CONTRARY to popular opinion, Queen Victoria did not land on her head in Guildhall Square, but she did lose it...
Although not a museum, the Guildhall has some of the most fascinating collections of marble sculpture, impressive chandeliers, but most significantly, the most stunning stained glass window I have ever seen.
One casualty of the 1972 bombing which ripped through the building was the Italian mosaic, which stops at the reception area, replaced by highly polished tiles, yet and all, the hallway is still an impressive space to walk into, encased in carved wooden panelling, sandstone arches, heavy oak doors and peppered with artefacts. Chief among them is 'The Newton Window' with five 'lights' showing the Relief of Derry from the famous painting by Folingsby. My guide for my Guildhall tour, Superintendent Colin Sharpe, tells me that the 'lights' above include the Cathedral in 1688 before the spire was added in 1692, and the old Exchange Building, or former Town Hall as at 1910, when it was housed where the War Memorial is now in The Diamond.
Close examination of the 'Relief' scene window is a must for all visitors as it has a myriad of interesting characters, from the City's forefathers to the dead from battle, but key among the details are the inclusion of the Mountjoy and her sister ship the Phoenix (although it could be the Jerusalem) working their way up-river.
As with all the windows in the Guildhall, the surrounds are exquisite oakleaf and acorn details, but for me it is the detail of the costumes and faces of the people in the scene that captivate, and particularly those of the children.
It is free to go into the Guildhall and enjoy the tour, and if you never get further than the main hall then this window is worth the trip alone, but don't take my word for it, go and see this window for yourself.
My guide, Colin Sharp, tells me: "The Council actually owns the painting by Follingsby, and it is a scene from the siege. You can see the two ships there," he says, pointing at the windows, his voice booming around the hallway, adding: "You can see the Mountjoy, which under the Captain Michael Browning breaking the boom across the river to relive the City of starvation. This is the citizens up on the City's Walls, and you can see the walls and the canon.This dates back to the famous 1688-1689 Siege of 105 days with the approximate loss of 10,000 lives."
After a potted history of the Siege and various statistics, including how it was The Phoenix which tied up first at the City gates, and how the Guildhall is actually built on reclaimed land on the same approximate area where the Phoenix tied up at the quay, right at the City Walls.
"We have only one vault now, but somewhere down there there is information about the menu that was available for people. There are old records down there that tell us that you could have got a dog for 2s 6d, you got a cat for 1s 6d, a rat for a shilling and a mouse for 6d, and that is what they actually ate to survive," he says.
By the by, all the windows in the hallway were presented by Sir Alfred Newton who laid the Guildhall's foundation stone. He was the former Mayor of London and High Sheriff of Middlesex and Governor of the Honourable the Irish Society at the time. The 'lights' above show his Coat of Arms, and the sword and mace represent London, the badge of office of Middlesex, and the two windows either side show the Coat of Arms of Burton-on-Trent and Horwich, punctuated with images of the Guildhall in its original form and St Columb's Cathedral.
Colin and I change tack and go onto discuss the impressive marble busts and the statue of Queen Victoria. The first bust is that of a dignified looking gent called Whittaker Ellis (and Whittaker Street runs just along the side of the Guildhall). He was also a former Governor of the Honourable the Irish Society and a former Lord Mayor of London and High Sheriff of Middlesex.
Looking very sternly across the hallway at Whittaker is a bust depicting George VI, who visited Londonderry in 1945. He is the present Queen's father, but the most impressive of them all is Queen Victoria, which is a full-sized statue. Also staring out at Council employees and visitors alike is the noble looking bust of Edward VII, but Colin is already spilling facts and statistics about Victoria...
"This was the first statue of Queen Victoria to be unveiled in Ireland," Colin tells me.
"That happened in 1898. The statue stands six feet 10 inches in height and weights 2.5 tons. It is carved out of one solid block of Sicilian marble by a chap called F J Williamson, who was the Crown sculptor for a period of 32 years. It shows Queen Victoria in her ceremonial gowns and robes, with the band across the chest being the Order of the Garter.
"The plinth on which it stands is four feet high and made of red Peterhead polished granite and weighs approximately three tons, so the overall statue weighs 5.5 tons. One of the bombs in 1972 was planted inside the hallway to the right-hand side of Victoria, and the complete statue as you see it was blown right over to the window," he tells me.
"To the window? So it didn't go out onto the street and Victoria didn't land on her head then?" I ask.
"No. It didn't, but you can see the damage that was done to the actual statue and the plinth," Colin says, adding: "Her head was severed off and was stuck back on. If you stand back you can see where just above the necklace. You can also see it from the back. You can see the chunks missing and this is solid marble and granite, and the bomb was planted just here," Colin says pointing to the spot where a stainless steel bin sits, before adding: "This is reputed to be the only statue that Queen Victoria posed for."
The detail on the dress is fabulous, as is the carving on all the marble busts and statues. Incidentally if you have a good nosy at Whittaker and George you will see that they, too, lost their heads in the bomb and were restored.
Colin describes the statue of Victoria as both 'priceless' and 'irreplaceable', and before we head into the council chamber he gives me a quick peek at the remaining Italian mosaic at the back entrance...