Russian Cannon: The Story of Walsall’s War Trophies Part 1

Introduction
The Walsall Local History Centre has started to exhibit some of its original material in cabinets reused from our much lamented museum. The intention is to exhibit material along with rolling photographs displayed on a television and some textual information boards.

The Billy Meikle exhibition under construction at the Walsall Local History Centre.

The Billy Meikle exhibition under construction at the Walsall Local History Centre. Click to enlarge.

The first subject for our new small exhibition area is the work of the 19th/20th century local historian, Billy Meikle. In his book on Meikle and his work (available at the Walsall Local History Centre), the Centre’s own Stuart Williams extols the role of Meikle: ‘It is to people like Meikle that we owe our picture of what Walsall was like in times past. He captured buildings and people in photographs and watercolours… Meikle enjoyed life and was a keen observer of places and people’.

Billy Meikle, born around 1858, on the cover of Stuart's book. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Billy Meikle, born around 1858, on the cover of Stuart’s book. (Walsall Local History Centre)

This article seeks to link into the first of our exhibitions by telling the stories of the fate of the two sets of war trophies that were acquired by the old Borough of Walsall (in essence, Walsall and Bloxwich). The term ‘war trophy’ is used in this article to mean British or foreign ordnance that needed to be displayed for public consumption not in a museum, but outside.

The first war trophies, which forms part 1 of the article and takes in a piece written by Meikle, were the Crimean cannon that were once located on the Bridge in Walsall; the second set of trophies, which forms part 2, were gifted to the people of Walsall after the Great War some 60 years later. 60 years may have elapsed between the two conflicts, but as I investigated the stories behind the trophies it seemed to me that their fates were very similar.

The Crimean War: Guns on the Bridge
I read a lot on the The Crimean War when I was younger; it tends only to be remembered these days for the dash and elan of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, the stoicism of the ‘Thin Red Line’, the first real taste of trench warfare for the British Army, as well as the nursing of both Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole (Mary Grant). These have actually disguised a campaign that was fraught with military and logistical incompetence from the start.

The War started in 1853 as Russia bullied her way to the Bosphorus, and the hope of access to the Mediterranean, by forcing localised conflicts with the crumbling Otterman Empire under the guise of protecting the religious freedom of her subjects – and to be fair, religious tensions had been running high. Russia’s tactics backfired and fearing Russian expansionism the British and French joined the conflict to aid the Turks in 1854. While there were other theatres of war, the Crimea was targeted for an allied landing as it was the location of the Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol.

The allies landed at Calamita Bay in September 1854. They fought a battle at the Alma a few days later, Balaclava a few weeks later, where the British had established a port, and the Inkerman on Bonfire night. The legacy of these battles was a plethora of street names up and down the country, as well as pub names – one Alma, replacing an older pub of the same name, was built in the early 1930s outside the gates of Reedswood Park. The allies also placed Sevastopol under siege. It took near a year for the city to fall, along with 25,000 British deaths throughout the campaign, before the Treaty of Paris brought war to a close in early 1856.

The Crimean War was the first British conflict to see photography and the involvement of a war correspondent, that being William Russell of the Times. Russell’s criticisms saw public opinion switch away from the war, a fact that may have been responsible for many troops returning ‘quietly’ in 1856 – a sort of Victorian Vietnam.

After the fall of Sevastopol and the destruction of the Russian fleet, hundreds of guns fell into the possession of the allies. Those that came to the possession of the British, around 1,000 of them, were offered out to major British towns and cities on the basis that the cannon were free, but the appropriate place would need to arrange and pay for carriages on which to mount the guns. It appears nearly 300 were gifted this way.

The offer was made in January 1857 and in August of the same year Walsall approached the Woolwich Arsenal for two cannon. A sub-committee was set-up in order raise subscriptions to pay for cannon carriages and it is interesting to note that Henry Duignan was on that committee, as his son, William Henry, would later be instrumental in their removal. I don’t know if there was any fee for the guns and/or the carriages, but I believe Birkenhead were quoted £19 for a metal carriage and £16 for a wooden one – Walsall had two metal ones that Meikle said were made in Ironbridge, however, the communication printed in the Walsall Free Press in February 1858 stated the guns were sent with carriages.

