Nottingham Arboretum’s Oldest Figure: The Troublesome Statue of Feargus O’Connor

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Statue of Feargus O'Connor Image: Paul Elliott

Statue of Feargus O’Connor
Image: Paul Elliott

The statue of Feargus O’Connor (1794-1855), the popular Irish Chartist leader, stands quietly in the Arboretum beneath the trees and onlookers today probably find it hard to appreciate the amount of controversy that surrounded it when it was first projected for the park. The Chartist movement is often regarded of course, as an important early manifestation of working class-political agitation which aimed at full male and sometimes female suffrage, regular fixed-term parliaments and other demands supported by monster petitions. The movement was strong in Nottingham and some other centres in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire, especially during periods of economic depression, but dissipated during the 1850s after the final people’s charter produced during the ‘year of revolutions’ across Europe in 1848-9 and presented to Parliament with ostensibly over five million signatures was found to contain names such as the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria and ‘Mr. Punch’. Chartism remained strong in Nottingham after its importance had receded in many other places partly due to the stagnation and decline of the framework knitting industry and local Chartists even formed an alliance with Tories to defeat a Liberal candidate in elections.  In 1858 and 1859 well-attended meetings supported by some local councillors passed resolutions calling for manhood suffrage, ballot voting, three year parliaments, the ending of property disqualifications and other reform demands. Significantly local Chartists leaders were even able to form an alliance with Local Tories against the dominant Liberal group to defeat a Liberal candidate (Roy Church, Economic and Social Change in a Midland Town: Victorian Nottingham, 1815-1900, [1966], 155-7; John Beckett ed., A Centenary History of Nottingham, [Chichester, 2006], pp. 301-4).

The statue of Feargus O’Connor was proposed for the Arboretum because he served as MP for the town for a short time from 1847 and as an expression of support for Chartist principles in general. However, it was also a provocative political act. The Nottingham Arboretum committee were presented with petitions in support of the venture in 1858 and 1859. A deputation in the summer of 1858 argued that the large statue and inscription would be a fitting and suitable memorial for O’Connor but the committee did not share this enthusiasm. Although religious and political events and meetings were often held in many Victorian public parks, open campaigning was usually discouraged because they remained ostensibly ‘neutral’ places for all members of the community. In February 1859, ‘wishing to encourage the creation of works of art in the Arboretum’ the Arboretum committee recommended that O’Conor’s statue be accepted on condition that its form, location and inscription be first shown to them for approval. However on 21 March the council discussed a petition from other Nottingham inhabitants protesting against the statue which maintained that ‘there was nothing in the public character or principles of the late Mr. O’Connor or in his brief career in Parliament as one of the representatives of this town to entitle him to be held up to favourable notice by the erection of a statue to his memory.’ On 9 May another memorial in favour of the statue claiming that it ‘would be appreciated by the respectable and intelligent portion of the inhabitants of this town and neighbourhood and add to the embellishment of the arboretum as well as the encouragement of the fine arts’ was debated by the council. A motion against the statue by Councillor William Chapman was rejected and it was eventually unveiled in August 1859 at a ceremony attended by thousands (D. Gray and V. W. Walker eds., Records of the Borough, 9 vols., [Nottingham, 1956], vol. 9, 9 May 1859, pp. 135-6).The Arboretum committee did keep a close control over how it was positioned and inaugurated in the park. A request for a musical celebration at the unveiling was rejected as were other celebrations or ‘public demonstrations’ it being emphasised that the statue was ‘to be introduced merely as work of art and not as at all identifying the council with the political opinions of the late Mr. O’Connor’. The arboretum was ‘neutral ground and should be kept and maintained as such.’ Religious sermons in the Arboretum were also prevented at this time even on Sundays on the grounds that it was ‘not a desirable place for public preaching’ (Enclosure committee minutes, 7 May, 4 June 1858, 4 February, 21 July, 8, 15 August 1859, Notts County Archives).

As an addendum to the above, it seems that the O’Connor statue was not always kept in as good a condition as many of his local sympathisers would have liked. On 19 April 1880, James Sutton, the secretary of the Nottingham Radical Association wrote to the council to complain that ‘seemingly uncared for condition’ of the statue in the Arboretum. As the cost of this had been ‘subscribed for by the workingmen of Nottingham without any expense whatever to the borough’ and as some of their number were ‘its first instigators’ the ‘Radicals of Nottingham, in conjunction with may who are not exclusively Radicals’ considered it ‘highly disgraceful’ to the borough and to the honour of O’Connor for it to be ‘allowed to remain’ in the poor state that it had been. The Radical Association therefore demanded that the town council take steps to give the statue a ‘more respectable appearance’ whether through ‘a good cleaning, and coat or two of paint’ and felt sure that their members and ‘the public generally’ would ‘ever feel a deep sense of gratitude to those who had it in their power to take the matter up’.

LETTER 2 LOW RESFergus O'Connor LETTER p.2

Letter from Nottingham Radical Association, complaining about condition of statue, April 1880, Courtesy of Nottinghamshire Archives CA TC 10/70-1 (Image:  Judith Mills)

Statue of Feargus O'Connor, Arboretum, 1955 Centenary celebrations: Wreath laid by Mr Charlesworth, Sec. of Nottingham Trades Council and Nottingham Hosiery Finishers Assocication Courtesy of Nottingham Evening Post and www.picturethepast.org.uk

Statue of Feargus O’Connor, Arboretum, 1955
Centenary celebrations: Wreath laid by Mr Charlesworth, Sec. of Nottingham Trades Council and Nottingham Hosiery Finishers Assocication
Courtesy of Nottingham Evening Post and www.picturethepast.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(letter from James Sutton to Mr. William Johnson 19 April 1880, Nottinghamshire Archives, courtesy of Dr. Judith Mills).

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