Off with Their Heads

‘Pillar of Famous Faces’ – Image © Zoe Clarke (https://www.flickr.com/photos/elstruthio)

One of the more recent entries in the increasingly lengthy list of lost Nottingham monuments was a curious brick pillar upon which were fixed ten sculpted heads of historical figures, each accompanied by the name and years of birth and death of the individual in question. Not the most handsome monument, it is true, but one that was, nonetheless, full of character.

It was located between Middle Hill and the Great Central Railway viaduct (which was succeeded by the current tram viaduct), in a paved area with brick mounds near the subway that led to the Broadmarsh Bus Station.

This relatively secluded area became, perhaps inevitably, subject to vandalism, before becoming popular with skateboarders and BMX riders, who referred to it as Broadmarsh Banks. Sadly, ‘improvements’ in 2009 saw the removal of the brick mounds and the pillar, and thus the end of an era. At the time of writing, the site is changing once again – remaining as public realm, but now designed to complement the recently-opened Nottingham College City Hub.

Looking towards the former site of Broadmarsh Banks and the brick pillar, April 2021 (Image credit: https://nottinghamandbeyond.wordpress.com)

But back to that curious pillar.

The sculpted heads had originally been retrieved from a building that was situated at the corner of Broad Marsh (the street) and Carrington Street in the days before the latter was truncated by the shopping centre.

‘Corner of Broad Marsh and Carrington Street, Nottingham, 1968’ (© Picture Nottingham/Bernard Beilby)

The building contained a large Burton menswear store and was demolished in 1972 during the redevelopment of the Broad Marsh area. According to an article by Geoffrey Oldfield, the heads ‘formed the keystones of the curved pediments above the first floor windows’. Oldfield adds that, ‘When the time came for demolition, Mr Terry Doyle, an architect acting for the developers, suggested that the heads be preserved and so special arrangements were made so that they were retained for preservation.’

One of the sculpted heads that later formed part of the pillar, shown in its original location in detail from a 1970 photo
View of the former site of the Burton store, April 2021; note the building to the left, which is also present on the 1968 Beilby photo ( Image credit: https://nottinghamandbeyond.wordpress.com )

The heads were duly used to create the structure previously described, bringing into existence a unique and diverting artefact that provided a link not only to the loss of an impressive Nottingham building, but also to a venerable British institution.

Burton’s was founded by Sir Montague Maurice Burton, who was born Meshe David Osinsky in Lithuania in 1885. Burton had set up as an outfitter in 1903, having come to Britain in 1900. His business, originally called The Cross-Tailoring Company, was registered as Montague Burton the Tailor of Taste Ltd in 1917. The firm is said to have made a quarter of all British military uniforms in the Second World War and Burton was knighted in 1931 for ‘services to industrial relations’.

The Burton pillar became a familiar part of the Nottingham streetscape over the years and has an important place in many people’s memories (and therefore in the social history of Nottingham).

The heads attached to the pillar represented the following figures:

South face: William Shakespeare and Robert Burns
West face: Horatio Nelson, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Joshua Reynolds
North face: Captain James Cook and David Livingstone
East face: The Duke of Wellington, Cecil Rhodes and James Wolfe

The loss of the pillar, along with that of a well-known and much-loved (albeit unofficial) skatepark, was, and is, regrettable.  At the time of the changes, a spokesman for Westfield, the then-owners of the Broadmarsh Centre, stated, ‘The works are part of a wider scheme to improve the look and feel of this area. We have listened to the views of our shoppers and local residents who have expressed their desire for a refurbishment of this important route to make it more attractive and in keeping with the new arts centre. This is part of our ongoing commitment to the local area and we hope everyone who uses this part of town will be pleased with the results.’

A BBC News article in January 2010 reported that, after the brick pillar had been pulled down towards the end of 2009, the Burton heads were, incredibly, ‘left lying around until Nottingham City Council collected them.’ It was subsequently felt that only four of the heads (one online source states that ‘half’ of the heads had ‘been knicked [sic] already’) were in good enough condition to be preserved, and they were stored at a council depot, only to be stolen. Lamentably, a council spokesman is quoted as saying, ‘It is regrettable that our attempts to salvage these unusual pieces of local history have ended in this sad way.’

Two of the heads after removal from the pillar and before collection (image courtesy https://hookedskate.com/)

The BBC article also informs us that the Nottingham Civic Society had turned down an offer to take the heads, with Ken Brand of the Civic Society commenting, ‘ I don’t think they were really worth saving. They had broken noses, broken chins and so on. I don’t want to get too nostalgic about this…The cost was too prohibitive to repair them…It’s not really a loss to Nottingham.’

And so, after a catalogue of negligence and apathy, and seemingly without any attempt to involve the wider citizenry of Nottingham in a conversation about a possible new home for these fascinating objects, an intriguing link to our past was itself consigned to memory.

The pillar at night (image from https://www.nottskate.org.uk/)

Selected Sources:

‘A curious structure’ – Geoffrey Oldfield – Issue 4 (Nov-Dec 1978) of Nottingham Quarterly (General Editor: John Sheffield), pp. 14-16 (http://www.thesparrowsnest.org.uk/collections/public_archive/9857.pdf)

‘Skatepark ‘flattened’ without notice’ – Claire Carter, Nottingham Evening Post, November 2009 (https://web.archive.org/web/20091130041317/http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/homenews/Skatepark-flattened-notice/article-1552912-detail/article.html)

‘Thieves steal historical Nottingham busts no one wants’ – BBC News, January 2010 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/nottingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8470000/8470916.stm)

‘From Slums to Skate Parks to Shopping: The History of the Broadmarsh’ – Dan O’Neill, Left Lion, June 2020 (https://www.leftlion.co.uk/read/2020/june/broadmarsh-centre-shops-history-nottingham-skate/) – Twitter: @danoneill87

(The Burton pillar can be seen in a video featuring some dizzying BMX stunts at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ry-PIPc5II&t=155s)

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