History of Chelmsford’s Civic Centre War Memorial

The Borough of Chelmsford’s memorial for the 1914-1918 conflict, the ‘Great War’ as it was then known, consists of a stone cenotaph outside the Civic Centre in Duke Street, and four bronze memorial panels fixed to a landing wall inside the Civic Centre.

The cenotaph was unveiled by Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes on 11th November 1923, five years to the day after the Armistice that saw the cessation of fighting, a period of time longer than the war. The panels were put up four years later, though not in their current position.

A variety of schemes had been considered over the five years it took for the cenotaph to be unveiled, many more ambitious than the final outcome.

December 1918 - Public Meeting.

On 27th November 1918, just 16 days after the Armistice, Chelmsford’s Mayor, Walter Cowell, told colleagues at Chelmsford Borough Council that ‘the question of commemorating in a fitting manner the gallant services rendered by Chelmsford Officers and Men in His Majesty’s Forces and the inauguration of a permanent memorial to perpetuate the memory of those who had fallen in the war should be considered.’ He hoped to call a public meeting for that purpose.

The meeting took place at Chelmsford’s Shire Hall on 16th December 1918. Initial suggestions included a memorial in the town centre, a children’s hospital,  a convalescent home, two hundred houses for disabled men and their dependants, and a ‘Victory Hall’ in which ‘men might meet to enjoy themselves in winter.’

The meeting also established the Chelmsford War Memorial Committee (the CWMC), a body independent of the Council, though including many members of the latter amongst its ‘representatives of all classes of the community.’

March 1919 - Municipal Offices and Memorial Hall?

A meeting of the CWMC held on 4th March 1919 decided that the erection of a municipal offices/town hall and an adjacent memorial hall ‘would be the most fitting and proper method of perpetuating the memory of Chelmsford’s heroes.’ At that time Chelmsford did not have a town hall or the Civic Centre, and Council meetings were held in the Shire Hall in Tindal Square. The CWMC invited the Borough Council to co-operate with the venture and suggested that the cost of the municipal offices/town hall could be met from local taxation (‘the rates’), while the cost of the memorial hall would be met by public subscriptions.

In April 1919 the Council appointed its own special committee to co-operate with the CWMC and over the next five months fifteen potential sites were identified for the municipal offices/town hall and memorial hall.

July 1919 - Three Sites Identified

In July 1919 the 15 sites were whittled down to just three: one to the rear of Bell Hotel with frontage to Threadneedle Street; one a vacant site in New London Road; and one at the corner of Rainsford Road and Coval Lane on the Rainsford Lodge Estate.

In September 1919 the Council decided to start negotiations to buy the Rainsford Lodge Estate, but the next month the idea was dropped as the £2,700 cost was too expensive. Instead the Council turned its attention to the New London Road site, between The Manse and The Cloisters, as a cheaper alternative (£750) and in April 1920 agreed to go ahead with the plan, despite opposition from its own Finance Committee, and seek the Government consent necessary to borrow the funds for the purchase.

July 1920 - Plans Put On Hold

While the Council pondered the site for the municipal offices and memorial hall the CWMC had been appealing for donations to pay for the latter. However, the public’s response had been disappointing so, on 5th July 1920, the CWMC abandoned the memorial hall idea. News of the CWMC decision was followed by reports that a Government enquiry would be held into the Council’s application for consent to borrow £750 to fund the New London Road site purchase. That stalled any further progress on that purchase.

November 1920 - A Different Approach

By the autumn the question of a war memorial was back on the agenda. In November 1920 the Council formed a special committee to ‘consider generally the proposal to erect a War Memorial in Chelmsford, and as to what steps, if any, should be taken by the Council, either separately or in conjunction with other bodies or persons in the matter.’

The special committee held numerous meetings over the following months and, assisted by Sir Charles Nicholson, an English ecclesiastical architect, looked for suitable sites for a memorial which would now be simply a cenotaph with inscribed names rather than a memorial hall. By then the CWMC no longer appeared to be functioning, leaving the project to the Council to progress.

