John Straphen comes home

Written by Richard Hayes

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John Straphen was born in Fifeshire in 1774. His uncle, John Simpson from Midlothian, had travelled south to Shrewsbury and in 1790 become contractor in charge of the building of the new St Chad’s Church. He subsequently became a loyal member of fellow Scot Thomas Telford’s team, working on the Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts and the Caledonian Canal project in Scotland. At some point in the 1790s Simpson urged his nephew John Straphen to come to Shrewsbury, where there was plenty of engineering work in hand, despite and partly because of the long war with France which began in 1793, and with only a short peace lasting 14 months in 1802-3, ended in 1814.

By this time General Sir Rowland Hill KCB had so distinguished himself in the Peninsular War that he had in 1812, while fighting in Spain, been elected an MP for Shrewsbury, and while still fighting in France in early 1814, learned that Shropshire proposed to build a Column in his honour. He returned in June 1814 to his native county and received a hero’s welcome. The necessary funds in place, work commenced on building the Column on 27 December that year with John Simpson as contractor.

No-one could have foreseen the events of 1815 while building progressed. Napoleon returned from exile and the “Hundred Days” period commenced in March, ending only after the battle of Waterloo on 18 June. Napoleon invaded Belgium on 15 June, and on that very day John Simpson died, to be succeeded as contractor at the Column by his nephew, John Straphen.

A remarkable feature of the Column is the spiral staircase, which bears a message in the cast iron balusters of the handrail – one letter per step. It runs:

“This staircase was the gift of John Straphen, the builder, as his donation towards erecting this Column. The first stone of the foundation was laid December 27th, 1814, and completed June 18th, 1816, the anniversary of the glorious Battle of Waterloo.”

Such a message-bearing handrail is remarkable enough, but thanks to the great generosity of a family in Victoria, Australia, a portrait of Straphen was presented to the Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery on 4 April 2017, just one month over 200 years after the completion of the staircase. The portrait had been taken to Australia by descendants of Straphen who had emigrated there at some time in the past. The family had discovered through the internet that Straphen had worked in and around Shrewsbury and had died there in 1826, and determined that the portrait of their ancestor should be returned to the town.

It is now established that the pastel portrait was painted by James Sharples the younger (1789-1839), member of a family of talented artists, and that the frame was made by Thomas Donaldson, a cabinet maker of the highest standard, who made the pair of pier tables in the picture gallery at Attingham, and had his workshop in Ireland’s Mansion in High Street. Other works of a similar nature by Sharples are similarly framed with the verre eglomisé border (gilt under glass) surrounding the pastel, the whole set within the deep giltwood frame.

It is almost certain that the portrait dates from 1817, the year of completion of the Column. Straphen would have been justifiably proud of the achievement, and can be seen holding a drawing of the Column with the letters “LL’S COLUMN” emerging from beneath his right thumb.

Shrewsbury’s cultural, architectural and military history has alike been greatly augmented by this most generous gift to our county Museum.

CAMERA SURVEY OF LORD HILL’S COLUMN

In March 2017 some stunning pictures and videos were taken by local company, Ark Aerial Photography.  They have uploaded some of these to Street View on Google Maps at:

https://www.google.com/maps/contrib/111317248656096201607/photos

If you want a birds-eye view of Lord Hill and the surrounding area, please have a look!

Friends of Lord Hill’s Column receive generous donations

On Saturday 17 May The Friends of Lord Hill’s Column received two generous donations of £100 each from two Shropshire organisations – The Shrewsbury Society of St George and the Coldstream Guards Association – Shropshire Branch. Both groups made their donations because they value the Column as a part of the rich heritage of Shropshire and want to see it well-maintained for future generations to enjoy.

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Column open on Heritage Open Days

Heritage Open Days will take place across the UK on Thursday 11 – Sunday 14 September 2014.  Lord Hill’s Column in  Shrewsbury will be open, by prior booking  only* (*see below for booking arrangements), from 1000 to 1630 inclusive (Sunday 14 September 1000-1530).

Spiral staircase in the column
Spiral staircase in the column

This will give visitors a rare opportunity to climb the 172 steps of the spiral staircase to enjoy the wonderful views over the beautiful county of Shropshire from the platform at the top of the Column. Lord Hill’s Column was erected at the expense of the people of Shropshire to honour their local hero Rowland Hill, who was Wellington’s most trusted general in the Peninsular War at Waterloo.  It is the tallest free-standing Greek Doric Column in  England, designed by local Shropshire architect Edward Haycock, and  completed in 18 months between December 1814 and June 1816. It was completed on 18 June 1816, the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Repairs to the 5 metre high statue of Lord Hill have recently been carried out, and the interior iron work of the elegant baluster and handrail to the spiral stairs is to be repainted. Each baluster has a roundel containing a letter of a continuous message which runs from bottom to top of the staircase.  The message records the circumstances and date of the construction of the staircase in 1816.

If you would like to come to Shrewsbury to visit the Column PLEASE NOTE THE FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY.

Not more than 10 people will be able to make the climb up the stairs each half hour. Each person  will be issued with a hard hat and high visibility jacket. Stout shoes are advised. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT ANYONE CONTEMPLATING MAKING THE ASCENT SHOULD KNOW THAT THEY ARE CAPABLE OF CLIMBING 172 STAIRS, AND THAT THEY HAVE A HEAD FOR HEIGHTS.

If you wish to book a place to make the ascent up the Column please send an e-mail to l.r.hayes@btinternet.com stating your name and giving  contact details so that your booking can b e confirmed. Please state the date on which you wish to come – admittance will be at half-hourly intervals  -1000, 1030 etc – until 1630 inclusive on Thursday to Saturday 11-13 September and  from 1000 until 1530 on Sunday 14 September.  Please state also the time of your choice.

PLEASE NOTE THAT IF A HALF – HOUR BOOKING PERIOD IS FULLY BOOKED YOU WILL BE ASKED IF YOU CAN CHANGE THE TIME OF YOUR VISIT TO ANOTHER PERIOD AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO YOUR ORIGINAL CHOICE.

Civil Engineers’ climb up Column

Wednesday 9 April 2014 found Chairman of Friends of Lord Hill’s Column in Shrewsbury, Richard Hayes, at the foot of the Column welcoming 28 Civil Engineers from the West Midlands region. They had come to climb the 172 stairs of  the internal cantilevered spiral staircase to the viewing platform. After strong winds the day before, the afternoon of the visit was calm and the sun shone from a clear sky – perfect conditions for enjoying the beautiful panoramic views over Shropshire and Shrewsbury. The Engineers also had plenty of time to appreciate the skills involved in erecting the Column in Grinshill stone in the astonishingly short period of 18 months between 1814 and 1816.  This period included the alarming 100 Days when Napoleon returned from Elba, seized power once more, and led his hastily re-organised  army into Belgium.   Even as the builders continued their work on the Column the battle of Waterloo was being fought. Exactly one year later, on 18 June 1816, the work was completed.

Grinshill Hill showed clearly across the fields of North Shropshire, and the views to Hawkstone,  Haughmond, the South Shropshire Hills and the Breidden were bathed in the late afternoon sun. No wonder that the Engineers have been e-mailing their appreciation –

“Brilliant!”

“fantastic site visit”

“everyone really appreciated and enjoyed the tour”

“an amazing opportunity to have a look at the structure”

 

WATCH HERITAGE OPEN DAYS WEBSITE FOR FURTHER OPPORTUNITIES TO CLIMB THIS WONDERFUL MONUMENT.

WHY NOT BECOME A FRIEND FOR A FIVER?  – AND HELP US TO REPLACE THE STATUE OF LORD HILL.