Neptune statue

The asset for March 2022 is the Neptune statue located in the Market Place. Artefacts are important heritage assets, telling historical stories and providing a sense of place and artistic value.

The Neptune statue has had a chequered history and a peripatetic life. The City of Durham Trust was instrumental in saving it for the City as a current historical and artistic artefact.

View towards the North North East
View towards the South

The lead Neptune statue was erected in 1729, in the centre of the Market Place on a contemporary stone pant [public water fountain / wellhead] by Thomas Shirley. A high-quality figure from one of the London workshops, possibly Nost or Charpentière. After crowning later pants of 1863 (by E.R. Robson) and 1902, Neptune was banished to Wharton Park in 1923, restored (1986), set on a new plinth in 1991 (by Martin Roberts of Durham City Council), then resited. Roberts, M, Pevsner N, and Williamson, E (2021), County Durham, Yale University Press, p. 345

The current location of the statue resulted from the repaving and repurposing of the Market Place to an ‘event space’ in 2011-13. Its current location exposes it to the risk of damage from traffic.

The two inscriptions on the current plinth read:

This statue was given to the City in 1729 by George Bowes M.P. of Gibside and Streatlam as a symbol of the scheme to link Durham to the sea by improved navigation of the River Wear. It stood on top of the Market Place wellheads until 1923, when it was moved to Wharton Park. It was restored in 1986 following an appeal initiated by the City of Durham Trust.

It should be noted that this navigation scheme came to nothing because of geographical constraints on the River and therefore huge financial implications to overcome these, although enabling legislation was passed in parliament.

This statue was restored to its traditional home in the Market Place by the City of Durham Council on the 16th of May 1991. It was unveiled by The Right Worshipful the Mayor of Durham, Councillor W.H. Hartwell. Present were many of the individuals and representatives of local and national organisations who had generously supported the restoration appeal and the resiting.

Neptune was severely damaged by lightning in 1979 at its location in Wharton Park and needed restoration.

As the Advertiser aptly expressed it, “the old man from the sea has been struck by a bolt from the blue”. Lightning brought about his final downfall, and he is now in storage, in pieces. Trust Bulletin Number 19, November 1980

The Trust investigated the state of the statue and was advised it was worth restoration. The Trust therefore started a Neptune Appeal in early 1983 to raise £10,000 to restore the statue and have it erected in the centre of Durham. It received support from, among others, ‘Tidy North Beautiful Britain Group’, local councillors, and the planning office. Events to raise money included a ‘Splash Out for Neptune’ dinner on 26th May 1983, a fête at Brancepeth Castle on Saturday July 11th 1983, a raffle in 1984, a Jumble Sale in July 1985, and a Grand Bazaar in the Town Hall in October 1985. Many donations from individuals were received. The ‘North of England Museum Service’ gave a grant of £2,300, and promised work worth £1,000 in connection with setting up the statue after restoration. Support was also received from the ‘Hadrian Trust’ and the ‘Pilgrim Trust’. The required total was successfully reached in November 1986. The statue was sent to the Restorer Mr A. Naylor of Telford in 1984 and once restored was displayed in the window of the gas showrooms in Claypath, later Oldfields Restaurant and now demolished when the Student Castle PBSA was built. It took many more years, and discussions and bureaucratic procedures until Neptune was finally located in the Market Place on 16th May 1991. A celebratory event was held in the Town Hall on 31st October 1991. From destruction to resurrection took 12 years! The value of an organisation like the City of Durham Trust is that it has a long-term existence and can take on long projects.

An entry in the Trust Bulletin Number 25, November 1986, describes the five times that Neptune was “faced with oblivion”:

The Neptune project demonstrates the commitment of local people to the City’s heritage. A description in the Trust Bulletin Number 22, November 1983, of the fête at Brancepeth Castle illustrates this:

The fund-raising artistic activities are particularly noteworthy:

  • a ‘Song for Neptune’ composed and performed by Gerry Caley
  • a play for Neptune, written and performed by the Gilesgate Junior School History Club, under the leadership of Miss C. Martin
  • a poem composed and donated by the versatile actor and poet, Graham Tennant. A limited number were printed and inserted inside a card for sale, showing Neptune and the Pant in the Durham Market Place of 1922