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Why does Birmingham have a statue of Nelson and does anyone care any more?

Statue of Nelson in Bullring, Birmingham
Statue of Nelson in today's Bullring

For many locals it's not only a mystery why Birmingham (UK) chooses to honour Horatio Nelson - they don’t even know that we do. The statue in the Bull Ring is walked past by many Brummies with barely a glance; it's part of the furniture and has become almost invisible.

The City Sights & History walking tour starts by the statue simply as it’s a convenient location to talk about the oldest part of Birmingham. But the memorial does have an important significance for the city. In 1809 the statue by Richard Westmacott, was the first memorial to the naval admiral unveiled in the UK. It was also Birmingham’s first public statue and was funded by public subscription.

So why were the people of Birmingham so keen to bestow this honour? Nelson had visited the town (as it was then) in 1802, the year before he sailed against Napoleon. And the town was a major contributor to the weapons needed for war - the fortunes of many in Birmingham were closely linked to military campaigns.

Times move on though, and our attitude to naval warfare and the history of the British Empire make such sculptures more controversial for modern audiences; Nelson is closely associated with Britain’s colonial history and the slave trade. This particular memorial has a companion statue, also by Westmacott, in Bridgetown, Barbados which has now been removed to a museum following a campaign. A statue of Nelson there was clearly a controversy and a painful hurt that needed adjustment. I’m not sure Birmingham’s Nelson has quite the same kind of malign presence but that doesn't mean it isn’t without hurt for some. Especially in a city that celebrates its diverse communities, many of which have suffered appallingly as a result of the British Empire and its legacy.

Until recently, however, there was still some popular engagement with this symbol of naval heroism, with an annual Trafalgar Day parade concluding at the monument. However, as far as I can tell, even this ceased around five years ago.

Ask any Brummie now about a statue in the Bullring and they’ll tell you about the bull but very few will mention Nelson. This is despite the statue being given increased prominence in the 2003 shopping centre, overlooking St Martin’s church in the main walkway between the two wings of Bullring. It's more accessible now than in its previous location in the old Bull Ring shopping centre of my youth. In fact, its current position is very close to the original siting, even though the cannons that had formed lampposts to surround the statue, have been lost.

19th century view of statue of Nelson and St Martin's, Bull Ring, Birmingham
Original location of the statue overlooking St Martin's. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

Nelson may still hold meaning for many, good or bad, but the reality is that a photogenic bull, that can be climbed over and dressed up for special occasions, seems far more effective in capturing modern imaginations. That’s fine, times change.

As I wait for guests to join the tour I still see a few people taking an interest in Nelson’s statue; snapping pictures and reading the information board. The statue is part of Birmingham’s history, perhaps less so now because of who Nelson was and what he stood for, than the fact that it was our first public sculpture, and was paid for by the public. In that way it’s part of understanding Birmingham’s relationship with art, its public expression of civic identity and its choice of heroes.

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