June 1921 - Tindal Square Chosen & Competition Launched

In June 1921 the Borough Engineer reported on seven potential sites for the memorial: at Bell Meadow; in the High Street opposite Springfield Road junction; in Springfield Road between the High Street and the iron bridge; in Baddow Road; at the junction of Broomfield Road and Rainsford Road; at the junction of Rainsford Road and Coval Lane; and at Admiral’s Park. He also presented a sketch of a design suitable for a central street position which included a base of Portland stone granite angels having the names cut and inlaid in gilt, the top surmounted by a an ornamental cast iron standard for lams to be supplied for gas lighting, with an estimated cost of £1.000.

All seven suggestions were rejected and instead the Council agreed to build the memorial in Tindal Square, moving the statue of Lord Chief Justice Tindal from there to Bell Meadow to make way for it; a suggestion which was not universally supported in Chelmsford. The Council agreed to launch a competition for the design of the memorial.

September 1921 - Competition Winner Chosen & Appeal Started

The competition was held in the summer of 1921, though the Royal Institute of British Architect’s (RIBA) criticised the competition conditions and unsuccessfully asked that they be amended to be in accordance with RIBA’s recommendations. In September 1921 the 87 entries were judged and the first prize of ten guineas went to the design of Mr. W. Hamilton Buchan of Battersea whose scheme was of a memorial to be erected in best Portland stone with bronze figures 27 feet 3 inches high at estimated cost £2,750 excluding foundations and plates for names. Second prize of five guineas went to Mr. S. H. Head of Chelmsford.

The winning design was for a monument (pictured left) very similar to that commemorating the London Regiments, erected outside the Royal Exchange in London.

The figures proposed were of a soldier and a sailor, with the who surmounted a figure of victory - in the capital the figure was of a lion.

March 1922 - Reducing the Cost

By March 1922 the war memorial fund stood at £1,606 18s. 9d., with around a further £300 promised, still well short of the sum required for the Tindal Square scheme. By then Mr. W. Hamilton Buchan had modified his design to reduce the cost from £3,360 to £2,745 exclusive of cutting names, but including the removal and re-erection of the Judge Tindal statue. The project would take ten months to complete. At the end of the month he was asked to prepare a model for exhibition in connection with further appeals at a cost of £20 and this to be merged with cost of the memorial when the order was finally placed with him.

September 1922 - Rainsford House instead of Tindal Square

During the summer of 1922 the Council, short of accommodation for its staff, purchased Rainsford House at the corner of Duke Street and Coval Lane for £5,500. The property included the house itself, as well as buildings in Coval Lane, and a large plot of land extending some 150 feet along Duke Street and 180 feet down Coval Lane. The large garden to the east of the house, behind the site where the cenotaph was later built, was quickly earmarked as site of a future Council Chamber.

Although Council was not to gain full possession of the property until August 1923, its potential as a site for the war memorial was immediately recognised and in September 1922 the Council agreed that Rainsford House would be the site of the war memorial rather than Tindal Square.

With a deficit in funding of some £935 the Council also decided that Mr. W. Hamilton Buchan’s design would also be abandoned. A legal dispute followed between him and the Council which was resolved when he was paid £20 for the model he had produced of his design. Mr. F. B. Francis, a builder whom

Mr.W. Hamilton Buchan had prematurely engaged in preparing stonework, unsuccessfully tried to convince the Borough Council to purchase the materials he had prepared as part of the aborted scheme for £1,370.

March 1923 - the Borough Engineer’s Design

In March 1923 the Borough Engineer, Ernest John Miles was asked to prepare a scheme for a war memorial which would include a cenotaph to the east of Rainsford House in front of site of a future Council Chamber, and panels with the names of those commemorated on the walls of the entrance to the Council Chamber as and when it was built.

