architecture, Cheshire, eyecatcher, garden history

The Elephant and Castle, Peckforton, Cheshire

Exploring the rather charming little village of Peckforton in Cheshire, one might stumble across a rather unusual garden ornament. Tucked into a hedge, bordering a garden, is a huge stone elephant carrying a castle on its back. This was carved by the local stonemason, John Watson, and all sorts of stories are told of its history.

The 1846 tithe map shows that the Watson family’s house and garden was a little outside the village, where they also rented fields and crofts totalling a little over 5 acres. Their benevolent landlord was John Tollemache (1805-1890) of Peckforton Castle, who believed the labouring man should have ‘three acres and a cow’. In the 1851 census Watson (c.1799-1875) gives his employment as ‘Stone Master employing 3 men’: presumably two of these were his sons, George and Robert, who are both listed as stonemasons. In 1860 he is listed in a directory as ‘stonemason and quarry owner’.

Peckforton Castle. Now an events and wedding venue.

Tollemache (Baron Tollemache from 1876) built Peckforton Castle to a design by Anthony Salvin in 1844-50, and the resulting vast turreted and battlemented pile has been hailed as ‘one of the great buildings of its age’. The faux-mediaeval fortification enjoyed views to the genuine ruins of Beeston Castle.

The new Peckforton Castle on the left with the ruins of Beeston Castle to the right. Late 19th century view by Robert Evans Creer (1838-1915). Courtesy of Manx Museum CC BY-NC.

Watson quarried the Peckforton Stone for the new bridge across the Dee in Chester in 1827 and he is also thought to have worked on Peckforton Castle. Not content with quarrying and carving all day, the elephant was apparently the work of his evenings – there’s even a story that the feckful Watson worked after sunset with his sons holding candles. The earliest mention is in an 1860 Cheshire history and gazetteer, which noted the elephant ‘in the garden occupied by Mr John Watson’, adding that it had been placed there ‘about two years ago’. By that date Watson and family had moved into the heart of Peckforton village. One newspaper report suggests that the statue was moved to its current location from its original site: if true it would have been a mammoth task.

Early photograph of the Elephant and Castle, and presumably John Watson. Original source untraced.

No one seemed able to accept that Watson carved the Elephant and Castle purely as a decorative object, and from around 1900 a story circulated that it was built as a bee-hive. But the windows were once glazed, making access for bees somewhat difficult  – to say nothing of the lack of means for a beekeeper to extract the honey.

Sadly nothing seems to survive to explain why Watson chose an elephant and castle as his subject. Was he inspired by the ancient carved elephant with howdah on its back on a pew in the Quire of Chester cathedral? Had he made the trip to Liverpool in 1852 to see ‘Wombwell’s Royal and Monster Menagerie’, complete with ‘two largest elephants’ and a calf? Some sources claim he was referencing the crest of the Corbett family, which does indeed feature an elephant and castle, but it is hard to substantiate the family’s link to the village. The Peckforton proboscidean remains a wonderful mystery

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21 thoughts on “The Elephant and Castle, Peckforton, Cheshire”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    Some 40 or more years ago I spent three hours gazing at the Elephant & Castle in Peckforton. I hit the kerb when I saw it and blew out a tyre, and had to wait ages for a wheelwright to come and change it. Great to have the story amplified and filled in.

  2. Editor says:

    Good morning Gwyn. We’d parked and approached the mighty statue on foot, but I can easily see how a first glance from a vehicle might lead to the loss of control! I’d seen photos, but I was completely unprepared for the scale of it.

  3. Alan Terrill says:

    Good to see somehting about the elephant. I first came across this on a visit to Peckforton Castle in 1993 when it was open as a tourist attraction with an animated ghost that appeared in the dungeons and an area with thatched hovels where a film about Robin Hood had been made. The castle definitely had coloured glass in some of the lower windows then.

    1. Gand says:

      Very timely. We will be in Cheshire for a few days soon.
      This is now be on the list to seek out. Thanks Flaneuse for another extraordinary story.

      1. Editor says:

        Good morning Gand. Peckforton is a beautiful village and the elephant is just amazing. Well worth adding to your itinerary.

    2. Editor says:

      Hello Alan. We called in at Peckforton Castle and the ghosts have been scared away by the luxury wedding guests. Thanks for the info about the glass. The elephant has a pronounced lean, but is otherwise in pretty good condition, apart from the tusks, which photos show were damaged many years ago.

  4. Ann Petherick says:

    Did any of those concerned have any connection with a certain area of south London ?

    1. Editor says:

      Not that I could discover, Ann. It’s a jumbo mystery!

  5. TOM GARDNER says:


    1. Editor says:

      Hello Tom across the pond. It’s hard to avoid politics at the moment, but the elephants I favour are definitely statues or flesh and blood.

  6. Sally Paque says:

    Love the mammoth pun & can’t wait for an opportunity to use “proboscidean” .
    Great Saturday read, as always.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Sally. Good luck finding a chance to use such a word! Pleased you enjoyed the mammoth pun.

  7. Charles Cowling says:

    Deliciously puzzling. Much enjoyed feckful.

    1. Editor says:

      A neglected word Charles. I hope some new information can be found as a result of this post.

  8. Ivan Burrows says:

    Moving the statue was a mammoth task. Great little comment by yourself. I wonder how many picked up on it Including you my lovely

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Ivan. I was quite proud of that pun.

  9. Gareth Hughes says:

    The very early photo shows the castle to have had a rather different design to the present one. I wonder if it fell off at some stage, or was damaged during the (possible) move?

    1. Gareth Hughes says:

      Apologies: it seems the early photo shows the other side of the elephant and has been reproduced back to front.
      There’s a photo of that side as it is now on the parish council website

      1. Editor says:

        Hello Gareth. I used the early photo as I found it, as I couldn’t trace the owner. It would be wonderful to discover other images in family collections.

  10. Steven Martin Myatt says:

    “A mammoth task” – oh, very good.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you. I couldn’t resist!

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