The Heroism of a Silent Gun (Hartlepool, Ray Lonsdale, 2022)

Photo by Gary Coussons

We’ve already written about the stolen Boer War statue in Hartlepool’s Ward Jackson Park. After its nocturnal theft in 1968, the plinth – bearing the names of the 23 Hartlepool men who died in the conflict – stood empty for over 50 years before local businessman Stephen Close decided to fundraise for a replacement, which was created by sculptor Ray Lonsdale.

One thing I was keen to ask both men was why? The Boer War was a conflict that – as Lonsdale explained – “didn’t possess the same moral righteousness as WW1 and 2” [although the same argument is frequently made about the former]. It took place in what is now South Africa between the British Empire and the Boer Republic (descendants of European colonists) and led to over 46,000 civilian fatalities. Over 26,000 women and children died in British concentration camps. Most see it as a mark of national shame, if they remember it at all.

The British-operated concentration camp at Bloemfontein. Over 26,000 women and children died in camps like these. (National Archives)

It was with some sense of trepidation then that Lonsdale took up the commission:

“I decided that it should represent the soldiers who signed up out of poverty and from that point had to do as they were told and fight whoever they were told to fight,” he told me. “They were victims of propaganda, hence the title of ‘The Heroism of a Silent Gun’, and close inspection shows the soldier holding the rifle in a way that it could not be fired. I feel this is the only way that a sculpture depicting that particular era and conflict could work in the modern world.”

Determined to restore a statue to the empty plinth, local businessman Stephen Close managed to raise over £30,000 for the new statue, including £3000 from the Councillors Ward budgets. He commissioned Lonsdale – who won the tender – after seeing his affecting “Tommy” in Seaham.

Photos by Paul Levitt, courtesy of Stephen Close

I asked Stephen about Lonsdale’s viewpoint of the statue’s pacifistic slant. He disagreed somewhat, stating the piece was never meant to carry this meaning, but was quoted in the Hartlepool Mail (7th December 2021) as saying, “It’s important that these memorials are maintained and people should explain what happened and the futility of war for the young kids and to me that’s why I wanted to replace it.”

Close nicknamed the statue ‘Pete’ – wanting to give the statue a name but not one of the ones listed on the memorial plinth. He intended the statue to represent all the dead, not just a particular soldier.

There’s an interesting contrast between the younger-looking, helmet-less soldier in the original sculpture and the rough-hewn, battle-weary one in Lonsdale’s newer piece. Perhaps this is exaggerated by the artist’s rugged, plated sculptural style, which lends itself more to a soldier who’s lived through the trauma of war, rather than an idealistic recruit.

The original statue (photo via Hartlepool Library Service) and the replacement (photo by Gary Coussons)

The statue was unveiled on the 24th September 2022 by Durham Light Infantry veteran Brian Coward, and a service was led by Reverend Richard Masshedar of St. Paul’s Church.

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