Two months later he presented to the Council his design for a cenotaph, which had an estimated cost of £1,025, well within the £1,800+ that had been raised towards its cost by then.

The design was approved and the Council also decided that the names of those who gave up their lives in the war would be cast in alphabetical order on bronze memorial panels on the walls of the main entrance of the future Council Chamber. The approximate cost for design and casting the bronze memorial panels containing was put at £200.

Chelmsford firm Messrs Wray & Fuller were asked to submit price for erecting the design. In July 1923 the Council accepted a tender of £990 from Messrs Wray & Fuller to erect the memorial in best quality Portland stone with the first step in fine-axed Cornish grey granite.A more expensive option (£1,200) for the entire memorial in fine-axed Cornish grey granite was rejected.

Although a suitable memorial for Chelmsford was fast becoming a reality throughout the summer of 1923 the Council faced persistent challenge via letters published in the Essex Chronicle from an anonymous correspondent. He/she pointed out that the war memorial fund had raised, ‘according to the  word of an Alderman.’ about £2,000 and yet the new design would cost little over half that sum. His requests that the Council publish the relevant financial accounts does not appear to have ever been acceded to.

July 1923 - Deciding the Names

By July 1923 a draft list of the names of Chelmsford’s war dead had been compiled and was made available for inspection in the Town Clerk’s offices and in the window of the Essex Chronicle’s offices. Notices were placed in the local press inviting relatives of all of Chelmsford’s war dead to provide their details to the Town Clerk as soon as possible to help finalise the list. The Mayor, Alderman Dixon, and the Town Clerk would deal with any questions that arose in the compilation of the list of names and would organise the unveiling of the war memorial.

Three months later the cenotaph was unveiled. During the unveiling ceremony the Mayor revealed that ‘in the centre of the memorial have been deposited records and documents of what is going on in Chelmsford at the present time, with war medals and a list of the fallen.’ He had placed the items there in a lead-lined casket of Portland stone on 1st October 1923.

After the Unveiling

In October 1924 the Council ordered the bronze memorial panels containing the finalised names of the war dead to be cast, though, it was to be some years before they were finally put in up in their permanent site accompanying the cenotaph. In fact it was three years before the were put up anywhere; in December 1927 the Council agreed to place the panels, only recently received, in the porch of Rainsford House.

Earlier in 1927 the Council had purchased land between Rainsford House and Fairfield Road on which it built a new public library and offices, which were officially opened in April 1935 - these form the eastern side of the current Civic Centre.

Initially the building  was to include an impressive Council Chamber directly behind the cenotaph in which the bronze memorial panels would be placed, as can be seen in the illustration above. However, that was postponed.

As a result, in September 1935 the Council decided to placed the memorial panels on the landing wall above the entrance to the Civic Centre. The aim of moving them to a new Council Chamber, as and when one was built was never achieved, and they remain today on that landing wall, rather hidden.

September 1935 also saw the Council agree to seek a quote from the Chelmsford School of Art for ‘the execution of a suitably inscribed vellum volume containing the names of the men of Chelmsford who fell in the Great War 1914-1918, to be placed in the Mayor’s Parlour’. It is unclear as to whether the book was ever completed.

October 1936 - Germans pay their respects

In October 1936 a delegation of German ex-servicemen, guests of the British Legion, visited Chelmsford where they were received by dignitaries at the Civic Centre and entertained to a meal afterwards.

The Germans  placed a wreath on the war memorial cenotaph, while the German flag, bearing a swastika emblem, fluttered over Civic Centre buildings.

At the lunch that followed there was much talk of peace and reconciliation between Britain and Germany and the Mayor, Hugh Wright, was given a photograph of the German leader Adolf Hitler. The Mayor said that he would keep the photograph with a letter he had received from Herr Hitler the previous year. “I must say,” he was quoted as saying, “that I am a great admirer of him.”

Less than three years later the Britain and Germany would be in conflict once more, and in time the memorial would commemorate those killed in that Second World War and in other wars since.