Walsall Council meeting 5 Aug 1857, a sub-committee is established to raise subscriptions for the gun carriages. Note Henry Duignan. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Corporation meeting 5 Aug 1857, a sub-committee is established to raise subscriptions for the gun carriages. Note Henry Duignan. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The cannon were secured and delivered. Walsall Corporation, again including Duignan, met on 17 February 1858 and decided to place the guns on the Bridge, on top of a stone plinth (not more than a foot high and twelve feet square), illuminated by a large public gas lamp. Tenders for the lamp were invited from the Horsley Field Company and the Coal Brookdale Company (I assume they mean Coalbrookdale, near Ironbridge – and, if we accept Meikle, this company may have won the contract). It is interesting to note that in April 1858 a letter printed in the Walsall Free Press suggested that the guns should be placed in a public park, however, work commenced on the Bridge site around May 1858.

The location of the guns is decided - Feb 1858. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The location of the guns is decided – Feb 1858. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Staffordshire Advertiser stated in May 1858 that £50 had been spent by the Corporation on the project and that only £20 had been raised by public conscription, which seems indicative of just how much was actually thought about the acquiring of the guns locally. The Corporation decided that, until the plinth and lamp were ready, that the Russian guns would stand ‘on the open space opposite the grandstand [for the racecourse] near the junction of the two streets’. The racecourse was lost to the Midland Railway in 1877, the grandstand in 1879. A railway goods depot was on the site for many years before demolition and now it is the retail park off Bridgeman Street. This would make the ‘open space’ what is now the war memorial ground and, ironically, the site of the Zeppelin bombing in World War One.

Walsall Racecouse grandstand - from Pearce's Directory, 1813. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Racecouse grandstand – from Pearce’s Directory, 1813. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The plinth was located on an ‘island’ on the Bridge, facing away from the original Ionian-fronted George Hotel. The plinth supported the two guns, which clearly had metal carriages, and was surrounded by metal railings. A drinking fountain, presented by one time Mayor Francis Oerton, fronted the whole monument and the two guns were separated by a central pillar on which was mounted a clock.

The Russian Guns, plinth, clock, fountain and the George Hotel c1870. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Russian guns, plinth, clock, fountain and the George Hotel c1870. (Walsall Local History Centre)

It is difficult to know what the views of local people were towards the guns and the monument as a whole, as what tends to survive are the views of those of status or at least of those that were prepared to write to the newspapers. All we can say is, like many other places throughout the British Empire (even as far as Australia), the guns went up in a prominent place. The guns were to remain in place for 21 years.

Meikle's watercolour of the guns. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Meikle’s watercolour of the guns. (Walsall Local History Centre)

In 1874, Mr Evans of the Corporation announced that he formally intended to ‘move’ that the guns were removed, but this obviously came to nothing. According to a newspaper correspondent, 1878 saw the first attempt by William Henry Duignan to have the Russian guns removed, but his motion was defeated by the Corporation members. William Henry Duignan was of Irish descent, but had been born in Walsall in 1824. His father, Henry, had been Clerk to the Poor-Law Guardians and one-time Registrar of births, marriages and deaths in the town. William became a solicitor in the town in 1846. He travelled extensively – often with newspaperman William Henry Robinson – and often on a tricycle. He wrote on history and etymology.

William Henry Duignan, prime instigator in the removal of the guns. (Walsall Local History Centre)

William Henry Duignan, prime instigator in the removal of the guns.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

If, as I assume, Duignan’s initial reasoning was the same as his second and successful attempt, he argued that the display of such trophies were not only an affront to international relations (in this case, Russia) and that war itself was very expensive and damaged trade – he claimed that the Crimean campaign had cost Walsall £87,000 alone and for which they have ‘nothing to show except two cannon’, but the main thrust of his argument was reserved for the fact that such trophies were hardly conducive to the promotion of peace and the cultivation of Christian mores by obviously glorifying war.

Just a year later, in March 1879, he raised the motion again and this time not only did it gain the support of the mayor, but was carried without any quarrel. So, what had changed?

