Odd this day

18 June 1822

7 min readJun 18, 2024

It’s the 202nd anniversary of a great tribute being paid to the ‘Iron’ Duke of Wellington when a statue of… er, Achilles with his knob out was unveiled in Hyde Park.

A view up the statue, looking off to the right of the image, a sword raised in its right hand, a shield on its left forearm. Prominent from this angle is the fig leaf over its penis

The many thousands of pounds to fund the statue were raised by subscription from the ladies of England — or, to be more accurate, the Ladies of England, “a patriotic, upper-class society”. The bronze came from “enemy cannons captured in the Battles of Salamanca (1812), Vitoria (1813), Toulouse (1814) and Waterloo” (according to that splendid thing, Atlas Obscura).

To be exact on that point, The Gentleman’s Magazine (Volume 92, Part 2; Volume 132) says:

In its composition twelve 24 pounders were melted; but as the metal of cannon is too brittle to be wrought into such shapes, it was requisite to add about one-third more of metal, whose fusion would render the work, if we may say so, pliant and perfect. The whole is thus equal to eighteen 24-pounders.

It adds that “its weight cannot be estimated at less than 33 or 34 tons!!”, including a core “of plaster, cow-dung, and other materials”. But these are mere details. Obviously, what’s crucial about it is that it arrived in a state Chris Morris would have described as “cock naked”.

As you can see from the image above, though, he has not remained in that state. “A great outcry” was “raised against the undraped figure of Achilles”, and he was covered up.

The University of Exeter’s ‘Cast in Stone’ project, however, suggests that shock was not the predominant emotion. The statue’s

own Achilles heel was laughter. The moment it was unveiled on June 18th, 1822, many people simply broke out laughing.

George Cruickshank led the charge of those taking the piss.

George Cruikshank, Backside & Front View of the Ladies Fancy-man, Paddy Carey (1822). Heading across the top reads: This BRAZEN IMAGE was erected by the LADIES in honor of PADDY CAREY O’KILLUS, Esq. their MAN O’ METAL!!! The caricature shows a crowd of women and children, accompanied by Wellington himself, gazing at the statue and making humorous remarks about the nude male body on display. These include one referring to ‘the season’, and another saying “you mean the fall of the leaf, I suppose?

What’s amusing about this to modern eyes is not so much the pre-Victorian prudery as the fact that Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was rather well known outside the field of military endeavour for a distinct lack of restraint when it came to what he did with the contents of his trousers — as celebrated in an earlier caricature by George Cruikshank’s brother Isaac:

The Master of the Ordnance exercising his hobby! Wellington, wearing uniform, bestrides a cannon on a gun-carriage, taking a long stride as if riding a velocipede. The muzzle is pointed towards three ladies (left), two of whom affect alarm. One says: “It can’t do any harm, for he has fird [sic] it so often in various Countries, that it is nearly wore it [sic]!” One says, “Bless us! what a Spanker! — I hope he wont fire it at me — I could never support such a thing!”

While recent scholarship suggests that some of his liaisons with women, titled and otherwise, may have been friendships:

…he definitely put it about. One of his mistresses was Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster, whose notorious shagger of a husband James had told Byron

I think any woman fair game, because I can depend upon Lady F.’s principles — she can’t go wrong, and therefore I may.”

According to biographer Elizabeth Longford (Wellington: The Years of the Sword, 1969), however,

Byron found that despite her piety (she was ‘measured for a new Bible once a quarter’) she could go wrong and in fact made an offer to him one night which he afterwards said he regretted having refused.

She later describes a liaison between Wellington and Lady W-W in a Brussels park, witnessed by “a twenty-year-old subaltern on the Royal Staff Corps”, who was sitting there one day when

‘a very great man’ walked past … Next moment a carriage drove up on the opposite side of the Park and a young lady alighted. She was joined by the very great man. Jackson and his friend stood up to see better and watched the couple until they ‘descended into a hollow, where the trees completely screened them’. The little drama concluded with the arrival of another carriage containing an agitated female sleuth.

