Tragedy in Sweden

PARR HALL IN the heart of Warrington (Cheshire) is a concert hall designed by local architect William Owen (1846-1910). It was built for the townspeople by Joseph Charlton Parr, descendant of the founder of a local bank. The benefactor was a prominent member of his family’s bank, Parr’s, and Warrington’s Mayor between 1901 and 1903. A plaque on the wall of the hall facing Palmyra Square commemorates his generosity. A much larger and newer plaque, actually a frieze, also outside the front of the hall, serves a sadder purpose.

In May 2013, a new rock band was formed in Warrington. Called Viola Beach, it had four members: Kris Leonard, River Reeves, Tomas Lowe, and Jack Dakin. Frankie Coulson and Jonny Gibson were initially members, but they left the group to concentrate on their university studies. Reading of this, I was reminded of one of my father’s students at the London School of Economics: Mick Jagger. Unlike Coulson and Gibson, he could not afford to remain a student as his band was becoming so successful. Incidentally, The Rolling Stones performed at Parr Hall in November 1963.

In June 2016, the band’s debut album, “Viola Beach”, was released. Consisting of 9 tracks, it reached the number 1 position on The UK Albums Chart in August of that year. However, the band were never to learn of their success. In February 2016, the members of the group and their manager were on tour in Sweden. In the early hours of the 13th of February, the car in which they were travelling failed to stop at the closed barriers of a bridge across the Södertälje Canal. The roadway of the bridge was lifting to allow the passage of a vessel in the canal. The car carrying the band plunged into the water 98 feet below. The driver, the band members, and its manager, were all killed.  The memorial outside Parr Hall, which portrays the band members and their manager in bas-relief, was sculpted by Tom Murphy. It was unveiled in September 2021.

Had they not met their end so prematurely, I wonder whether Viola Beach formed in a town on the Mersey might have gained some of the success enjoyed by another now much more famous Merseyside band: The Beatles.

A Boer War warrior in Warrington

PALMYRA SQUARE IS a delightful rectangular piazza in the heart of Warrington in Cheshire. I use the word ‘piazza’ because the English word ‘square’ includes many squares which are anything but square. The centre of this open space is filled with the pleasant Queen’s Gardens, the Queen in the name being Victoria. It was near the end of her reign that the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (‘Boer War’; 1899-1902), a bloody conflict between the British Empire and the Dutch speaking colonists in what is now South Africa, occurred. In the middle of the eastern half of Palmyra Square there is the statue of a man in a helmet carrying a rifle in his left hand. His right arm points forward, as does his right index finger. The other fingers of his right hand clutch a pair of binoculars. He is wearing knee high boots, standing on a sculpture of a rock, and dressed in an old-fashioned military uniform. As soon as I saw this statue, I guessed (from the style of the uniform) it was connected the Boer War, and when I looked at the plinth upon which the military figure is perched, I discovered that I was right.

The monument was unveiled by General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (1839-1908), in the year before his death. Buller commanded British forces in South Africa during the Boer War. The man depicted on the plinth is Lieutenant Colonel MacCarthy O’Leary (1849-1900). He was killed on the 27th of February 1900 whilst leading men of his regiment (The South Lancashire) during the Battle of Pieters Hill. Richard Danes in his “Cassell’s History of the Boer War” (published 1901) pointed out that the 27th of February was Majuba Day, which was when the British were soundly beaten by the Boers at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. The battle at Pieters Hill, which led to a British victory, facilitated the opening of the road to Ladysmith, which was being besieged by the Boer forces. An informative website (www.alamy.com/stock-photo-statue-of-lt-col-william-mccarthy-oleary-in-queens-gardens-warrington-54385554.html) revealed:

“The Regiment drew many of its recruits from the then-South Lancashire town of Warrington, where Colonel O’Leary was very well known. When the town erected a memorial to the men of the Regiment who died during the war, it chose to feature a sculpture of Colonel O’Leary on campaign in South Africa.”

The statue was sculpted by Edward Alfred Briscoe Drury (1856-1944). Amongst his many other creations is the South Africa Gate on The Mall in London.

The plinth upon which O’Leary stands forever motionless bears a large plaque on which the many members of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the South Lancashire Regiment, who died during the Boer War, are recorded. These include a few officers and too many men of lower rank. Another plaque records the campaigns in which the regiment was involved. Apart from Pieters Hill, these were: Spion Kop, Vaal  Krantz, Colenso Kopjes, Tugela Heights,  Relief of Ladysmith, Botha’s Pass, Laings Nek; and the occupations of Wakkerstroom, Utrecht, and Vryheid. In other words, they took part in most of the important struggles during the Boer War.

The monument stands in a peaceful square in a small town, once in Lancashire but now in Cheshire, just about 400 yards from the River Mersey. As I stood looking at it during an unusual heatwave when the air temperature was between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the brave men recorded on the plinth, who would have been encumbered with military equipment and inappropriate uniforms, managed to keep on going during the hot weather that they would have encountered whilst struggling against the Boers in the south of Africa.

The golden gates

BANK HALL IN Warrington (Cheshire) was designed for the local industrialist Thomas Patten (1690-1772), who had successful copper processing works, and built in 1750. It was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1754), whose other creations include St Martin-in-the-Fields (London), Radcliffe Camera (Oxford), and the Senate House (Cambridge), to mention only a few. This elegant building with neo-classical features has served as Warrington’s Town Hall since about 1870. Impressive as the building is, its magnificence pales when it is compared to the grand gates at the entrance to its grounds.

Frederick Monks, a local ironmonger and town councillor, heard about a pair of wonderful cast-iron gates which had been made at the Coalbrookdale works at Ironbridge in Shropshire. The gates had been made to be exhibited at the International Exhibition held in South Kensington in 1862.  The gates were intended for Queen Victoria’s residence at Sandringham (Norfolk). However, when she saw them at the exhibition, she noticed a statue of the regicide Oliver Cromwell behind them. This put her off the idea of installing them at Sandringham.

The gates, having been rejected by Victoria, were offered for sale by the company that had made them. Eventually, Frederick Monks purchased both the gates and the statue of Cromwell for his town, Warrington. The gates were installed in front of the Town Hall in the late 1890s. An informative website (www.warrington.gov.uk/history-golden-gates) describes features of the gates, which were recently restored beautifully:

“Because the owner was supposed to be Queen Victoria, the gates have four winged figures of Nike, the goddess of victory. They also had a Prince of Wales motif above the arch in the middle, but this was changed to Warrington’s Coat of Arms.” We had no idea that these gates with gold gilding existed. So, when we came across them during a post-prandial stroll, we were both surprised and delighted. When you see these beautiful gates, you can understand why Warrington is so lucky to have them. Incidentally, the bronze statue of Cromwell is also in the town: on Bridge Street. Before it was erected there in 1899, there was much discussion in the town council about the suitability of celebrating the regicide with the statue.