road scheme and to pave the way for the traffic island that now stands beside the column, a number of lovely old town houses crumbled under the bulldozer. One was a private hotel, another my parents home which was originally the gate lodge to The Woodlands Hall further up the drive, and there were several lovely country style homes which for years had been inoffensively hiding in their own lovely grounds. They too were flattened in the name of progress.

The Woodlands itself (now a luxury apartment block) also took a ravaging. Today it is laid bare for all to see. A magnificent stable block with barns either side a coach house with coachmans bedroom above were pulled down Even a lovely old horse chestnut tree which for years had a preservation order on it fell under the axe.

Nearly 40 years have passed since the column revolution. And from it two important lessons are to be learned for the sake of our heritage.

We must never again allow planners to use bland sheets of concrete and glass as materials for developments of this size. And whenever buildings are subject to demolition under compulsory purchase schemes, it is imperative that photographic records are created and retained before any demolition work takes place.

Of course, The Shirehall and Shrewsburys inner road schemes are both water under the bridge now. But large scale projects like these leave ugly tidemarks for future generations to live with. And without photographic evidence there is nothing to show how our world and this once wonderfully leafy and stately entrance to our town once was.

If onlyIf only Lord Hills statue could shake its head, Im sure it would, in despair at how the scene beneath its feet has changed.

*You can climb the 133feet 6ins of Lord Hills Column and enjoy the panoramic view, but you need to be fit there are 172 steps. Make an appointment by ringing the Shirehall on 01743 252873.

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