Behind the Royal Garrison Church of All Saints, upon Round Hill, stands a great equestrian statue of the first Duke of Wellington mounted on his charger, Copenhagen. It is rarely noticed now but a hundred years ago it was not obscured by trees and was passed every day by troops marching or riding from Wellington Lines to take part in "field days" in the Long Valley.
It was the country's wish after The Battle of Waterloo that the Duke should be given a "palace" commensurate with the award of Blenheim Palace to Marlborough a hundred years previously. Wellington demurred at such extravagance so in 1817 the nation bought Stratfield Saye for £263,000 and presented it to the Duke. He himself purchased Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner as his London home and, in 1828, a Triumphal Arch designed by Decimus Burton, a leading architect of the day, was erected opposite, as the main western entrance to St. James's Park and the Green Park.
Ten years later, following the unveiling of a fine equestrian statue of King George III by Matthew Wyatt in Cockspur Street, a proposal was made to erect an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in the West End of London. A General Committee for the "Wellington Military Memorial" was formed under the chairmanship of the Duke of Rutland. So began fifty years of intermittent controversy about the statue that now stands in Aldershot.
By July 1839 subscriptions had reached £14,000. The General Committee resolved to commission Matthew Wyatt to execute the statue which was to be placed upon the Triumphal Arch opposite Apsley House. Permission was sought of the Queen and the Government, the Treasury Board approving the plan and the Queen being gratified that she would look upon a statue of the greatest man in the country in so prominent a place.
But Decimus Burton, architect of the Arch objected strongly to the proposal. His plan was to top the Arch with a figure in a four horse chariot and he considered that an equestrian statue would be both out of place and out of proportion. In this view he had many supporters and arguments were raised both in and out Parliament.
Only by standing beneath the statue can one appreciate its colossal size. It is nearly 30 feet high, 26 feet from nose to tail, over 22 feet in girth and weighs 40 tons. It was executed entirely in Matthew Wyatt's workshops in the Harrow Road where he built two great furnaces one capable of melting 12 tons and the other 20 tons of metal, chiefly bronze from cannon captured by the British at the Battle of Waterloo. The plaster cast of the horse's body was moulded round a frame like the ribs of a ship and the whole statue was cast in eight pieces, being joined partly by screw bolts and partly by fusing. Thirty men were engaged in the work which took over three years. Wellington sat for the sculptor and is depicted, wearing his customary short cloak, mounted on his favourite charger Copenhagen.
To move the statue from Wyatt's studio in the Harrow Road to Hyde Park Corner the roof of the foundry was removed. The statue was hoisted by blocks and tackle and placed onto an enormous wooden carriage, weighing twenty tons and with wheels 10 feet in diameter, which had been specially constructed at the Woolwich Dockyards.
The statue was moved on 28 September 1846. It had a full military escort consisting of 500 Guardsmen from the three regiments of Foot Guards with their bands, the 2nd Life Guards at the head and rear of the procession and twenty troopers either side of the great wooden carriage, which was hauled by 29 horses, crowned with laurel leaves and driven by ten draymen.
By 4 o'clock all the preparations for hoisting the statue were complete, so it was decided that this should be postponed until the next day. This took six hours and was accomplished with blocks and tackle from a wooden scaffolding frame 115 feet high built around the Arch. The final fixing was carried out by a party of riggers and masons on 1 October 1846.
But no sooner had the scaffolding been removed than controversy broke out again, the horse, all the knowledgeable old soldiers said, didn't look anything like Copenhagen, particularly the ears.
Copenhagen carried Wellington throughout the day at Waterloo, was very well known and easily recognised in the horse mounted society of that era. Wellington was never sentimental about Copenhagen but his appreciation of the horse's quality was well expressed in his comment that "there may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow". However, Copenhagen died in 1836 and Matthew Wyatt had used a horse called Rosemary as his model for the charger. Many others, on seeing the Statue in position on to of the Triumphal Arch, agreed with Decimus Burton that it was quite out of proportion and even looked ridiculous. It was facetiously nicknamed "The Archduke" and was the butt of much humour in Punch.
By the time of Wellington's death in 1852 the public had become used to the sight of the statue and in deference to the great Duke's memory no further attempt was made to have it moved for the next thirty years. But by 1882 traffic congestion around Hyde Park Corner had become so intense that a proposal was made to demolish the Arch to make way for road widening. But public sentiment was opposed to such destruction and in January 1883 the Prince of Wales wrote to the Prime Minister, Gladstone, recommending the removal of the Arch to a new position at the top of Constitution Hill. "As regard the old colossal statue of the Duke", he wrote, "I would suggest that it should not be broken up but removed to Aldershot where it will be highly valued by the Army".
When the statue was taken down and the Arch moved to its new position, the statue was left abandoned in a corner of Green Park for another year while various possible sites were considered including Chelsea Hospital, Horse Guards, Portsmouth, Wellington College and St James's Park. These were all rejected and at last a resolution of both Houses of Parliament gave permission for it to be moved to Aldershot.
Messrs Pickford and Co were given the task of moving the statue to Aldershot and this was accomplished in four days during August 1884 using a trolley 12 feet wide drawn by 16 horses. On 11 August it arrived safely in Aldershot and was taken to the Field Stores (now the Goose Green Estate) where it remained until a suitable site for it was found.
On 23 February 1885 The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, with HRH The Duke of Cambridge, Commander in Chief, and the Earl of Rosebery, selected the site for the statue on a small knoll called Round Hill near the Royal Garrison Church.
The re-erection of the statue was entrusted to Messrs Martin, Wells & Co. one of the well known contractors of Aldershot who were subsequently to rebuild much of the Camp. A ceremony to hand over the statue to the charge of the Aldershot Division was arranged for 19 August 1885.
A representative force of all arms was drawn up in a hollow square below the Monument for the hand-over ceremony. A vast number of the local population came to witness the occasion.
The Prince of Wales took up his position in the centre of the square accompanied by his staff. In a short speech he handed over the monument to Lieutenant General Anderson, the General Officer Commanding, who ordered a Royal Salute of 21 guns followed by the National Anthem. He then thanked the Prince of Wales and led a march past of his staff and the whole military contingent.
Thus did Matthew Wyatt's great statue of the Iron Duke come to Aldershot to rest upon Round Hill, happily devoid of controversy, for over a hundred years. It is hard to imagine that Wellington and Waterloo will ever recede from the public conscience. His fame and influence were such that there are over sixty known monuments to him in this country not to mention, streets, bridges, railway stations, hotels and public house without number named after him and his great victories.
His descendent the 8th Duke is President of the Aldershot Military Historical Trust and the Aldershot Garrison remains proud to have his largest statue within its care.