The Russian Gun
Alma, Balaclava, The Thin Red Line, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Inkerman, Malakoff and Sevastopol. These names from the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) would have been familiar to the people of Abingdon because of the up-to-date reporting in newspapers.
The fortified port of Sevastopol was eventually captured on 9 September 1855. Many cannon were captured and, as spoils of war, these were divided between the allied British and French armies.
In January 1857 the Secretary of State for War proposed that surplus cannon be given to towns and cities on application. Queen Victoria liked the idea and nearly 300 cannon were eventually distributed. One of them came to Abingdon.
Alma, Balaclava, The Thin Red Line, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Inkerman, Malakoff and Sevastopol. These names from the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) would have been familiar to the people of Abingdon because of the up-to-date reporting in newspapers. News and military information was sent via a telegraph cable. The temporary 500 km cable went from near Balaklava to Varna in Bulgaria. From there a line went to Bucharest and joined the permanent network. This was the first war that brought home to the reader in England the daily triumphs and trials of those fighting through war correspondent’s stories, government statements, photographs, and letters from local soldiers serving there. The ordinary soldier had popular support but as people realised the cost in men and resources, criticism arose towards the government and Commanding Officers. As is usual, the opposition in Parliament joined in. To be fair to the military, they had to work with government bureaucracies that dated from before the Napoleonic war – we won at Waterloo so why change anything!
The fortified port of Sevastopol was eventually captured on 9 September 1855, the beginning of the end of the war with the Treaty of Paris on 30 March 1856.
Many cannon were captured, some had been used during the siege, some were serviceable, but many were obsolete or damaged, stored in arsenals. As spoils of war, these were initially divided between the allied British and French armies. The French started to send these trophies back to France but the British further divided the cannon into those that were serviceable and those not – the serviceable to be used as the war continued. A few cannon that were especially decorative were returned to England as private or regimental trophies.
In February 1856 the British commander-in chief in the Crimea, Sir William Codrington, asked the Secretary of War, Lord Panmure, what he thought should be done with the captured cannon still in the Crimea. Panmure recommended to keep some of the best and “drop the rest in the sea.”
On 19 February 1856 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with a party of military and other officials, visited a private display of captured arms in the Dial square at the Woolwich Arsenal. On her orders the display was opened to the public and this generated a great deal of interest.
In the Crimea, thoughts about the disposal of the cannon were different from Panmure’s recommendation. To a military mind a cannon is important in that it can represent the Sovereign’s Standard or Colour, the object that is rallied around and defended. To lose a cannon is a disgrace and to capture one an honour. Think of the Royal Horse Artillery Trooping of the Colour at Whitehall. So much effort and sacrifice had been made that the sentiment was to keep these trophies. Eventually 89 bronze and 875 cast iron guns were shipped home. Of these the bronze cannon that had been part of the defences at Sevastopol were designated to be presented to senior officers and regiments who had served in the war and also to some politicians. This decision was strongly influenced by Victoria who thought of these as martial weapons. The rest that had come from stores remained in store at Woolwich, with a newspaper report that they would be scrapped. The long-held tradition that the Victoria Cross medal is made from Crimea bronze is now questioned, with some authorities stating that the metal is from a Chinese cannon.
Panmure was unsure what to do with the cannon as he wanted trade with Russia to resume. He wrote to Codrington “I am averse to follow the French fashion and to parade the fruits of our conquest, and so keep open the sores of war after the healing hand of peace has been applied. On the other hand, no trophies should be destroyed, but carefully preserved as National Mementos.”
However, in January 1857 he did put forward a government suggestion that the remaining cannon be given to towns and cities on application. Queen Victoria liked the idea and nearly 300 cannon were eventually distributed. There was a lot of post-war criticism of the government as to how the war was handled and the distribution of the cannon might now be regarded as a jingoistic political move – though as previously noted, not everyone in government was in favour of this happening.
For many towns and cities, the possession of trophy cannon became a part of their civic pride and a recognition of the recipient’s importance. To others it became a topic of local debate. For some it became an issue of party politics and of not supporting the government. Some areas had pacifist leanings against anything martial and others did not want to have a cannon because they thought them ugly. In some places their views changed over the years and a cannon that once had pride of place was gradually moved to an obscure site to be forgotten.
Abingdon has no apparent special connection with the Crimean War other than Charlotte Cox, a nurse, and the soldiers and sailors from the town who had served in it, but Abingdon was still the County Town of Berkshire and keen to hold on to that prestige. Reading, the upstart rival, had received a cannon in June 1857. We do not know how Abingdon applied for a cannon and gun carriage. Presumably, the usual method of petitioning Lord Panmure at the War Office was followed during the year of office of the mayor, William Ballard.
A congratulatory address of the victory had been sent to Victoria from the Town Council, but she did not have a part in approving who had the municipal cannon.
The cannon were free but the carriages were not. Bronze and gunmetal had been cast at Woolwich Arsenal since 1717. In 1856 a new foundry to cast iron cannon was opened and the non-functional cast-iron gun carriages may have been cast there. The charge for a carriage was £16.
