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From Flesh and Bone to Bronze and Stone World War One Memorials in Bristol

Festival of Ideas

Written by Kent Fedorowich

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When war ended in November 1918 communities across the United Kingdom and the British Empire turned their attention to honour the fallen.

Plaques and tablets, which were made from a variety of materials such as wood, metal, glass, stone or ceramics, remain the most common form of remembrance. These are primarily found inside places of worship, government buildings, banks, professional establishments or schools, both state and private.

Crosses and crucifixes are the next most popular form of remembrance.  Highly visible, they are located within the grounds of a parish church or prominent locations like high streets and crossroads or in memorial parks and gardens. Names of the fallen and/or those who served and came back are usually inscribed on a plinth that supports the cross; but this is not always the case.

Church furniture and fittings such as pews, lecterns, altars and lych gates are quite common; as too are honour rolls, mosaics, murals, sculptures and stained glass windows.  Buildings like hospitals, village halls, libraries, sports pavilions, clock towers and chapels are less widespread but nevertheless interesting forms of commemoration that demonstrate a desire for functionality as well as remembrance.  What is striking is the sheer variety of memorials in Bristol and its environs which reflect the multiplicity of forms found nationally.

The focus here however is on some of the memorials that occur in churchyards and civic spaces that provide a representative sample of what types exist throughout the city. 

Bristolians are acutely aware of the cenotaph in the city’s centre. Unveiled in 1932 after great delay and deliberation, what many people do not realise is that most of the city’s suburban memorials were commissioned and built between 1919 and 1923. Parish memorials dominate the list and comprise three basic forms built from sandstone, limestone and granite, or combinations thereof.  Celtic crosses can be found in Hanham, Henbury and the grounds of St Peter’s Church, Filton.  Stone crosses, perhaps the most popular design in the city, are located on the precincts of St Mary Redcliffe Church and in Stoke Bishop on the edge of Durdham Down.  An ornate sandstone cross is located on the corner of Worrall Road and Black Boy Hill where the parishioners and old boys of St John’s parish church and school are honoured.  These crosses also appear in war memorial parks located in Mangotsfield, Brislington and Shirehampton.  Bristol’s only example of a crucifix is located in Clifton on the grounds of All Saints with St John parish church.  A sandstone obelisk dominates the roundabout on the High Street in Westbury-on-Trym.  There are also two examples of granite obelisks or needles:  one in Page Park (Staple Hill) and the other in Downend near the parade of local shops.

Most, but not all, parish or community memorials have names of the fallen listed on them.  For instance, at St Paul’s Southville, an unadorned limestone cross tucked away in the grounds honours the fallen of two world wars with the simple inscription ‘Lest We Forget’.  Another stone cross, where the names are hardly visible due to severe weathering and neglect, is located in the former grounds of St George’s Church on Brandon Hill, now a popular music venue.  In Cotham on Chandos Road there is a simple memorial, in the form of a large granite cairn, to the fallen from St Saviours parish church where the barely visible names have recently been re-engraved thanks to pressure from the local community.

At Holy Trinity Church in Kingswood, the Celtic-style cross, complete with three wall mounted plaques, was relocated to an exterior recess of the church from nearby Kingswood Park in 2002.  In Fishponds there exists the only example of World War One statuary in the city – a handsome life size bronze soldier mounted on a seven foot high by three foot wide roughhewn granite block.  Commissioned in 1919, built locally and costing £615, it was unveiled in March 1921 by Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. P. Burges, founder of the 12th Battalion ‘Bristol’s Own’ Gloucestershire Regiment.  In South Bristol there is the impressive Red Cross war memorial at Arnos Vale cemetery which was unveiled in October 1921.  Known as Soldiers’ Corner, it is a loggia crafted from Bath stone which contains four bronze panels honouring more than 240 British and Empire service personnel who died while convalescing in Bristol’s hospitals.  Designed by W. H. Watkins, it was built by a local firm Cowlin & Sons.  Finally, there are several examples of the iconic Cross of Sacrifice designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, which are present in Arnos Vale, Avonview, Canford and Greenbank cemeteries.

By far Bristol’s most famous (and recently most controversial) war memorial is the Memorial Ground, the home of Bristol Rovers Football Club.  Of particular note is the impressive set of gates that mark the Filton Road entrance to the ground itself.  Made from Bath stone, this Grade II listed gateway, was unveiled in 1921 to honour the sacrifices made by Bristol’s rugby players.  The football club, who are trying to move to new premises elsewhere in the city, drew unwanted attention as locals unsuccessfully argued that the entire sporting complex should receive listing status from English Heritage, which would have afforded some protection from redevelopers.  Unfortunately, English Heritage declined to list the sports ground despite its prominence as a war memorial.

Perhaps the most unique memorial in the city is the unassuming obelisk in Downend.  The local community proudly boast (incorrectly) that it is the only war memorial built on public land to exclusively honour Boy Scouts who fell in the war.  (There is another however that honours 105 Boy Scouts in Nelson, Lancashire.)  Nonetheless, the Downend memorial is distinctive in that it honours six lads from 1st Downend Scout Troop who were encouraged to enlist by their local curate, the Reverend P. G. Alexander.  Alexander, a naval chaplain during the war, is also named on the memorial.  He drowned when his ship HMS Hampshire hit a German mine off the Orkney Islands in 1916 while transporting the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, to Russia.

The politics behind the commissioning of the city’s war memorials (or preserving them) is equally fascinating.  On 20 October 1919 the Western Daily Press reported a protest by the Reverend H. J. Wilkins, vicar of Westbury-on-Trym.  Before commencing his sermon, he told his congregation of the ‘pain and amazement’ that he felt about the design of the memorial.  An obelisk was a ‘heathen symbol’ and that went against his Christian values.  At this point, a long-standing chorister of some influence rose from the stalls and denounced Wilkins claiming his remonstration was both misinformed and inappropriate.  Saying his piece, the chorister stomped out of the church.  Wilkins’s plea fell on deaf ears and the obelisk was built.  However, not all of Bristol’s war memorials survived, as several have disappeared through neglect.  In 1934 the Albert Street memorial in St Philips was destroyed.  It had fallen into disrepair.  The German field gun which adorned it was melted down for scrap and the plinth demolished.  Thankfully, the bronze plaque has survived and holds pride of place in the St Silas’ branch of the Royal British Legion.  In a variation on a theme, in Clifton, where St Andrews parish church was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in November 1940, the only trace of what was a thriving congregation is the unassuming stone cross of remembrance.

The richness and variety of Bristol’s war memorials is astounding reflecting a wide variety of countervailing forces within the city’s commemorative processes.  The architectural diversity and history behind their commissioning and location continue to fascinate.  However, much more work needs to be done to uncover the politics behind the commissioning process and the tensions which existed within parishes and communities about what form the war memorial should take.  Most importantly, these configurations of commemoration and remembrance are a poignant reminder for future generations of Bristolians of the sacrifices these citizens made on their behalf in defending our freedoms. 

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