The ups and downs of Wellington Monument

Wellington Monument through the trees in the Blackdowns, Somerset

Standing high on the Blackdown Hills, the Wellington Monument, at 175ft, is the tallest three-sided obelisk in the world. An ambitious construction, it commemorates a modern yet classical hero. The story of its origins, and shambolic construction, repeats itself in the story of its conservation and repair up to the present day.

Early beginnings
 
The idea to erect a monument to the Duke of Wellington was first proposed in 1815 following the Duke's victory at the Battle of Waterloo. Following an architectural competition, Thomas Lee Jnr was appointed to design the monument. He proposed a triangular pillar supported on a plinth and surmounted by a massive cast iron statue of the Duke himself. The whole structure was intended to be 140 feet (43m) high.
 
Building work halted
 
Funds ran out in a matter of months and building work ceased, by which time the pillar was only 45 feet (14m). When construction eventually resumed it continued in fits and starts for a number of years. By this time public interest in the project had waned and as a result the original design was pared down considerably. It was finished in the 1820s with the pillar the proposed height. The cast iron statue was never commissioned however and so in effect the monument became an obelisk rather than a plinth and statue as originally intended.
 
Lightning strikes twice
 
Lightning strikes in 1846 and possibly again in the early 1850s caused serious structural damage. Charles Giles, a local architect, declared it a public danger. Giles was instructed to prepare a scheme for the repair and completion of the monument. These events coincided with the death of the Duke of Wellington.
 
A new design
 
Giles came up with something very different from the original plan. He set out to transform the monument from a statue bearing pillar into the tallest obelisk in Britain.
 
However by 1892 the monument had again fallen into disrepair. The top of the plinth was rebuilt and the shaft extended to the height we see today. Thereafter it has been subjected to repeated restoration work of a major nature but its character has remained unchanged.
 
The current situation
 
We took over management responsibility in 1934. Since that time it has needed careful renovation every 10 to 15 years, an expensive and unsustainable process given its height. At present a fence has been erected to protect the public from the risk of falling stone debris.
 
We have recently appointed a firm of consultants to identify a more effective repair approach to the structure. Part of that process will involve a monitoring period as the structure presents a very complicated engineering challenge. Even with the previous survey work, we simply do not know enough about why and how the monument is failing. This work puts us in a position to explore more sustainable repair options.