General James Wolfe
1727 – 1759
I have been holding out writing about General Wolfe, a local superhero for local people, for some time, for reasons which may be apparent if you look to the right of the screen. I have always thought his was a wonderful statue, standing eerily sentinal at the top of Greenwich Hill, keeping silent watch over the town. Although he wasn’t actually born in Greenwich, he was brought up and lived here, and the town is littered with Wolfe-abilia.
Wolfe was the classic action man – the Sylvester Stallone of Greenwich – always on the move, always itching to get going, always striding in where, perhaps, if he’d thought it through, he might have been a bit more circumspect. At least one brigadier thought he was bonkers, and said so within the earshot of George II. The King retorted “Mad is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals.”
On the other hand, he wasn’t all Rambo. There was definitely some Tom Hanks in him. When fighting at Culloden, he defied his commanding officer, by refusing to shoot a wounded Highlander, saying that his honour was worth more than his commission. A metaphorically square-jawed hero, then, even if, bless him, his was not a face best reproduced in profile…
Born in Westerham, he moved to Greenwich at twelve years old, when his parents bought MacCartney House. It’s still there, one of the Phantom’s fantasy residences, all wisteria-covered and leafy, backing onto the Park. There’s a blue plaque on the wall, but I’ll leave the house itself for another day – it deserves a post of its own. He lived here in between being a hero at various wars – you know – sort you’ve heard of but couldn’t actually say what they were about. He was a soldier’s soldier – and as the campaigns continued he became well-respected by all (including the Scots, who’d not forgotten his gallant behaviour at Culloden) even if many privately thought he was a few troops short of a batallion.
Of course, what he’s really famous for is his heroic victory (and death) at Quebec. Wolfe shares with Nelson the dubious honour of being mortally wounded just at the point of National Supremacy, thus securing him eternal hero status.
Imagine the scene in the classic heist/war/intelligence movie. You know – the “It can’t be done” moment, where, in the tent of the commanding officer, someone important tells the hero all the obstacles that lie in the face of success. There has been stalemate for three months as the British holds Quebec in siege. The fortress, even if you could get into it, is built like the Chateau D’If, but it is surrounded by deadly waters and unclimbable cliffs. If you get past the cliffs, there are several cannons aimed straight at you. And if you get past all that, there’s still a vast number of highly trained Canadian troops waiting to bayonet you at their convenience. (For a more European-cinema version of the story, check out Benedict in the comments section, but for now, I’m sticking to the Hollywood Hokum, ’cause it’s more fun to write.)
As in all the best Hollywood Saturday-nighters, Wolfe wasn’t having any of that. By now, he was George Clooney. In a dazzling montage of derring-do, Wolfe and his troops crept along a secret path in the dead of night and scaled the cliffs below the towering fortress of Quebec. After a thrilling climax of buckling and swash, they captured the castle, thus securing British interests. But by now, he was John Wayne. In slow-motion closeup, accompanied by stirring classical music, a bullet struck him in the chest.
Of course, he was allowed a death-scene close-up, supported by grieving soldiers. His final words were, of the enemy, “What – do they run already? Then I die happy.”
He was brought back to Greenwich where his body lay in state; a national hero. It somehow seems a shame that when, a quarter of a century later another national hero also lay in state in Greenwich, Admiral Lord Nelson managed to eclipse his illustrious forbear (though Wolfe does still have, like Nelson, a fan club. The Wolfe Society, much like the 1805 Society, meets annually for a formal dinner, celebrating his Pious and Immortal Memory. I intend to find out more about this curious club…)
James Wolfe is buried in St Alfege’s Church. Don’t bother trying to find him in the graveyard; he’s in the crypt, which is another one of those places I’d like to see on London Open House Day…
A word about the statue. There had been murmurings of a there needing to be an eye-catcher at the top of the hill for some time – and in its day, potential subject matter received as many column inches as the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square today. One of the suggestions included a 200ft colossus of Britannia. The final sculpture is by Dr Tait Mackenzie and wasn’t actually unveiled until 1930, though perhaps the time-lapse was a good thing, given the unveling was done by the Marquis de Montcalm, a direct descedant of Wolfe’s opponent at that final siege.
The monument was rather near the business-end of a bomb in WWII, the results of which can still be seen on the plinth, making General James Wolfe possibly the only British soldier to have received schrapnel wounds in major wars 200 years apart.
For some time I found the cloaked silhouette with swashbuckling boots and mysterious tricorn hat slightly sinister, but now I can only see his as a benign presence.
In my imagination, on a clear, starry night, I see him hop off his plinth, stride down the hill and vault those wrought iron gates, before silently patrolling the Greenwich streets, righting wrongs and fighting the never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and Bugsby’s Way.
I like to think he wouldn’t mind too much my nicking his image for my own phantsamagorical purposes…