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An interesting load for the GWR

1905, with the equestrian statue loaded into a GWR well wagon. Photo: Mike Peart collection.

During a spell working in Exeter in 1970, my daily route to work took me past the bronze equestrian statue of General Sir Redvers Buller VC. Born in Crediton near Exeter, Buller was an Eton College boy who bought an army commission in 1858 and rose quickly through the ranks having distinguished himself in numerous campaigns. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1879. His fortunes changed and his behaviour and strategy in the Second Boer War from 1899 brought criticism which eventually led to his sacking in 1901. Amongst other things, he stood accused of poor decisions in the field and introducing concentration camps for prisoners taken in the second Boer War. At one stage in 2020 the statue risked being removed because of the General’s reputation later in his military career, but I believe it’s still in place.

Buller was very much the local hero in Crediton and a public subscription was started to raise money for a statue in his honour. Some 50,000 people subscribed to raise over £2,000 (£¼m in today’s money) and the statue was started in 1902 and completed in 1905. However, it was decided to site the statue in the city of Exeter rather than the much smaller town of Crediton. In September 1905, the Great Western Railway (GWR) had the task of collecting the statue from the foundry at Thames Ditton, Surrey to take it to the GWR goods yard at Brentford, Middlesex. The first nine miles were covered with six GWR heavy horses hauling a wagon.

A lot of period detail in this picture of Brentford High Street by the GWR station in 1902. Picture: Great Western Trust.

At Brentford goods yard, the 4½ ton, 20 feet-long statue was transferred to a GWR well wagon and stabilised within a timber crate and then covered with sacking for the journey. The General’s head and torso projected out of the crate, and at 13 feet 3 inches from rail level to the top of the plumed helmet was measured to be just within the loading gauge. There were a lot of bridges and tunnels between Brentford and Exeter on the 196-mile route, and damage or even decapitation wouldn’t have helped the railway company’s reputation at all! Next, the loaded well wagon with a travelling Inspector was taken along the three-mile Brentford branch to the main GWR line at Southall to be attached to the 2.45 a.m. freight train to the goods yard by Exeter St David’s station. The journey was accomplished without incident in twelve hours. Here, the General was unloaded onto a road wagon and taken by six GWR heavy horses to the nearby granite plinth where the statue was installed. It was officially unveiled by the Lord Lieutenant of Devon two days later with a large crown in attendance as a choir sang “Land of Hope and Glory”. The Cornish granite plinth, 35 tons of carved stone, had also been brought by GWR train from Plymouth. The statue is now a Grade Two listed monument which is occasionally adorned with traffic cones by Exeter’s students. And we should note that “Redvers” is apparently pronounced “Reevers”!

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994.

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