In August 1858 the Abingdon Council received a letter from the Deputy Military Storekeeper, Woolwich, arranging for the delivery of a cannon. The Council minutes state that the expenses for delivery were to come from the Sealing Fee fund. The Sealing Fee fund was money from the sale or transference of borough property. However, there may not have been a charge as some cannon were delivered for free. The Abingdon borough accounts for this period no longer exist so we may never know. It is suggested that the waiving of charges was made by some of the railway companies on the instigation of Sir Samuel Morton Peto who as partner in Peto and Betts had organised, transported and built a railway from Balaklava to the front at Sevastopol. All this was done at cost and rapidly carried out. Peto was very influential, so this may be true.
Many towns and cities had arranged public subscriptions for the cost of making a display place for the cannon and had a ceremony to mark the event. At Elgin, a poem addressing the cannon was written. At Chester there were bands and bunting. Derby Arboretum had a procession, bands, and a parachute descent from a balloon. Salisbury had bands, bunting speeches and a military escort. At Ripon there was a military parade, the cannon was fired, speeches were made, and the Cathedral bells rang. An estimated 3,000 people attended.
The cannon arrived in Abingdon in 1858 with as far as we are aware no ceremony. There is no mention of the event in the local papers other than the station master unofficially trying out the cannon at the railway station. Over the intervening years there have been many reports in newspapers of these cannon being officially and unofficially fired, often causing local disturbance and occasional damage. The Suffragettes fired the Blackburn cannon in 1914 to draw attention to the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. Some were disabled on arrival and others have had bungs fitted to stop mischief.
The Russian Cannon near the Abbey Gateway in about 1860.
It stands under the notice saying POLICE STATION.
(© Courtesy of Friends of Abingdon)
At a council meeting on 28 November the new Mayor, Mr Edwin J Trendell, ordered the cannon on its cast iron display carriage placed on a plinth near the police station in the Abbey Gateway. A cast plaque stated ‘Sevastopol 1856’. This was hardly pride-of-place, but it was out of the way there. At the same meeting, an order was made to refund ex-mayor Ballard for the cost of the gun carriage (£16) that he had paid.
During the First World War, Margate councils debated the removal of their trophy cannon as the Germans were claiming that their Zeppelin attacks were legitimate as they were against fortified towns.
In December 1939, the Ministry of Supply introduced the National Salvage Scheme. This was a recycling scheme to stop waste and gather materials that would be used in the war effort. The goals were: wastepaper and cardboard, metals, bones, rags, rubber, and kitchen waste.
The Salvage Department of the Ministry of Supply appointed twenty-two honorary district advisers covering the United Kingdom. They advised local authorities about collecting waste material and items that could be scrapped. The individual local authorities organised themselves, usually under the official responsible for waste collection.
The Woman’s Voluntary Services (WVS) became key to domestic collections, distributing publicity and propaganda about the scheme with over 42,000 members involved. In 1940 a “Pots and Pans” appeal was launched for aluminium that would be used in the aircraft industry. The domestic appeals were partly propaganda to encourage patriotic feeling and an all-in-this-together attitude.
At some time, the Abingdon cannon was taken for the war effort. In August 1940 Robert Gibson, MP for Greenock, asked the Minister of Supply how many old cannon had been presented for the scrap-metal scheme. Harold Macmillan, who was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply, replied that 802 had been offered. This was the result of the regular appeals issued for cannon, other war trophies and unused metal objects. It seems that there might have been some negotiation in what could be taken as the iron gates to the Albert Park area were left in place or perhaps the cannon was still the property of the Town Council and Christ’s Hospital had no say in its removal. The cannon, like many fences and railings that were taken, was made of cast iron. This was not a readily useful material for the war, but in patriotic enthusiasm cast iron was taken, some of it never used. For example the railings for some London parks were dumped as useless or surplus into the Thames Estuary.
In any event the cannon went – or did it? Local legend has it that it remains buried and hidden in the park or Abbey Meadow. The plinth remained as something to climb on until 1984 when it was removed.
The empty cannon plinth in Albert Park in the early 1980s
(© By kind permission of Elizabeth Drury)
Of the nearly 300 cannon distributed only about 60 remain on display. Many are now listed, and a few are replacements for scrapped ones.
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 The Times, 22 September 1855, p. 9.
 Morning Post, 6 January 1857, p. 2; North & South Shields Gazette, 31 January 1856, p. 6.
 Sir George Douglas & Sir George Dalhousie (eds.), The Panmure Papers, being a selection from the correspondence of Fox Maule, second Baron Panmure, (London, 1908), vol. 2, p. 94.
 Illustrated London News, 23 February 1856, p. 209.
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 Challenor, Selections, p. 307.
 Cheltenham Chronicle, 24 April 1915, p. 3.
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 Hansard, HC Debate, vol. 361, col. 417, (28 May 1940), [Electronic version].
 London Garden Trust, https://www.londongardenstrust.org/features/railings3.htm (accessed 25 July 2020).
 Albert Park Residents’ Association, Celebrating 150 Years, p. 13.