'You're standing in front of a goal and refusing to score': councillors split on statue location for Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy

By Tom Avery

29th Apr 2021 | Local News

Following a lengthy debate, councillors remained split on the location of a statue of inspirational suffragist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy in Congleton.

Elizabeth's Group feels a statue of Mrs Elmy, which would ideally be placed in the centre of Bridge Street at Victoria Street junction, would raise the town's profile nationally and would increase footfall, both from the immediate surrounding area and national tourism.

Elizabeth lived in Congleton from 1874 to 1918 and founded a girl's school at Moody Hall.

The group also felt it would provide an educational and inspirational focal point for the people of Congleton to appreciate and learn more about the town's history and heritage.

The group has secured the services of nationally renowned sculptor Hazel Reeves, who created the Emmeline Pankhurst statue in Manchester.

The group with the town council's help are hoping to unveil Elizabeth's statue on International Women's Day 2022 (8 March).

The statue of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, subject to planning permission from Cheshire East Council is a "gift" from the Elizabeth Group's charity to Congleton Town Council.

Since January, Hazel Reeves has started work on the design of the statue.

Elizabeth's Group has reached out to young people and schools in Congleton asking them to produce artworks and writings to help inspire Ms Reeves as she continues the work.

At Thursday's Congleton Town Council meeting of the Community and Environment Committee, councillors were asked for their opinion on where the statue of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy might be placed in Congleton Town Centre.

Elizabeth's Group wanted to know whether the town council had a preference as to the placement of the statue from the following options:

- Centre of Bridge Street on the edge of the square where it meets Victoria Street (the group's preferred option), where the phone box used to be.

- On Bridge Street at the end of the row of large planters outside Crema – the statue in this position would need a planter to be removed.

- On the High Street, outside B&M near to one of the bollards.

Speaking at Thursday's meeting, Ms Reeves said: "This statue will be a permanent way of rewriting Elizabeth back into the history of Congleton and back into the political and social history of the UK.

"By placing her central in the town, at the very heart of the town, you'll be firmly putting her legacy back on the map and reaffirming this growing pride of this tiny yet incredibly significant woman from Congleton.

"I believe a statue being successful is down to two key things, one is a quality statue that tells the story and secondly it's that cliché, location, location, location. I am responsible for the statue and yourselves and Cheshire East are responsible for the second.

"If we come together, we can produce pure alchemy. A statue is nothing without people and people really do breathe life into a statue."

Ms Reeves claimed that if Elizabeth was located in the town centre, "everyone will want a selfie with her".

She added: "If we put Elizabeth centre stage in Congleton, this is the first significant brave leap towards rewriting Elizabeth back into the British political and social history.

"In 2028, when it is the centenary of when all women got the vote, it won't be on the news just talking about the role of the Pankhurst's in Manchester, they will be talking about Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, the radical and visionary from Congleton."

The Emmeline Pankhurst statue stands in a pedestrianised area in Manchester on St Peter's square and has become a "magnet" for not only tourists and activists, but also where local people can meet and interact with 'Our Emmeline' according to Ms Reeves.

Cllr James Smith felt the statues that Ms Reeves has produced in other towns were done in areas where there was "free space" around the statues, which allowed people to stand, admire and take pictures.

Cllr Smith said: "Bridge Street is short and quite narrow and there isn't that space to stand back and admire without people crisscrossing you trying to get past.

"That pedestrianised area is also used by a lot of cyclists, so, surely there is a better and quieter position to find within the town."

Cllr Suzy Firkin highlighted that following the recent media coverage surrounding Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who the recently opened Congleton Link Road has been named after, nobody could "doubt any longer" how much of an "asset" having a statue of Elizabeth in Congleton would bring.

The Liberal Democrat councillor said: "I think Elizabeth has been ignored for too long, I want her right in the centre of Congleton."

Cllr Robert Douglas, who fully supported the project, did not feel any of the proposed three locations were "suitable" because they are all "too narrow".

Cllr Douglas said: "In Bridge Street, you not only have a lot of street furniture, but we also have the ongoing issue about cyclists being allowed down as well."

The fellow Liberal Democrat councillor felt the statue being located in the Community Garden on Lawton Street just behind the Treo statue was the "ideal" location.

He added: "It is a restful place where people at their leisure could study and enjoy in peace and quiet rather than having the hustle and bustle of people getting into their way."

Cllr David Brown agreed with Cllr Douglas that the Community Garden would be his preferred location.

