Derry, Ottawa and Cape Town- What do these cities have in common? All three have war memorials created by the Hull-born artist and sculptor Vernon March.
Vernon March (1891-1930) is most famous for his design of Canadian monuments such as the National War Memorial of Ottawa and the Champlain Monument of Orillia, Ontario.
By Eamonn Baker
He was also was responsible for two other war memorials, one in Capetown,South Africa and the Diamond War Memorial here in the centre of this Walled City, unveiled on June 23,1927.
Vernon March was born in 1891 in Kingston upon Hull, England, the youngest son of a large farming family and had his studios at Farnborough, Kent.
Cape Town’s cenotaph honours the South African soldiers who died in the two World Wars and the Korean War and the story of such military courage is inscribed on the stone. Bearing many design similarities to Derry’s memorial, the sculpture represents freedom and peace and those who fought to protect it, in the form of an angel flanked by two soldiers.
March unexpectedly died of pneumonia in 1930, during the construction of the National War Memorial for Ottawa.
His 1925 statue of Samuel de Champlain in Orillia, Ontario, likely helped him win the Canadian commission, after an open competition.
His memorial sculpture was conceived and built in a garden in Farnborough, Kent, England. Vernon’s remaining six brothers, Dudley, Harry, Percival, Sidney, Walter, Edward and a sister, Elsie finished his work. In 1932 the memorial was shown in London’s Hyde Park to wide acclaim.
The Canadian government took delivery in June of 1937 and it was officially inaugurated by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.
By the time the competition was held in 1925 to seek designs for the Canadian National War Memorial, March had already secured the contract with the then Londonderry Corporation to deliver what we know as the Diamond War Memorial.
The Canadian competition received 127 entries, of which seven were asked to provide scale models for final judging. It is little known locally that Vernon March has also supplied sculpted miniatures for the Diamond War Memorial. These are currently housed for viewing within the exhibition space in St Columb’s Cathedral.
It has sometimes been suggested that the Londonderry Corporation acquired the March sculptures as “a job lot” only when they had been rejected by some city in England - I have heard both Sheffield and Coventry mentioned- because they were considered too “aggressive”.
However, study of the available documentation from the Londonderry Corporation papers, now with Derry City Council’s Museum Services, does not support this assumption which perhaps now will be relegated into that doubtful category “urban myth”.
It is worth considering then that our city has, at its centre, a piece of public art that has not received the acknowledgement it merits because a) it offends pacifist sensibilities b) the War Memorial itself is probably more associated with and revered by the Unionist community within a city that has had a majority Nationalist population since Partition and before.
The recent research conducted by the Diamond War Memorial Project has revealed that the War Memorial in fact commemorates 755 men and one woman who hail in almost equal numbers from both major religious and political traditions here. These 756 lives commemorated invite respect from us all.