11. John Skirrow Wright M.P.

The Birmingham General Cemetery (Key Hill)

Section E 218

Rev E. H. Manning wrote:-

Took a most prominent part in the social, political and religious life of the town. He presided over many associations, including the Birmingham Libra Association, Chamber of Commerce, Hospital Saturday Committee, Midland Baptist Association, etc. He was Justice of the Peace for the City, and elected Member of Parliament for Nottingham. The Statue to his memory was given by the public and unveiled by John Bright.

John Skirrow Wright (February 2nd 1822 - 15 April 1880) was one of the prominent pioneers and social improvers of the 19th century in Birmingham, England. He was involved in many aspects of Birmingham's mid-Victorian life that were for the benefit of its citizens including the General Hospital, the Chamber of Commerce, The School of Art, the Children's Hospital and the early Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund and the Blue Coat School. Wright also invented the Postal Order.

Born in 1822, he came to Birmingham in 1838 where he was employed at the button manufactory of Smith and Kemp, where his talents marked him for a swift ascendancy from traveller to partner in 1850. As with many of Birmingham's great patrons, he was a non-conformist and whilst sharing the profits of his enterprise, he nonetheless opposed factory legislation, arguing that it interfered with the individual employer.

The Postal Order
Whilst President of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce he came up with the idea of Postal Orders, to enable the poorer people to have the same facility to buy goods and services by post. The rich had bank accounts and could write cheques. A delegation of the Birmingham Chamber went to the annual meeting of Chambers of Commerce in London and John Skirrow Wright presented the idea, complete with all the details on how it would work including all the Postal Order values proposed. At first London bankers were against the idea, thinking it would affect their businesses, and the idea was rejected. However, eventually the bankers realised that the people who would use postal orders were not their customers and therefore no threat to their business. Consequently, at the Annual Meeting a year later John Skirrow Wright presented the idea again and this time it was accepted and the Postal Order system was started exactly as Skirrow Wright and Birmingham Chamber had proposed.

Died at Birmingham Council House
He became the first chairman of the Birmingham Liberal Association and at the 1880 general election he stood for parliament as a Liberal in Nottingham. At the same time he had been helping the Liberal cause in re-elections at Birmingham. On the evening of his success, at a dinner held in his honour at the Council House, he died.

The Funeral
Skirrow Wright was subsequently interred at Key Hill Cemetery. The funeral took place on a hot spring day, 19 April 1880. Thousands of people lined the procession route, requiring over 300 policemen to keep the route clear. The funeral had been arranged by the Metallic Airtight Coffin Co Ltd of Great Charles Street and whilst the coffin was indeed metal lined, it was nevertheless created in oak with brass furniture. The inscription on it read "John Skirrow Wright, died April 15th 1880, aged 58 years". On the lid of the coffin were placed a number of wreaths made from white camellias, hyacinths, primulas, lily of the valley and maidenhair fern.

Honoured and Remembered
Following the open hearse were over 20 carriages in the cortege, which, as they set off were accompanied by the bell of Handsworth Old Church. Along the route curtains and blinds of houses were closed and shops had closed for the day out of respect. At the Recreation Ground in Burbury Street, a procession of representatives from the public bodies of Birmingham formed and walking four abreast also processed to the cemetery at Key Hill until it arrived at the gates, when it split into two so that the hearse passed through the throng.

The first part of the funeral service was conducted at The People's Chapel, which was arrived at by 3.00 pm. After the service, the congregation left to the strains of "The Dead March" from Saul and from there onwards, the procession wended its way on foot to the last resting place of Wright. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the assembled people sang "Rock of Ages".

After Skirrow Wright's death, the Mayor of Birmingham, Richard Chamberlain, convened a memorial committee. Most of the town politicians at the time felt that they did not wish to erect a statue, but rather more erred in favour of a portrait to hang in the new art gallery, or perhaps a bust to be placed in the Council House. This was contrary to the expectation of the man in the street, who felt that the only way to honour Skirrow Wright was to erect a noble statue to his memory. One such person of this persuasion was a Mr Apperley who wrote to the Birmingham Daily Post, arguing that a bust in a niche of the Council House would rarely be seen except when given permission to enter the Council House. He stated that "We will have a statue if we buy it ourselves" and made it clear that the people wanted "something whereby we can show our children the form of one we love so well and instil in them the good qualities he possessed. If ever a man deserved a statue Mr Wright does and if ever the working men want a statue to anyone they want one to him"

Eventually it was concluded that a statue would fit the bill and Francis Williamson was given the commission which was wrought in marble and unveiled in front of the Council House by John Bright MP on 15 June 1883. The Birmingham Daily Mail reported that the pose of the figure was admirable with Mr Wright standing in a bold upright attitude as was his wont when addressing an audience. The statue stood in Council House Square with Joseph Priestley, and was joined by the statue to Queen Victoria in 1901. However the death of Edward VII saw that Messrs Priestley and Wright were despatched to Chamberlain Place, so that the Toft memorial to Edward VII could take pride of place next to his mother.

In 1914 “The Builder” (a national journal for the architect and all those interested in the constructive and decorative arts) had written a review on Birmingham's public monuments and had generally disparaged the city's attempts at honouring its great and good and criticised much of the execution and settings of its statues. However, despite calling the Chamberlain Fountain miserable and Chamberlain Place "squirt square" it found the least unsatisfactory feature that of the John Skirrow Wright statue and despite such unfortunate adjectives as "cold", "stiff" and "provincial" it conceded that of all Birmingham's statues, this displayed a simple and refined design and that the figure and the base displayed a certain amount of cohesion.

The statue remained in Chamberlain Place until 1951 when it was removed to a storage depot as no suitable place for it could be found. The consequence of this dispossession was that the statue was scrapped, but not before a bronze copy of the bust was made in 1956 by William Bloye, Chairman of the Technical Committee of The Birmingham Civic Society. The bust was unveiled in a niche in the Council House on 13th September 1957 where it remains.