Updated: Oct 19, 2020
UPDATE: Book Now - "Talking Objects" discussion on "50 Objects of Greenwich" Starts 3 Nov
The story of this statue should start with the subject of it; James Wolfe. Wolfe was the oldest son of Lieutenant-General Edward Wolfe born on 2nd January 1727. He joined the army at the age of 14 and quickly established himself during the Seven Years War as a soldier with great skill and leadership. The position of Major-General was awarded to him in 1759 for the Quebec expedition (1).
Wolfe story was a complicated one filled with ill health. Throughout the Quebec campaign, he suffered from both Tuberculosis and Kidney Failure (2).
Wolfe's position as a hero was cemented into British history when he died in battle from wounds at the Plains of Abraham. The battle itself is also worthy of remembrance due to the daring tactics used. He took his troops up the St Lawrence River and land south-west of the city, scaling the Plains of Abraham in order to surprise the French and draw them into an attack away for Quebec (1).
The success of this plan lay with good judgement on the part of Wolfe and luck that the French commander, Montcalm, had made a mistake by splitting up their garrison. They only had a small guard on the clifftop, where Wolfe mounted his attack (2). Montcalm refused to wait for backup troops thinking that Wolfe would only have a small force; he actually had nearly 5,000 men with him (2). The battle was over quickly but both Wolfe and Montcalm were fatally wounded (2).
Although this was hailed as a British victory, it was more a combination of good British tactics and luck at the mistakes of the French. Despite this, it is Wolfe went down history as a hero.
Wolfe's story didn't end in 1759 with his death. Over 170 years later the statue of him was placed at the top of Greenwich Park. The statue itself was a gift from the Canadian people to the people of Britain, sculpted by Robert Tait McKenzie and unveiled in Greenwich park on 5th June 1930 by a descendant of Montcalm (3). The statue was placed in Greenwich park because Wolfe’s parents lived on the western edge of the park and Wolfe was buried at St Alfege church; Greenwich’s parish church (3).
A full account of the day that the statue was unveiled can be found at http://www.royalobservatorygreenwich.org/articles.php?article=1200.
The story of the statue doesn’t end when it was unveiled in 1930. During World War Two the statue sustained visible damage after a bomb exploded nearby in 1940 (2). Local legend has it that the damage was actually sustained from strafing from a German fighter plane, although it is unlikely that the pilots would have flown the low just to target a statue (4). In 1973 the statue was given grade II listed status, making it of special interest with every precaution and effort being made to preserve it (3).
However, a statue at the top of Greenwich Park was not a new idea in 1930. In 1799, a different statue was proposed for the site, one of Britannia (see image below). It is interesting to think that a statute representative of Britain and her empire as a whole was not built in a maritime town but one of an army hero was.
John Flaxman, A View of Greenwich Hospital with the Statue of Britannia on the Hill, 1799, Etching, 188mm x 188mm, 1799, Royal Academy of Arts, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/a-view-of-greenwich-hospital-with-the-statue-of-britannia-on-the-hill.
Many questions can be asked of this object:
Is it too big to be an object?
Does it represent Greenwich history or British history?
Why is it in Greenwich, a town of maritime significance?
Where should it be, if not Greenwich?
(1) National Army Museum. ‘James Wolfe: The Heroic Martyr’. Accessed 9 February 2020. https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/James-Wolfe.
(2) Rickard, J. ‘James Wolfe, 1727-1759’. History of War, 29 October 2000. http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_wolfe.html.
(3) Dolan, Graham. ‘Unveiling of the Wolfe Statue (5 June 1930)’. The Royal Observatory Greenwich. Accessed 9 February 2020. http://www.royalobservatorygreenwich.org/articles.php?article=1200.
(4) Blitzwalkers. ‘Footprints of The Blitz’, 19 July 2013. http://blitzwalkers.blogspot.com/2013/07/