Henry Bolckow (Middlesbrough, David W.S. Stevenson, 1881)

Plans to memorialise Middlesbrough town founder Henry Bolckow began in 1878. Different ideas were mooted, including a new wing at the North Riding Infirmary or a scholarship program.

Instead of these worthy causes, a statue was inevitably chosen at the instigation of former mayor and “Father of the Tees” William Fallows (though the committee magnanimously decided that – if there was any money left after the statue’s creation – they would fund a scholarship).

The original site was intended to be Albert Park, before a spot behind the Exchange Building was suggested. Edinburgh’s David W.S. Stevenson was chosen to create the work.

As is usually the case with these sorts of things, the proposed statue was not without its detractors. One writer to the Daily Gazette (2nd August 1881) claimed that “Mr Bolckow was not “a Christian or a philanthropist, but only a money-maker” and so didn’t deserve a statue.

On top of this, the Streets Committee objected to the placement of the statue, claiming that it would be an obstuction; while other local councillors joked about the proposed demolition of a public urinal to accommodate it, noting that “the political views of those who wished to remove the House of Peers would be met”. (Daily Gazette – 13th July 1881).

Peers, urinals, get it? Gratifying to see the good old traditions of British humour extending back through the years.

There were also complaints that the mayor had pushed ahead with plans for the statue without consultation.

Nevertheless, many felt that Bolckow should be celebrated, with Sir Hugh Gilzean-Reid writing in his 1881 book Middlesbrough and its Jubilee (where the above images can be found), “His name and reputation form part of the industrial history of England; and it is a notable fact that a man of foreign birth and kinship should have become in our English community a social, commercial and political leader; – not by accident, audacity or mere tact, but by foresight, force of character and splendid administrative faculty.”

The statue (like the 1881 Middlesbrough Jubilee where it would be unveiled) was delayed, in large part due to the iron price crash of the 1870s, which led to falling wages and unemployment in Middlesbrough. The idea of celebrating a magnate businessman during a period of hardship for many of the town’s workers was controversial, and committee meetings and newspaper letters of the time reflect this – with the pro- and anti-Bolckow factions in full voice.

Image from The Dominie (1875) courtesy of Middlesbrough Reference Library

In fact, a statue of Bolckow had been in development hell for so long that satirical Middlesbrough magazine The Dominie commented on it. Their caricature (dated 1875 – six years before the statue’s arrival and while Bolckow was still alive), shows the imaginary sculpture in the middle of Albert Park, with the inscription “si monumentum requiris, circumspice” on the pedestal.

This quote, meaning “if you seek his monument, look around” was the famous epitaph of architect Sir Christopher Wren, carved on his memorial in his masterwork – St. Paul’s Cathedral. In this case it mainly refers to Bolckow’s purchase and donation of the land that became Albert Park, but there’s also a cheeky nod to the fact that for a time there was a lot of talk, but no actual statue.

In fact, the whole idea behind the statue was that it would be placed in Albert Park to celebrate Bolckow’s bequest to the town. Committee minutes from 1878 state that “everyone who went into the park – a magnificent gift – would, when they saw the statue, learn that it was the statue of the donor of the park”. An optimistic assessment, and one that became moot when the statue was eventually placed at the other end of town.

The build up to the Middlesbrough Jubilee was also not without its detractors. On the 26th August 1881, Mayor Charles Willman was forced to print a defensive response in the Gazette to a critic’s letter which alleged underfunding and a lack of public involvement:

“I fail to see where there has been any “absence of public spirit,” “lamentable” or otherwise (as you allege), or that you have the slightest ground for speaking of “the spiritless way” in which the arrangements have hitherto been gone about.”

Perhaps these accusations of underfunding stemmed from the identical letters published in newspapers across England on and around August 5th soliciting donations:

“As large expense will be incurred in connection with the above Jubilee, the following members of the Subscription Committee will be glad to receive donations for this object.”

Or another (in the Gazette on the 22nd July), begging local tradesmen to do their bit and even invoking the growing Tyne-Tees rivalry:

“Referring to previous remarks on the subject, we may again express a hope that the leading tradesmen will, as the Newcastle tradesmen did at the Stephenson Centenary, take the decoration of the streets into their own hands, appoint committees for different portions of the town, and see that the work is done in a manner that will reflect honour on the town.”

They did indeed, and there was a festive air as the centerpiece of the jubilee – the statue of town founder Henry Bolckow – was unveiled near the Royal Exchange building. Lord Frederick Cavendish addressed the crowd, saying:

“On this occasion it is right, therefore, that you should assemble to pay honour to a man who has done so much for you.”

There was no mention from Cavendish of what the working men and women had done for Bolckow, or the town itself.

Bolckow’s statue being unveiled at the Middlesbrough Jubilee (The Graphic,15th October 1881 accessed via the British Newspaper Archive).

The area around the statue has recently been remodelled. We’ll add newer photos when we get them. Here is how the site looked in 2020.

Thank you to Grace Redpath for additional research for this article.

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