Re-modelling St George’s Square in 2008-9 called for the careful removal and re-siting of its newest feature. The statue of Cowersley-born Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been unveiled as recently as 1999.

Lord Wilson had been suggested as the subject for a statue along with Olympic gold medallist Anita Lonsbrough and the Luddites as a central feature in an earlier re-vamped square. Nothing came of these proposals. But following the death of the Labour leader in May 1995, the idea was revived. Though he served as member for Huyton on Merseyside, Wilson never forgot his roots. He was a lifelong Town supporter, keeping contact with childhood friends and returning to speak at political rallies whilst keeping a keen interest in the town which had earlier made him a freeman. Within months of his death, funds were raised for scholarships in his name to the Open University which he had founded. There was popular support for a more tangible memorial to the Royds Hall pupil who became the youngest person to hold government office and whose political career led to his crossing the threshold of 10 Downing Street.

Ian Walters’ statue of Lord Wilson

An appeal for funds for a statue attracted support from across the political spectrum as well as Lottery funding. With the approval of Lady Wilson and the family, four artists were invited to submit designs for a sculpture. Their brief was simple – a sculpture in stone or bronze which would not cost more than £60,000. It was also made known that the family would prefer if the designs did not include Wilson’s trademark pipe or Gannex overcoat.

Models of the four submissions were exhibited at Huddersfield Art Gallery at the end of 1997. Lady Wilson was very pleased with the strikingly different sculptures, whilst an advisory group took into account the opinions of members of the public when making their selection.

Halifax based Ian Judd portrayed Wilson shaking hands with a schoolgirl. Richard Thornton’s bronze showed a thoughtful man looking through a gateway. A third figure by London-based Ian Walters was a heroic figure stepping into the future. Professor Glynn Williams of the Royal College of Art showed a bust of Wilson emerging from a rough-hewn block of stone.

The latter proved to be the most controversial attracting unfavourable comments, most notably from London Mayor Ken Livingstone who described it as ‘looking like a large dog mess’. Ian Walters’ bronze proved a popular choice.

Cast at the Morris Singer foundry in east London, the eight foot six inch bronze on a black marble kerb, sits on a four foot high plinth of Crosland Moor stone. It was unveiled by Prime Minister Tony Blair on 9 July 1999. 

The crowds that attended were nothing compared with those who witnessed the unveiling by Lord Houghton of a statue of Sir Robert Peel on Whit Monday, 3 June 1873. A procession had formed near St Paul’s Church before proceeding up Ramsden Street and along New Street and John William Street. In St George’s Square, they were met by ‘a vast multitude of men, women and children in the square, and in all approaches to it as far as the eye could see; a throng of people exceeding any we have witnessed before in our town’.

What is surprising is the man they were commemorating, Bury-born Peel had died in 1850. Whilst a meeting had been called to discuss suitable ways of honouring the former prime minister not long after his death, it took 23 years for this to be achieved. Largely remembered today for his role in creating the modern police service, in 1873 it was the Factory Acts, which limited working hours in factories and disallowed women and children from working in the mines and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had restricted imports of cheap grain and kept the price of bread artificially high which found him a place in the affections of ordinary working people.

Following a meeting at the Guildhall (near the present-day library) in 1850 two committees were formed to collect subscriptions and consider suggestions for a proposed monument. Suggestions for a memorial included an obelisk in the Market Place or on Castle Hill, a sixty foot high Corinthian column at the junction of George Street and Upperhead Row, and a cenotaph in the Gothic style. Members of the committees did not work well together and fell out over the choice of architect for the scheme. One group favoured young Leeds artist Alfred Bromley whilst the other a London architect. It soon became apparent that only a small portion of the budgeted £300 had been collected and resignations followed. Despite bringing in new committee members there was deadlock. The committee was revived in 1869 and a new competition set up. 

William Theed’s statue of Sir Robert Peel

Four eminent London sculptors came up with designs and that by William Theed, who was responsible for the sculptural group representing ‘Africa’ on the Albert Memorial was selected. Costing £1000, the nine foot high figure of Peel was carved out of a single block of white Sicilian marble weighing three and a half tons. It stood on an Aberdeen granite plinth and a larger sandstone base. A bronze relief on the plinth illustrated the theme ‘Feeding the Hungry’.

All that remains of the Peel statue – granite plinth in Ravensknowle Park

Peel’s statue stood on the station forecourt, the Ramsden family being unwilling to allow it to be erected in the centre of the square, until 1949 when it was removed to a council depot. It had not fared well in the manufacturing town’s acid rain. The Aberdeen granite plinth survives in Ravensknowle Park.

And, what of the fourth prime minister? That was Mr Gladstone, a member of Peel’s government who as serving prime minister was invited to unveil the statue. He declined. He needed Whit Monday to recuperate from his busy schedule.

Brian Haigh, May 2021