Praising Famous Men in Bronze

Geraint Talfan Davies responds to a suggestion that the statue of a little known Cardiff Victorian should be replaced by one of St. David.

In a creative and provocative article David Melding AM ‘Why is Cardiff so unloved by us Welsh?’ makes a plea for enhancing Cardiff’s capital status by increasing the statuary around the city, and even shifting some of the statues we already have. Among his many suggestions are that the statue of John Batchelor in The Hayes, near the new St. Davids 2 shopping Centre, should be replaced by one of St. David.

Quite apart from what St. David, an ascetic if ever there was one, would think about being linked to a cathedral of consumerism is one thing, but David Melding dismisses poor John Batchelor. “Can anyone tell me,” he asks, “why the Hayes is presided over by John Batchelor? Have you ever heard of him? What did he do of national significance?”

I am not carrying a torch for the late Mr Batchelor, but he certainly enlivened life in this exploding Victorian city, and occasioned a row that had a permanent effect on our laws of libel, and in this case, thank God, not a pernicious one.

Batchelor was a leading Radical in the city in mid-Victorian era, at a time when Radicals dominated Cardiff Town Council. He was also the first Chairman of the Cardiff School Board. He had moved to Cardiff from Newport in 1843 and, with his brother, set up as a timber merchant and ship-builder at the lower end of St. Mary Street, when the Taff was on its older, more easterly alignment. Sadly, he went bankrupt in 1872, owing £50,000 and paying out only 11 pence in the pound.

When he died in 1883 fellow Radicals sought to erect a memorial, and were roundly criticised for doing so. Four years later opponents and creditors raised a 1200-signature petition to get the statue removed, largely on the grounds that it was associated with only one political party. William Thorne, of Messrs Gibson Bros of Bute Docks – presumably a creditor – was put in jug for defacing the statue with yellow paint and tar.

On 24 July 1887, the Conservative Western Mail, then only 14 years old, and under the robust editorship of Henry Lascelles Carr – a man who, among many eccentricities, made his own shoes – published a mock epitaph written by a solicitor named Ensor, under the rather transparent pseudonym ‘Censor’. Censor, exhibiting some sense of grievance, suggested the following as an epitaph to be placed on the statue:

“In honour of John Batchelor, a native of Newport, who in early life left his country for his country’s good; who on his return devoted his life and energies to setting class against class; a traitor to the Crown, a reviler of the aristocracy, a hater of the clergy, a panderer to the multitude; who, as first Chairman of the Cardiff School Board, squandered funds to which he did not contribute; who is sincerely mourned by unpaid creditors to the amount of £50,000; who, at the close of a wasted and misspent life, died a pauper — this monument, to the eternal disgrace of Cardiff, is erected by sympathetic Radicals. Owe no man anything.”

Not content with a mere letter to the editor, Batchelor’s son called on the editor, assaulted him and indicted him for libel. Mr Justice Stephen directed a petty jury to acquit (R. v. Ensor 1887), establishing that libel is not an offence at law unless injury is inflicted on a person still living.

Not much chance you would get journalism of that vigour these days, not even in the tabloids. However, the other lesson is that setting up statues of near contemporaries will not always escape controversy. The statuary inside our City Hall wisely stuck to the distant past. Perhaps we too should set a high bar.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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