The Conservative councillor told the committee that he had received two phone calls from residents, who felt it would be "sensible" to place the statue in the middle of one of the roundabouts on the new link road.

However, David McGifford, chief officer of Congleton Town Council, stated that due to the link road being a high-speed route, there can be no objects fixed on it.

Amanda Martin said she was "looking forward" to seeing the statue in the town, but she had "grave doubts" about putting it in the pedestrian precinct.

The Conservative councillor wanted to know what the residents of Congleton thought about having a statue of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy in the town centre, so she set up a Facebook poll on a group which has around 22,000 members.

Her question to the public was 'Do you want to see a statue of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy set up in the Congleton pedestrian precinct, it will cost £64,400, to be raised by public subscription, of which £42,000 has already been raised, see the Elizabeth's Group website, if you wish to donate'.

Declaring the results of her poll, Cllr Martin said 424 people said no, 240 said yes, 88 selected the 'don't know, don't care' option.

Cllr Martin said: "It seems to me that a substantial minority of the people who responded to this poll were against the idea of putting the statue up in the pedestrian precinct.

"I don't think it [statue] should go in the pedestrian precinct because I think the people are sufficiently annoyed with having biking in the pedestrian precinct, they don't want a statue as well, you're in risk of getting the public riled."

Cllr Russell Chadwick felt that Bridge Street was "certainly" not a "suitable" location for "such a lifelong campaigner".

Cllr Chadwick added: "We have other locations in the town with much more space that allow children to safely view the statue.

"Shoehorning this statue into Bridge Street is not making the best use of the asset. The historic trail around Congleton needs interesting items to view, not just focusing on the centre of town.

"I am totally in favour of the statue but the location on Bridge Street is using up valuable space for outdoor hospitality venues.

"We as a council must attract new businesses to that particular area of the town, we may also need the space for the weekly markets."

Cllr Chadwick echoed previous endorsements for the statue to be located in the Community Garden, which he felt could be renamed the 'Commemorative Garden'.

The Independent councillor added: "This is huge area to place the statue with seating available for people to sit and contemplate in a safe environment along with CCTV being installed for the cenotaph."

Another location suggested by Cllr Chadwick was Congleton Park, where there were "ample safe areas" for children to visit and contemplate.

However, Cllr Chadwick's preferred location was the Community Garden which he felt would bring councillors "together". He also labelled the Bridge Street location "divisive" for residents and councillors.

Cllr Kay Wesley, a trustee of Elizabeth's Group, showed councillors that there is a statue of John Lennon on a street in Liverpool, which is "much narrower than Bridge Street".

Cllr Wesley said: "He is a massive draw to the crowds, people put their arm around him and have their picture taken with him.

"The position is exactly where there used to be a telephone box for 60/70 years. No van ever hit that phone box and it never caused anyone any trouble, it stood there perfectly happy.

"Elizabeth at five foot nothing is a lot smaller than a telephone box, so she is not going to be any more of an obstruction to the street then that telephone box was."

Cllr Wesley claimed Cllr Martin's Facebook poll regarding the positioning of the statue was "Clickbait".

She added: "Not one person in those 464 comments said they disagreed with the pedestrian area.

"All the comments were about the cost, indeed those who made a preference about location said they preferred the pedestrian area.

"The public want this, they want it in the centre of town, they want to come and visit it and enjoy it and they think it will bring people right into the heart of our shopping precinct."

Cllr Martin Amies felt the statue needed to be in the centre of "our great town" and he supported option one.

Cllr Robert Helmsley also gave option one his full support and said the statue should be "celebrated".

He said: "We have to get it in the middle of the town and celebrate it. We haven't got that much to celebrate especially at the moment.

"We have had a phone box there for donkey's years. This is the town that filled it with fibre glass bears, every inch of the town at one point was filled with fibre glass bears and it was fantastic.

"We then had lots of orange bicycles all-round the town to celebrate the Tour of Britain, again it was fantastic and a talking point.

"One statue of someone we should celebrate who is quite small in the middle of our town is only a bonus."

Cllr Suzie Akers Smith felt the statue would be a "brilliant addition" to Congleton's Town Centre.

The cycling and walking champion for Cheshire East said: "She [Mrs Elmy] was a mighty, mighty woman. A hundred years ago she was the scourge of everywhere, a bit like I am about cycling. She was the scourge of parliament, women hated her, and men hated her.

"So, the fact we are going to celebrate this woman with a statue is magnificent. We will be one of the very few towns that has statues of females in this country.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to create a legacy for Congleton forever."

