Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Statue of Queen Victoria in Port Elizabeth

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. Parliament voted her the additional title of Empress of India in 1876. Known as the Victorian era, her reign of 63 years and seven months was longer than that of any of her predecessors. 

After Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria plunged into deep mourning and avoided public appearances. As a result of her seclusion,  republicanism in the United Kingdom temporarily gained strength, but in the latter half of her reign, her popularity recovered. Her Golden and Diamond Jubilees were times of public celebration.

After commemorating her golden jubilee in 1887, the citizens of Port Elizabeth were resolved to erect a tangible object, not as a political statement but as a demonstration of their loyalty and devotion to the queen. This desire ultimately bore fruit in the form of the statute of a mature Queen Victoria outside the Public Library, welcoming visitors to Port Elizabeth.   

Main picture: This Sicilian marble statue was erected and unveiled in 1903 two years after Queen Victoria’s death.

Patriotic fervour

Across the far-flung British Empire, the settlers and colonial officials were imbued with a sense of manifest destiny. Driven by a sense of duty and service, colonialism was an article of faith. As Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne was in 1837, 1897 would be her Diamond Jubilee. In their patriotic fervour, during March 1897 the citizens of Port Elizabeth decided to erect a statue of Queen Victoria in the Market Square as a permanent record of her sixty-year reign. Funds would be raised by public subscription. Initially the Council donated 100 guineas to the endeavour and later, when it had to be erected, an additional £100.

Construction

The statue was carved by Edward Roscoe Mullins of London in Sicilian marble. The site in front of the library was suggested by the Guild of Loyal Women in preference to the Obelisk site first favoured. At the time, the position in front of the Library was a most command­ing one looking down Jetty Street, the main entrance to the town, and hence it was a firm favourite.

The statue was shipped out from England but lay for a considerable time in a municipal depot awaiting a decision by the City Fathers as they debated the pros and cons of each location. With the site eventually selected, a Mr. Petiet, a monument mason, was awarded the contract to erect the statue. He first had to square off the die, or pedestal, which had been damaged in transit. Then he laid a concrete foundation and laid down marble blocks, the pedestal fitting on top of these, and then the statue was hoisted up. Working with the assistance of several coloured workers, they performed their task behind a large canvas barrier which kept curious onlookers at bay while he finished the job within two weeks.

Unveiling

On the 30th September 1903, the statue of Queen Victoria was unveiled by the Mayor, Mr J.C. Kemsley. That week the Eastern Province Herald recorded the ceremony as follows:

“The unveiling by His Worship the Mayor of the Queen Victoria statue on Wednesday afternoon attracted a large and eager crowd to the Market Square. For an hour prior to the time fixed for the opening ceremony, numbers of people took up their positions outside the enclosure, and by quarter to five, the generous seating accommodation provided was fully taxed.

Unveiling of a marble statue of Queen Victoria on the Market Square in 1903

At the rear of the pedestal, a temporary grandstand had been erected and taste­fully decorated, and the tiers were occupied by fashionably dressed ladies and children. Chairs were arranged in front and were reserved for Councillors and other guests.

Altogether some thousands of persons assembled, and many were fortunate enough to obtain a clear view of the function from the windows and roofs of the surrounding buildings. The top of the Union-Castle building was lined with visitors, a large proportion of them ladies, and for these latter, apparently, such a position had no terrors.

Flags flew from the principle business houses, and to mark their appreciation of the occasion, nearly all the firms in town closed between four and five o’clock. A strong force of police under the direction of Inspector Mason were in attendance about the Market Square, but at no period were there more austere services called into requisition, and their duties were confined to regulating the crowd and the traffic.

The order maintained was excellent. The only emotions demonstrated were genuine admiration and affection for the memory of the most diplomatic and august Queen that has ever occupied the British Throne, and sheer enthusiasm at an opportunity of voicing that reverence and devotion.

Mr James Searle delivered a brief speech, in which he said the brightest pages of future historians would be those in which the life of our late Queen was written.

