Sailor Billy

He’s the one everyone forgets – the last of the Hanoverian kings, in between George IV (who is forever engraved on my heart as played by Hugh Laurie) and Victoria (Judi Dench). And he was, frankly, a bit forgotten in his own time too. William IV wasn’t ever really meant to be king – he was a third son and he managed to slip through life to the age of 64 as merely a slight embarrassment to the Royal family.

The family did what they always do with younger sons – stuck him in the services – he joined the navy, where he had a marvellous time, doing all the things that sailors traditionally did, bar much in the way of fighting. He did his share of the cooking, a lot of drinking and a little brawling. He was a great pal of Nelson – he insisted on giving the bride away when Nelson married.

He wanted to be a Duke, but the king wasn’t having any of it, so William threatened to enter the House of Commons (this was still in the days of rotten boroughs – he was going to buy Totnes) and the king acquiesced at the thought of William on the hustings. He became the Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Munster was thrown in for good measure. He was a bit of a loose cannon – he said he was a Whig, but he really just did random stuff – such as opposing the abolition of slavery, saying it wouldn’t do the slaves any good to be freed, which on reflection probably wasn’t the strongest argument for the case.

A whole load of stuff happened during his seven year reign between 1830 and 1837 – not least the end of those pesky rotten boroughs – but he himself wasn’t a particularly exciting king (though I guess after George IV anything must have seemed a breath of fresh air…) There were good and bad things about his reign – he was the last king to install a prime minister against the will of Parliament, for example – but on the plus side he gave most of George IV’s paintings to the nation.

I guess what most people remember him for is his relationship with the actress/courtesan Mrs Jordan, with whom he had a staggering ten children. Since none of them were legitimate, when he died the throne went to his niece Victoria though it’s possible that the illegitimate kids will have the last laugh – Wikipedia tells me that Tory leader David Cameron is a descendant of one of them…

So why am I writing about Sailor Billy today? Well – because something seems to be happening to him in Greenwich. Our statue of him originally stood in King William Street in the City – here’s an old pic:

It was moved to Greenwich in 1936 to fill the gap left by the demolition of St Mary’s Church just by the main gate to Greenwich Park, where he’s quietly stood ever since, surrounded by a beech hedge and, if memory serves, low stones marking the perimeters of the old church.

I was walking past last week and I saw the hedge had gone, replaced by builders’ hoardings. Poor old Billy stood alone in a sea of mud. I can only assume it’s part of the new Sammy Ofer wing.

But – can they do this? I have heard rumour that no one actually knows who owns that land – and that underneath the grass still lie vaults with graves and bodies in.

I don’t know anything at all about this – but would be very interested to hear if the rumours are true – and if so, how the NMM has managed to sneakily disturb Billy’s peace…


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