Simone Gurburz, who teaches Religious Education at Eaton Bank Academy, said: "We want students to walk proudly around the statue and to say they have had a lesson about Elizabeth.

"We want the students to tell their mums about Elizabeth when they are doing shopping trips together.

"We want little girls and boys to be empowered by this strong woman and see her as a role model.

"We don't want her to be distant or inaccessible and I do feel some of the other areas particularly the Community Garden, I don't see students taking the trip out to see her there."

Cllr Firkin said: "This is about making a really brave statement. Let's celebrate something that is such a massive asset to Congleton.

"You're standing in front of a goal and refusing to score, you really are.

"Every single woman on this screen tonight would not be here if it weren't for Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy.

"They would not have had the education they had, they would not have gone to university, they wouldn't be joint owners of their own home, they wouldn't have kept their children if they got divorced, they wouldn't have been able to vote, they wouldn't have been elected and they wouldn't be here talking tonight.

"Stop thinking about your knowledge about different locations in Congleton and think about making a brave statement and what this could mean for us as a town, and I think you'll be absolutely overjoyed with the end result."

Cllr James Smith proposed that the town council went away and undertook a feasibility survey for the other locations suggested at the meeting.

Cllr Brown seconded Cllr Smith's proposal, but he felt the people of Congleton should decide the statue's location through an organised consultation.

However, Jackie MacArthur, deputy chief officer for Congleton Town Council, queried whether the proposal on the report circulated in the meeting pack, which included the proposed three location options for the statue, should not be voted on first.

When asked if he would withdraw his proposal in order for the proposal in the report to be considered first, Cllr Smith declined to withdraw.

Cllr Smith's proposal was passed with eight councillors voting in favour, six voting against and one abstaining.

Mrs MacArthur told the committee that the other sites that have been suggested had already been examined.

A number of options were previously examined ahead of the meeting including: Congleton Park, Congleton Community Gardens, Moody Street Garden, Margaret's Place, the area by Royal Bank of Scotland (Christmas Tree and Easter Cross), the area at the Mill Street end of the pedestrian area near Peacocks and also two suggestions that came forward at the Annual Town Meeting – one inside the museum and the other in the foyer of the town hall.

These locations were not favoured by Elizabeth's Group for a variety of reasons.

Either they were deemed not practical, there was already too much street clutter, they are more susceptible to crime or not in a good place for groups to gather.

Elizabeth's Group three favoured options were all deemed feasible from a groundwork point of view.

The group would like the statue in the town centre's pedestrian area because:

- Elizabeth will be a piece of art in bronze that people can interact with and will be designed to be 'among the people'. It will not be on a plinth.

- The group anticipates school parties wanting to gather around and discuss the statue, so there needs to be safe, pedestrianised space around it.

- The Elizabeth Elmy heritage trail passes both ends of Bridge Street.

- The statue would bring both trail users and general visitors right to the centre of town so that they see the shops and cafes and are tempted to spend more time and money in Congleton.

Mrs MacArthur sought clarity on what the town council wanted with the sites suggested already being explored.

Cllr Paul Duffy, who was standing in to chair this agenda item, said: "Taking into consideration the temperature of the room. I still think there is a mixed variety of views on where they are [proposed locations] and maybe we have not had that information on the other sites for feasibility.

"Maybe we publish a fuller report on the sites that were investigated rather than just the three that were recommended. That would seem the most sensible option at this stage."

Cllr Chadwick said: "Most of us do want this statue, so it's not about whether we have the statue or not, but the issue is whether Bridge Street is a suitable location.

"If the will of the council is we need to review those other locations, if those locations come back and there not suitable and the only suitable location is Bridge Street, then some of us would vote in favour of that.

"Let's go back and look at some of those other locations in more depth. It will be a massive asset to the town, we don't need to lose our temper or get annoyed, we definitely want it.

"I don't think it's a safe environment on Bridge Street, but if somebody shows me that it is then fine."

When consulting Cheshire Police, the first question they raised was around CCTV to avoid theft or criminal damage.

From his experience of statues in other town and city centre locations, Congleton's local police sergeant commented that the centre of the pedestrianised area was a "great spot" for the statue.

Mark Cotton, Cheshire Police's designing out crime officer, is happy to be involved in the detail of the statue placement and suggested the town council considered adequate lighting, CCTV coverage and delivery drivers.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Wesley said: "I'm sure when a feasibility study is completed, common sense will prevail and my colleagues will agree that Elizabeth should stand in pride of place in our beautiful town centre."

     

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