Paying tribute to their regent

Sir Henry Juta thought it was an occasion such as this that made us realise what a great fortune it was for the British race that it was not the law of our land that we could not be ruled over by women (hear, hear), for the two brightest epochs of the British race were the Elizabethan and Victorian epochs (applause).

 In conclusion, Mr. Wynne handed the Mayor the white silk cord by which he pulled the covering away. Attached to it was a white ribbon on which was printed the town’s Coat of Arms and the motto “Town of Port Elizabeth”.

The ceremony commenced at five o’clock, and within half-an-hour it was over, the enclosure being empty, except for the workmen engaged in removing the seats and posts. Outside the rails however, knots of spectators continued to gaze at the statue, and it was some little time before the Square resumed its normal aspect.

Main library before the statue of Queen Victoria

First attempt at removal

To the citizens of Port Elizabeth, who during the early decades of the twentieth century were overwhelmingly not only English speaking but also of English extraction, the statue of Queen Victoria represented the embodiment of their home country. So when the Cape Provincial Administration in 1919 announced their intention to demolish the Public Library and replace it with a Provincial Administration building, probably of little architectural merit, this proposal stoked the animus of the citizenry , not only in the sense of profound hostility towards the proposal, but also in the seldom-used sense of motivation to do something. Ironically this ill-feeling was not directed so much against the destruction of an elegant Victorian building but rather the unjustified removal of the statue of Queen Victoria, gazing at the hoards of vessels bobbing at anchor in the bay.

Supporting the retention of the statue was the mayor of Port Elizabeth, Mr. Alfred Markman, who provided an undertaking to do everything possible to prevent the removal of the statue. Fears expressed about its removal were grounded on the incongruity of styles and the fact that the memorial might be in the way. Markman proclaimed: “I will even be a party to making its retention a moral condition of the whole transaction involved in buying the present site and erecting the new building.” Markman’s support for the statue’s retention in front of the Library went a long way to allay fears of its removal.

Statue not unique

Unknown to the majority of the residents of Port Elizabeth is that the statue is a far cry from being unique, in fact dozens of exact replicas came off the “production line” bearing this likeness of Queen Victoria. Just visit King William’s Town to have sight of Victoria’s twin sister. Exact replicas abound throughout the world in such disparate places as Kingston in Jamaica, Biarritz in France and in Singapore.

Second attempt at removal

In the mid-1980s, the location of the statue of Queen Victoria once again became controversial. This time it was Solly Rubin who invoked the unthinkable act of betrayal by claiming that she had “overstayed her welcome”. Driving this sentiment is that the statue, according to Rubin, detracts from the library’s aesthetic value. In a letter of complaint to the Town Clerk, he objected to the fact that the “city’s architectural jewel is being dominated by a statue.” Apart from the inane suggestion regarding the statue’s relocation, many of his other comments bore merit. For instance he took issue regarding the location of a telephone booth and a rubbish bin outside the front of the library. He also helpfully suggested that spotlights be installed to highlight the architectural features of the library. Rubin’s suggestion regarding removal did not gain traction but was greeted with horror by spokesmen from the National Monuments Council and the Library.

Restoration

After the addition of enclosing short pillars and chains in 1904, the first time that the statue was cleaned and restored was in 1992 by Anton Momberg, but in 2010 the monument was daubed with paint and graffitied with a phrase in Xhosa: “Goduka Europe” (“Go Home Europe”). However the most serious attack on the statue occurred in 2015 when green paint was thrown over the statue. Most non-technical people would assume that the removal of paint from a marble statue would only require the use of some paint remover or some household cleaner. As will be explained below, the process is tedious and protracted.

The attacks of 2015 were not the first time the Queen had been vandalised. Upon closer inspection, one could clearly discern where previous cleaning attempts had caused serious damage.

In the following paragraphs the procedure undertaken to restore Queen Victoria’s marble dress from its green paint disgrace to the regal glory she stands in now, will be elaborated upon.

In 2010 the monument was daubed with paint and graffiti with a phrase in Xhosa ‘Goduka Europe’ (Go Home Europe).

