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The statue of Viscount Combermere (1773-1865) – a military hero of Britain’s imperial age - has greeted visitors to the city of Chester since it was put up in 1865. Yet whilst this equestrian figure is a familiar presence to Cestrians, Combermere’s once lauded and laudable achievements, had, until recently, been all but forgotten. Now, thanks in part to research done by University of Chester students and myself, they have not only been rediscovered but are also under-going very serious re-evaluation.

In his time, Combermere was considered to be a great military leader, respected and befriended by the Duke of Wellington. Famed for commanding the cavalry to success in the Peninsular War, he later took on more sedate roles as the Governor of Barbados, the Commander in Chief of Ireland, and, later, of India. By 1825, so great was his reputation, that he was awarded a peerage and the title of “Chester’s hero”. Celebrated as “tender, considerate, and humane” by one Chester newspaper, by the time of his death in 1865 he was a veritable legend, and a towering figure in local consciousness. As the diaries of George Harrison, a local iron founder reveal, Cestrians were shocked to learn that the old war ‘hero’ had died. Donations from local people to help raise funds for the statue flooded in.

Yet, Combermere’s career was not quite as untarnished as local people thought. His brutal suppression of an uprising against British rule in Bharatpur, India in 1825 had tragic consequences. Bharatpur suffered under weeks of siege before heavy bombardment by the British broke the deadlock. Reports of the number of Indian dead range from 4,000 to 10,000. Even more troubling was his entanglement with the slave trade. As parliamentary papers reveal, Combermere owned two plantations in the Caribbean, receiving over £7,000 – about £420,000 in today’s money - in compensation for the ‘loss’ of 420 slaves as a consequence of abolition.  

In June 2020 this dark past became public knowledge. Combermere’s reputation was up-ended once and for all. Black Lives Matter campaigners descended upon his statue. His bronze cast, for so many years part of the fabric of ‘historic Chester’, became, almost overnight, the object of local, national and even global protest.

As I explore in this short film, Combermere’s legacy has travelled a complete arch, from celebrity, through obscurity, to infamy. What the eventual fate of his statue will be now hangs precariously in the balance.

If you’d like to know more about the history of Chester, visit our Global History in One City page, where our lecturers feature in a series of videos demonstrating how the local history of Chester is undeniably part of a rich and dynamic global history.

If you have an interest in history, you can find information about our History course here and you can also chat to one of our History students via Unibuddy.

 

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