Public memorials and statues invariably attract controversy. This can occur during the planning and fundraising stages, when they are unveiled, or, as witnessed recently, when attitudes change, and the commemoration of certain people or events are no longer deemed acceptable. Following more than two years of wrangling, the Chertsey Town War Memorial was unveiled on 30 October 1921. So, after all that time, how did Chertsey end up with the same statue as Worthing, Stafford, Truro, and Ebbw Vale?
The town’s memorial is dedicated ‘To the honoured memory of the men of Chertsey who fell in the Great War 1914-1919’. The armistice on 11 November 1918 was the ceasefire that ended hostilities, but it was the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919 after six months of negotiations, which formally ended the Great War. By this time, discussions were already underway in Chertsey about potential memorials, although action was deferred until peace was confirmed.
A proposal to convert the southeast corner of St Peter’s Church into a memorial chapel was agreed as early as December 1918. This blog focuses on the demands for an alternative public memorial and how this came to fruition. One suggestion was for a memorial which displayed the names of the fallen, those who served and returned, and those whose actions in peacetime were considered worthy of commemoration. This was an enlightened notion just after the war as most memorials across the country, including Chertsey, ended up naming only the war dead.
Building a cottage hospital as a memorial received influential support especially after it was announced in January 1919 that The Grange at St Ann’s Hill was closing. The Grange had been used as a military hospital for most of the war. Some Chertsey residents also looked enviously towards the hospitals in Egham, Walton, Weybridge, and Woking. Yet, concerns remained that veterans could be charged for using the hospital which would be unaffordable for many, especially those with chronic conditions. There was also speculation, officially denied at the time, that the government would take over control of hospitals. Ultimately this happened but not until 1948 when the National Health Service was established.
Other memorial ideas included a garden designed for convalescence, an infant welfare centre, and a war museum with a front courtyard to display captured machine guns. Discussions about these and other well-intentioned ideas coincided with the growing disillusionment of ex-servicemen. Many were injured and suffering financial hardship and their grievances ranged from problems with war pensions to the possibility of £300 being taken from emergency funds to pay for the town’s peace celebrations.
Matters came to a head at a public meeting on 14 July 1919 which the Surrey Herald recorded at length four days later. Under the headline ‘Cottage Hospital Scheme finds most favour’, the opening line of the report set the scene:
With the building packed to overflowing, the noisy meeting in Constitutional Hall on Monday evening resembled one of the rowdiest of pre-war political gatherings.
The ex-servicemen had arranged a protest march prior to the meeting and then made their voices heard in the hall. At one point ‘a young fellow named Hunt’ suggested that ‘the dead could wait – they should look after the living’. By the end of the meeting a committee had been appointed ‘to undertake the arrangements for a war memorial’, and it was agreed that the people of Chertsey would be consulted on the various options.
In a surprising twist four months later, the committee published a notice saying that the public response did not justify any of the options discussed at the meeting. Instead, the committee decided that the memorial would take the form of an endowment fund for the Chertsey Nursing Association. This idea does not appear to have been discussed at the public meeting and was widely criticised. In January 1920, by which time it had become evident that only 40% of households had been consulted about the original options, the entire committee resigned.
Civic rivalry might have been a factor in focusing minds to find a solution, especially once neighbouring Addlestone unveiled its memorial gates in Victory Park in July 1920. Opinions continued to differ, and objections were raised to the memorial being a cross, especially as the work to convert part of St Peter’s Church into a memorial chapel was underway. It was also suggested that memorial tablets be placed on the front wall of the Town Hall where they would be protected from the elements by the awning. A new organising committee was formed and, at last, an option incorporating a statue of an ‘Unknown British Soldier’ was proposed and adopted.