It was late one evening in Govan Mbeki Avenue when the CCTV cameras caught images of a car coming to a stop near the statue of Queen Victoria. A man jumped out with a bucket, and in a few short steps proceeded to douse the queen in a splash of bright green paint. In seconds, thousands of Rands of damage was done. The choice of green paint was truly unfortunate, because unlike most other colours, green is a particularly difficult pigment to remove. The situation was compounded when it took authorities several months to take proper action. This meant that the paint had cured and the porous Sicilian marble had absorbed a rather large deep green stain.

The ethical responsibility of any conservation technician is to retain as much of the original object’s material as possible. So, in this case, under any circumstances, could any stone be removed during cleaning; only the paint could be removed. Some parts of the statue already showed serious degradation where somebody else had used pool acid to remove graffiti. The reason for this is fundamental to material science:  it informs one that an acid will not remove organic paint, instead of which the acid was removing layers of stone. The acid reacts with the calcium carbonate in the stone, creating the false impression that the acid has removed the paint, while in actual fact it had dissolved the stone on which the graffiti was layered. The problem with acids is that they clean indiscriminately; . An acid cannot distinguish between a soiled surface and a clean surface. Another problem is that the acid will preferentially erode areas of the stone that are naturally weaker, exposing the grain of the stone, which creates an unsightly unnatural weathered look.

Green paint thrown over the statue of queen Victoria in 2015.

Acids should only be used by a trained professional in specific situations at the right dilutions. If used correctly, chemical cleaning can be very effective indeed, but it is dangerous to attempt unless you know exactly what the results will be, and even then, you always do a small spot test on areas of the object that are hidden from view.  Realistically, if every time the Queen is vandalised, and cleaned with acids, eventually we will have little more than a smooth round rock left standing on its plinth!

The process employed for cleaning ‘Her Majesty’ was two-fold. Firstly, a specially-formulated chemical poultice was applied to dissolve the paint, and not the stone. Then, after adequate time, the poultice was cleaned off with a high-pressure washer. The poultice technique is very effective in drawing out the stain in the stone, as it dissolves the paint, suspending it in its jelly substrate. The water then easily washes the poultice away. Even here, the conservationist must be careful with the water pressure used, considering that even non-industrial pressure washers can spray up to 140 bars per second, which can easily scar and pit the historic marble. This process of applying a poultice and spraying the surface of the statue eventually removed all the paint and, most importantly, the green stain in the marble.

Main Library in 1953 decorated for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2

Some readers might think, “Why not use a normal paint stripper to remove the paint?”  The problem with these products is the impracticality of covering a four-metre statue several times with highly toxic and flammable solvent-based materials, creating a Health and Safety nightmare. In addition to this, a paint stripper will only clean the surface paint off; it will not remove the stain in the stone. In most cases, household cleaners are not suitable for cleaning and restoring historic objects as inevitably they will simply end up doing more damage than good. These chemicals are either too strong or chemically unsuited for the job. It took several weeks of work before the restorers finally cleaned the last of the green from the Queen’s dress. She now stands proud, ready to weather many hundreds of years of wind and rain and political storms.

Quo vadis?

Given the current political milieu in South African, what is the future of colonial statues?

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

Alas, poor Queen. Is Vicky blocking the view by Bessie Bouwer [Evening Post December 14 1985]

100 Years Ago – News from the Week Ended October 3, 1903 by Ivor Markman [Eastern Province Herald].

http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/restoring-queen-victoria-glimpse-life-conservation-technician

Queen Vic’s statue has “twins” everywhere by Adam Brand [Evening Post, February 1960]

Alas, poor Queen – Is Vicky blocking the view? By Bessie Bouwer [Evening Post, December 14, 1985]

Looking Back, the Journal of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Volume 58, 2019 – the article ‘On Restoring Queen Victoria: Confessions of a Conservation Technician’ by Josua Strumpfer, pages 10 – 12. Josua explains in this article the complex reasons chemical reasons for doing what he does.

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