This, apparently, was Frances’ mother, “who went peering about for her daughter”. Longford elegantly concludes:

The green hollow, however, kept its secret.

One of the best-known stories about Wellington in this regard is that he once received a letter from an unscrupulous publisher:

My Lord Duke, In Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, which I am about to publish are various anecdotes of your Grace which it would be more desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the Press for the moment; but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place. I have the honour to be, My Lord Duke, Your Grace’s ever attached Servant, John Joseph Stockdale.

Harriette was a courtesan, down on her luck, who needed to raise some funds. As you can probably tell, concealed between the lines of this missive is a request for a substantial bribe. Some of Wilson’s former clients were apparently forthcoming. Legend has it that Wellington was not, sending the letter back with

Publish and be damned

written across it. As another biographer, Christopher Hibbert (Wellington: A Personal History, 1998), points out, though

the letter survives among the Wellington Papers with no such message upon it.

Hibbert also writes that, even if Wellington didn’t have it off with every woman in England, many of those with whom he didn’t would not have objected in the slightest. Charlotte Brontë was among those who “worshipped him from afar”, naming a toy soldier after him as a child, and loosely basing

the character of Robert Gérard Moore in her novel Shirley on him; and the compelling, masterful, sardonic Edward Fairfax Rochester in Jane Eyre was a man who clearly emerged from her fascinated regard for him. There are echoes of the Duke’s character, too, in Heathcliff, the central figure in Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister Emily.

…which seems as good an excuse as any to remind you of (or alert you to) this excellent cartoon by Kate Beaton:

Cartoon, Dude Watchin’ with the Brontës: three women in period dress look at men in period dress and discuss them. 1. a smiling young woman points and says “What about that one”. 2: A man in a top hat says “what the hell are you looking at”. 3: Two women say ‘nice’ and ‘I know right’. A third says “that guy was an ass hole!” 4: “honestly Anne, you have no taste” “I’m just telling the truth!” 5 A scowling man walks by. 6 “so passionate” “so mysterious”. Anne says “if you like alcoholic dick bags”

There’s more about Wellington and his status as a rampantly dirty sod here:

…but I think what’s most important in all this is that fig leaf and its later history — because, as you can see, it is very securely fastened.

Close-up of bronze fig leaf — it is screwed tightly to the genitals it conceals

According to a letter to the Grauniad in the 1990s (I presume to their ‘notes and queries’ page, although the source doesn’t say so), it

was apt to come loose, and in 1961 it was either prised off or fell off in the frost. But the then Ministry of Works had a stock of new leaves, so they applied another

Then another chap got in touch, a certain Peter Richard Carstairs Coni OBE, QC, doyen of the London Rowing Club and Chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, who had a confession to make.

It required a great deal of hard work with a hacksaw, the blades of which snapped frequently, to get the fig leaf away. It was secured by three very solid brass bolts, and it was necessary to get a park chair in order to climb up onto the plinth of the statue and then to put a second chair between the feet of Achilles in order to reach up between his legs to get at the fig leaf. As I remember, it took us about six hours of sawing on different nights to get through the three bolts. We were fortified by pints of beer from The Nag’s Head in Kinnerton Street. We had in mind attaching the fig leaf to the door of London Rowing Club at Putney as a spectacular door knob but it was so heavy it proved unsuitable.

In the intervening years, it turned out, he had also confessed to

the Ministry of Works officer in charge of the statues in Hyde Park and asked whether it would be acceptable if I were to return the fig leaf and pay for its reinstatement or whether she would take a serious view that we had been defacing a work of art. Happily, she thought the whole affair very amusing and I paid a substantial sum for its reinstatement. So, Achilles is now again wearing his original ‘underwear’ — a much more impressive fig leaf than his temporary one in the 1960s.

There’s more about this… interesting 20th century figure here:

(God knows when I’ll have time to write another of these, by the way, but thank you for reading, and watch this space…)




Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries