IT’S often described as “iconic” – and for good reason.
The Queen Victoria statue in Southend is a monumental work, built by one of the finest sculptors of his time and carved out of the same type of marble used to create the Pantheon, Trajan’s Column and even Michaelangelo’s immortal David.
The day the Queen Victoria statue was officially unveiled on Pier Hill was a historic one for the town – in fact ‘half of Southend’ turned out to watch as VIP guest, Lady Rayleigh (Evelyn Georgiana Mary Balfour), do the honours.
It was May 24, 1898 – Queen’s Victoria’s 79th birthday – and the newspaper contained a gushing editorial about the unveiling proceedings.
“An admirably arranged function results in a big success,” was the headline in the Standard. Even the weather played its part. The day was described as “glorious with an unclouded sky and constant sunshine”.
Lady Rayleigh – who as wife of Lord Rayleigh, the Lord Lieutenant of Essex was the queen’s representative at the ceremony, received the royal treatment herself.
No expense was spared in the run up to her visit. In fact, the Southend Standard newspaper reported how once her visit had been secured for the unveiling ceremony the chief concern for everyone was the problem of ‘how Lady Rayleigh be entertained well enough’.
The big day began with Lady Rayleigh arriving on the train from Liverpool Street. She alighted at the Great Eastern Railway Station where she was greeted by the Mayor of Southend and a swathe of dignitaries.
The Standard reported how she was handed a beautiful shower bouquet of Maréchal Niel and tuberoses before a horse drawn procession transported her to the site of the statue.
The streets were packed with spectators and local residents eager to see the procession.
Representatives from the Southend Fire Brigade and the local company of the 1st Essex Volunteer Artillery saluted the procession as it made its way to Pier Hill.
Once there, the Standard described the scene: “Here thronged a dense crowd, composed of half of Southend. The tide was up and the view was one of great beauty. “The reception of her Ladyship was as hearty as Southenders could make it.”
Although it wasn’t officially unveiled until 1898, the Queen Victoria statue had been gifted to the people of Southend a year earlier.
The man behind the act of benevolence was the then Southend Mayor, Bernard Wiltshire Tolhurst who commissioned the statue to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897.
The statue itself was made in studios in Rome, Italy, by the celebrated artist and sculptor Joseph William Swynnerton.
Standing more than 20-ft high, the statue and pedestal are made of Carrara marble. The monarch, seated on a Gothic chair, holds the royal sceptre in her left hand while her right points to the sea.
A beaming Mr Tolhurst addressed the crowds at the unveiling ceremony, with the words: “I trust this statue will remind us and future generations of the men and women of this borough of a good and virtuous sovereign and noble woman.”
After Lady Rayleigh pulled the chord and the curtains dropped to reveal the statue in all its majestic glory cheers and applause rang out across the seafront.
A lavish lunch followed at the Pavilion where Mr Tolhurst offered a toast to the health of Mr Swynnerton and paid tribute to the work of the artist.
Despite, in years to come it becoming a standard joke that Queen Victoria pointed towards the gents public toilets on the seafront, her position was in fact strategically selected so that she faced north of the Thames to ‘command the view of all passing vessels’.
Most significantly she was said to be pointing out across the seas and the oceans to the distant lands of the British Empire, ‘upon which the sun never sets’ (and, according to many, the blood never dries’) Of course she would not last for too long in her original position and in 1962 the statue was moved to its present position in Clifftown Parade.
By this time there had been a change in attitude towards Victorian style buildings and much of old Southend had been demolished.
After much debate it was decided that the statue would be kept, but a new home for it should be found where it was less “in your face”.
Over the years the monument has been blighted by vandals, with the marble hands and fingers of the monarch being constantly targeted by thieves. Measures are now in the pipeline to make the statue more secure from vandalism.
As for the man who carved Victoria with his own hands – Joseph Swynnerton – he would become responsible for several other acclaimed works of art including many religious sculptures as well as two celebrated fountains, ‘Love’s Chalice’ and ‘Immortal Youth’.
Although he spent many years living and working in Rome, Mr Swynnerton, died in Port St Mary on the Isle of Man in 1910, aged 63.
He had been suffering from heart problems for some time.
As for the Southend Queen Victoria statue, which was considered his greatest work, Mr Swynnerton was quoted as saying he took “great delight” in executing the project and “as Southend was situated at the entrance to the greatest city in the world she should point with her arm towards the sea- as it is a source of England’s greatness.”