Internationally, Britain had purchased the Suez Canal shares from Egypt as so was even more protective of peace and thus, trade. In 1878, Britain had become embroiled in the second Anglo-Afghan War. This war was localised, but while they were fighting against the Emir the conflict was driven by British fears of Russian influence in Afghanistan and the threat that it posed to India, the jewel in the Imperial crown. Finally, Britain had, in January 1879, launched an invasion of Zululand. Again, a localised conflict, with the aim of uniting the territories of South Africa and addressing genuine concerns over the emerging Zulu nation, the British had experienced some defeats before the tide of the war turned around the time that Duignan made his proposal.

Public opinion is difficult to gauge. A letter in a Bedford newspaper, reprinted in the Walsall Observer, praised Walsall’s decision, while another correspondent asked where it would stop – the removal of guns, the removal of military statues (citing Nelson’s in Birmingham) through to tearing out pages from history books for fear of it upsetting the Russians and, indeed, any other previous foe in our history. That correspondent acknowledged that public opinion may support the removal of the guns from the Bridge but asks why not re-site them somewhere else (this had been done in Wolverhampton, where a gun was moved to a new site in order to place a statue of Prince Albert on that site, after his death). He further argued that as the money was raised by public conscription, although we know it less than a third, would not Walsall Corporation would be guilty of raising money by false pretences if they did not?

Sister Dora standing on the former site of the guns, 11 October 1886. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Sister Dora standing on the former site of the guns, unveiled 11 October 1886. (Walsall Local History Centre)

No discussion was forthcoming on the question of the resettlement of the guns and over the next year or so plans were drawn-up as what to do with the guns, carriages, clock and fountain. Formally minuted on 3 January 1881, it seems that over the next few weeks the guns were returned to Woolwich Arsenal – the Government paid the carriage, but I could find no evidence that it was because Walsall was such an ‘unpatriotic’ town as Meikle claimed.

Of the other features, the fountain was exiled to the Queen Street Cemetery and the clock to a site on the Bridge just a few yards away. The gun carriages seemed to be carted off to a piece of waste ground between Croft Street and Deadmans Lane (now Hospital Street) at the back of St Peter’s Church. They were still there in 1890, when they were photographed by Meikle – but their ultimate fate is unknown. The site would be redeveloped a few years later; on 11 October 1886 the state to Sister Dora was unveiled to a mournful public, a true symbol of peace and healing and a complete volte-face from martial glory.

The Russian gun carriages abandoned at the back of St Peter's Church (waste ground between Croft St and what is now Hospital St), photographed by Meikle in 1890.

The Russian gun carriages abandoned at the back of St Peter’s Church (waste ground between Croft St and what is now Hospital St), photographed by Meikle in 1890.

And so the guns fell from memory, as did the Crimean War. Unlike the First World War, which changed near everything in the way war was commemorated, there were no parks founded, trees planted, village halls erected or, as later, en masse memorials and rolls of honour that listed every soldier that died. Monuments, prior to WWI, were often either to officers or to campaigns; that in Beeston, Nottinghamshire, is a rarity.

A monument in Beeston Parish Churchyard to four rank and file soldiers killed in the Crimean. (unknown)

A monument in Beeston Parish Churchyard to four rank and file soldiers killed in the Crimean. (unknown)

It seems to me, with the lack of public interest, that the guns were brought to Walsall through the whim of those that were in the position to do so – in short, the wealthy elite that voted themselves into power as there was no universal suffrage in 1857. Likely, the cause was to be seen as patriotic and, possibly, to raise the status of Walsall by having such trophies (as did Lichfield and Wolverhampton, for example).

However, it becomes clear that displaying trophies isn’t a simple black or white issue: some can divorce such objects from death, some cannot and some, to varying degrees, can see both sides. No trophies were to be displayed in such a way from the Afghan Wars, the Zulu campaign, Sudan or the Boer Wars. It would not be until World War One that such issues would be faced again, a conflict that William Henry Duignan would not see.

Coming soon – Guns, Howitzers and the Reedswood Tank: Walsall’s War Trophies Part 2

This article was sourced from the collections at the Walsall Local History Centre and the Newspaper Archive available via Find My Past. It is dedicated to my colleagues at the Walsall Local History Centre: Janet, Cath, Vikki, Stuart, Cara, Jo and Libby, as well as volunteers Diane, Betty and June – who are brilliant and make my job a lot easier.

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