On 26 November 1920 a drawing of the memorial was printed in the Surrey Herald. The base was to be made of granite and the statue and four panels cast in bronze. The statue design by sculptor Joseph Whitehead of London-based firm J. Whitehead & Sons featured a life-size British soldier holding a rifle in one hand and raising his helmet with the other. The statue was cast at the A.B. Burton foundry in Thames Ditton. What went unmentioned in the newspaper article was that the statue would not be unique to Chertsey and at least six castings were to be made. The soldier statue could be seen in Worthing before Chertsey, and was later unveiled in Stafford, Truro, and Ebbw Vale. For many years, a casting of the statue was situated inside the former General Post Office building in King Edward Street, London.
Ordering an ‘off-the-shelf’ design had two advantages; it was more cost-effective and quicker to implement. The estimated overall cost for the proposed statue memorial was £1,000 and fundraising began. A ‘mammoth whist drive’ in the Constitutional Hall involving 324 players raised over £87. Several requests for details of those who should be added to the memorial panels were published in the newspapers. At the insistence of veterans, only surnames and initials were to be displayed. This strict adherence to the principle of equality in death might explain why Sir Charles Blane, a naval commander killed at the Battle of Jutland and whose name appeared on the draft lists, was not added to the memorial.
As work on the memorial neared completion, arrangements were made for the unveiling ceremony. This took place at 3pm on Sunday 30 October 1921, and the honour of performing the ceremony was given to Lieutenant-Colonel Clare. A local man, Clare had joined the army as an ordinary soldier but after being granted a commission rose swiftly through the ranks. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross.
The dedication for the memorial was made by the Lord Bishop of Guildford assisted by the Vicar of Chertsey and the Congregational Minister, with other denominations represented. A special enclosure was set aside for the bereaved relatives, and ex-servicemen assisted with the ceremony. In perhaps the largest gathering in Chertsey up until that time, people stood shoulder to shoulder either side of the memorial in Windsor Street and London Street, and the crowd also stretched down Guildford Street. Floral tributes were made after the sounding of the ‘Last Post’ with wreaths from Chertsey schools placed by children who had lost their fathers in the war.
Ahead of the unveiling ceremony, posts and chains were added around the memorial. These were a gift from Mr Lees from the Bridge Foundry whose only son Edward Lees died whilst serving in Mesopotamia. The tribute on behalf of the Ex-Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club was made by Frederick Hunt whose brothers Richard and Herbert Hunt were killed during the Battle of the Aisne in 1914. A few days later, a series of postcards depicting the ceremony went on sale.
Despite all the arguments and delays between 1919 and 1921, for 100 years Chertsey has had a prominently-positioned memorial which acts as the focal point for the town’s remembrance commemorations every November. The materials chosen, granite and bronze, are extremely hard wearing so Chertsey’s memorial has not weathered like some other war memorials erected around that time. Financially, the memorial was considered a success too. The total cost was £1,042, and with subscriptions totalling £888 plus interest received of £21, only £133 of the £400 emergency fund was required.
Did you know?
Although the memorial is dedicated ‘To the honoured memory of the men of Chertsey’, one woman, Richardson M. Maud, is named, and Maud is the only first name displayed.
The 129 names from the Great War are listed A to Z but they are not in true alphabetical order. For example, the first name panel begins, Alford F.J., Andrews R.S., Adams J.H. The reason for this is unclear. Of the seven confirmed pairs of brothers named, six are listed consecutively but the Sympson brothers are separated by Standing J.W.
The Memorial Chapel in St Peter’s Church was dedicated on 9 April 1922. The chapel contains a wooden panel inscribed with 135 names in true alphabetical order including ‘Sir’ Charles Blane and his two brothers, and a window dedicated to Edward Lees. Chertsey eventually gained its own hospital but not until 1939 when Botleys Park opened. This was renamed St Peter’s Hospital in 1947.
This blog has drawn on the many articles published in the Surrey Herald between 1919 and 1921 about the development of what became the Chertsey Town War Memorial. Thank you to Jim Knight who photographed these clippings for the Runnymede Remembered Archive, and to Emma Warren, Curator at Chertsey Museum for collating them.
Special thanks to Victor Spink for sharing his own research and for reviewing this blog.
Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance by Alex King (London: Bloomsbury, 1998)