Last year my Friday Fact No 4 was all about the statue of General Gordon at Gordon’s School, which curiously was moved in 1959 from Khartoum in the Sudan to the school. It has taken me quite a while to research the story. If you get the chance to stand by the statue, I’d like you to consider for a moment a little of the history it represents. I’ll try to be brief,
Charles Gordon was born in Woolwich in 1833, the son of a Major-General in the Royal Artillery. Gordon’s military training was in the Royal Engineers as he’d shown an aptitude for drawing and map making.
Serving in the Crimean War and as Chief Engineer in the Chinese Emperor’s service, Gordon’s clear headedness, strength of personality, and determination, allied with his skills in mapping and fortification building, brought him recognition and respect throughout the country.
Back home in Gravesend, after service overseas, Gordon’s fame increased, resulting from his successful efforts to alleviate poverty of young boys in the area. In Gravesend’s Gordon Memorial Gardens there’s a plaque on his monument recognising this good work.
Gordon’s next 10 years were spent mostly in Egypt and Sudan, eventually as Governor General of Sudan, during which time he brought peace to the region, fought hard against slavery, built fortifications, and established sound river communication to the upper and lower Nile. However, in seeking to pacify Sudan, Gordon was killed at the end of a 317 day siege of Khartoum. The British relieving force arriving only the day after his death.
At the news of Gordon’s death, there was uproar. Prime Minister Gladstone was blamed for dithering and not sending a relief force soon enough, and Queen Victoria openly criticised him, such that soon afterwards his government fell.
More prevalent then, than now, was a national desire to erect memorials to national hero’s and leaders. The government paid for one such memorial to General Gordon, which now stands on the Embankment, opposite the Ministry of Defence.
Meanwhile, soldiers and officers of the Royal Engineers subscribed to erect their own memorial at the Royal Engineers Institute at Chatham. This statue of Gordon, seated on a camel, is the work of Edward Onslow Ford. Finding the exact type of camel in London Zoo, he spent the best part of two years in sculpting a likeness. This statue was unveiled in 1890 by the Prince of Wales.
The pressure from Egypt and the British government to reclaim control over the Sudan was successful, when in 1898, General Kitchener, a friend of Gordon, recaptured the Sudan culminating at the battle of Omdurman.
Nationally there remained a desire to raise a memorial to General Gordon at the site of his death in Khartoum. General Kitchener and his friend the owner of the Morning Post newspaper campaigned for this to happen, such that the reader’s of the Morning Post subscribed sufficient funds to have a replica of the statue of Gordon seated on a camel. Briefly, before shipment to Khartoum, the statue was on public display near Trafalgar Square.
The ship transporting the statue, the SS Cedardene, was in collision with a Russian ship in the Thames and sank. It was refloated after three tides, the statue, in its skeleton crate, was hosed down and put on the SS Lesbian that was sailing to Alexandria a few days later. Prior to its arrival in Khartoum the statue was submerged in the Nile. A most eventful journey.
The rise of nationalism in Egypt and Sudan in the 1950’s led to independence from Britain, and in 1958 the Sudanese government took down the statues of Gordon and Kitchener. The government reported to Parliament that Sudan had offered them to Britain, which the government accepted, organising their return, and deciding that the statue of Gordon should be given to Gordon’s School.
The statue was erected at Gordon’s School in April 1959, and unveiled in May 1959 in the presence of a distinguished company of over 1500 people, including a representative of the Sudanese Embassy in London.
Finally, if you get the opportunity to see both statues of General Gordon seated on a camel, one at Gordon’s School, and the original at Chatham, you’ll soon notice a significant difference in colour, also that a few bits are missing from the School’s statue. At Chatham, Gordon is a glorious deep dark bronze, while at the School, Gordon is a splendid silvery grey.
An important part of our nation’s history is here in our Borough. We should be pleased that it’s here.
UPDATE: Read the full story here, A history of General Gordon’s Statue at Gordon’s School – Mar2011