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Portrait of Sir Francis Drake
Bronze statue of Sir Francis Drake in Tavistock, Devon. By Joseph Boehm(d.1890), donated by Hastings Russell, 9th Duke of Bedford(d.1891)
Sir Francis Drake whilst playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe is informed of the approaching Spanish Armada. One of 4 bronze relief plaques on the base of the Drake statue in Tavistock, Devon. By Joseph Boehm (d.1890), donated by Hastings Russell, 9th Duke of Bedford (d.1891)
Drake's Statue in Tavistock, Devon
Sir Francis Drake is Tavistock's most famous son. He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580 and was knighted by Elizabeth I. Many places and businesses in and around Tavistock are named after Drake.
In 1883 a statue of Drake depicting him in an appropriately heroic pose was erected at the western end of Plymouth Road in Tavistock, not far from Crowndale, the most likely place of his birth. As it now stands in the centre of a busy traffic island many people will have passed it, but few may know its history.
The inscribed granite plaque beneath the statue states:
'Sir Francis Drake the famous navigator and admiral, was born at Crowndale in Tavistock Parish about 1542, and died at sea 1596. This statue by Joseph Edgar Boehm was erected in 1883 through the generosity of Hastings, Ninth Duke of Bedford.'
The impetus to obtain the statue came in 1882, following a visit to Tavistock from the Mayor of Plymouth with a civic delegation. The purpose of their visit was to raise funds for a statue of Drake in Plymouth. Although 287 years had elapsed since his death, this generated some righteous indignation in Drake's hometown. Tavistockians were incensed by the Plymothians' impertinence in trying to be the first to have a statue of Drake.
The Portreeve of Tavistock, Samuel Richards, convened a meeting at the request of the headmaster of the Grammar School, Rev Edward Spencer, to start fundraising for a bronze statue of Drake in Tavistock. Spencer was adamant that the town should have its statue before Plymouth's proposed memorial on the Hoe. He thought that £2,000 would be sufficient to cover costs and offered a donation of £500.
News of the wish for a statue of Drake in Tavistock reached Hastings Russell, Ninth Duke of Bedford, in London. A few days later Richards received a letter from the Duke offering to pay for the statue as a gift to the town, which was immediately accepted.
The Duke commissioned the Austrian born sculptor, Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834 -1890), who was a member of the Royal Academy and sculptor to Queen Victoria. Spencer also suggested to Boehm that a small number of bronze medals, which would be sold to raise additional funds should be struck to commemorate the installation of the statue. Boehm produced 200 medals in Vienna, but unfortunately few were sold. Again the Duke, who had already paid for the statue, had to be asked to help cover the £100 costs. Few medals have survived. Plymouth Museum and the British Museum each own two of these medals; Tavistock Town Council, Woburn Abbey and the University of Oxford, Heberden Coin Room, own one medal each. A small number have been sold in auction rooms and online.
The 1883 medal commemorating the Tavistock Statue
Various sites for the statue in Tavistock were considered, including Bedford Square, the Meadows and Fitzford. Boehm thought that Fitzford would showcase his work to best advantage and it is close to Crowndale.
Many local people had favoured the Meadows, but Boehm's wish prevailed and Drake's statue was sited at Fitzford, looking along Plymouth Road towards Tavistock. The then dramatic backdrop was the Fitzford Gatehouse, which had been restored in 1871, and Henry Clutton's grand Italianate style church of 1867. This had been commissioned by William, Eighth Duke of Bedford for the then rapidly growing Anglican congregation. Since 1952 it has been used as Tavistock's Catholic Church.
The statue, which had been cast in Surrey, came by train to Tavistock on Friday 21st September 1883 and remained at Tavistock South station overnight. At 6.0 am the following morning it was moved to stand on the 12ft high pedestal. Bronze bas reliefs had been fixed to 3 sides of the pedestal; one depicts Drake's dubbing as a knight at Deptford in 1581 by Queen Elizabeth I; another illustrates the probably apocryphal story of him playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe in 1588 as the Armada approached; and the third shows his burial at sea off Portobello in 1596.
The bronze statue, 10ft high and weighing 2 tons, was hoisted into position on the pedestal (giving it a total height of about 25ft). It was covered with a sheet to await the official opening ceremony on Thursday 27th September 1883. Although the day inevitably started with rain, it cleared up and at 12.45 pm the dignitaries walked from the Guildhall down Plymouth Road to the site of the statue. The vicar said a prayer, Spencer made a speech, and the new Portreeve, John Jarrett Daw, unveiled the statue in a carnival-like atmosphere. This was followed by a lunch for the dignitaries at the Town Hall. For the general public there was music and dancing in the Pannier Market Hall, and an athletics event in a field behind the Fitzford Cottages. The statue was supposed to be illuminated in the evening by new electric lights, but unfortunately they failed and Drake was left in darkness. News of the opening ceremony was reported nationally, as it was featured in the Illustrated London News of 6th October 1883.
In 1999 Boehm's plaster cast of Drake's statue was found hidden in woods on Haldon Hill, near Exeter. It was transported to Buckland Abbey where it was repaired and is now on permanent display.
Five months after the statue was unveiled in Tavistock a copy was erected on Plymouth Hoe in early 1884. This statue does not have the three bronze bas relief plaques around the pedestal.
In 1885 railings were added around the pedestal, after two young men climbed on the statue and broke Drake's sword. The steps below were also being used for sleeping off bouts of heavy drinking by railway navvies, who at the time were working on the Tavistock North line.
To cope with an increasing volume of traffic around the statue the road to Plymouth had to be widened. The fence bordering the edge of the Meadows was moved back and the narrow bridge over the canal was demolished in 1903 to make way for a new wider one.
Drake's statue in Tavistock still stands, 134 years later, on Boehm's chosen site, despite an outcry in 1985 when it was suggested it be moved to the Meadows or Bedford Square, locations which had both been favoured by the people of Tavistock in 1882.
Drake died of dysentery on 27th January 1596 on his ship off Panama. In harbour at Portobello, the body was sealed in a lead coffin. It was buried at sea, three miles off shore, although Drake had requested the previous day that he be buried ashore. The bas relief on the Tavistock statue's pedestal shows him being buried in a shroud without the lead coffin.
The C19th statue of Drake remains one of Tavistock's most attractive memorials and a reminder of the town's eventful history and remarkable residents.
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