In July 1833 the 1st Duke of Sutherland died. Tenants on his estates in Staffordshire (Trentham), Scotland (Dunrobin) and Shropshire quickly made plans to commemorate the man they considered a benevolent landlord – according to the inscriptions that is: the Duke was not quite as revered as the tributes might suggest. In Shropshire the tenants on the Lilleshall estate decided to erect an obelisk on Lilleshall Hill, high above the village, and by November the foundation stone had been laid. By the end of the century the obelisk had been struck by lightning (twice) and had caused some embarrassment for the editor of a local paper.
A subscription committee was convened soon after the Duke’s death, and it appointed George Ernest Hamilton as architect. Little is known about Hamilton, but in the 1841 census he described himself as a ‘civil engineer’ and he seems to have worked mainly in the midlands before moving to Australia. The builder was William Smith who used stone from the Red Lake quarry which the 2nd duke ‘kindly condescended’ to donate to the project. In October 1833 the newspapers announced that work was about to begin, and that the finishing touch was to be ‘a wolf couchant carved in stone’ on each ‘bold pedestal’, of the base: a wolf is a feature of the Sutherland crest.
Two inscriptions were mounted on the pedestal: the first eulogised the late Duke as ‘the most just and generous of landlords’ and the second featured words spoken by Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: LET ALL THE ENDS THOU AIMEST AT BE THY COUNTRY’S, THY GOD’S AND TRUTH’S. The latter plaque had been missing for some time before it was replaced in 2013.
When Peter Orlando Hutchinson visited in 1834 he saw the first two wolves already in place, and his sketches of the scene offer a rare view of the obelisk in its original form. Sadly his accompanying diaries for that period are not extant, so we don’t have any further description of what he saw.
On 15 June 1839 the obelisk was struck by lightning, causing ‘considerable injury’ to the structure. In December there was further excitement in Lilleshall when a local paper reported that four large wolves had been seen passing through the village. There were no reports of injuries, although one of the wolves was reported to have been shot dead before the others were captured and secured. The story was picked up by countless other national and regional newspapers, but a week later the Staffordshire Advertiser, pinning the blame firmly on the unnamed ‘neighbouring journal’ that had first published the tale, sheepishly admitted that the whole episode was a hoax sent in by ‘some wag’. What had actually prowled through Lilleshall were the four stone wolves from the obelisk: William Smith had returned to repair the damaged obelisk, and the wolves were being carted away for restoration.
In April 1884 a ‘frightful storm’ hit Lilleshall and caused the ‘partial demolition of the obelisk’. Lightning once more struck the shaft and the ‘electric fluid’ passed through the whole of the structure, displacing the ‘massive stonework of the base’ and sending portions of the stonework rolling down the hill. Charles Clement Walker F.R.A.S. was less than half a mile away when the lightning struck, although much to his frustration he was looking in the wrong direction. He examined the damaged obelisk before giving a paper on the subject to the Royal Meteorological Society in which he concluded that William Smith had a ‘total ignorance of electrical science’: Smith had used glass in the rebuilt apex of the obelisk, presumably believing it to be a non-conductor.
After the second strike the base of the obelisk was rebuilt to a new design, minus the projecting buttresses. It doesn’t appear that the four wolves had ever made it back to the monument, and sadly their fate is unknown. And there is a further mystery: in 1891 The County Seats of Shropshire, claimed that at on the Lilleshall Hall estate ‘two huge heraldic griffins crouching on the sward’ were ‘the survivors of four similar figures which were originally placed on the pedestal of the memorial obelisk’. It seems the author was wrongly informed, as a number of references confirm there were wolves on the obelisk, but whatever their origins they are fascinating creatures.
The obelisk at Lilleshall has full public access and it is worth the climb to appreciate the extensive views. A lightning conductor protects the monument from future strikes.
Update: please see the comments below for more on why the Duke was not universally benevolent
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