(Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Take Your Picton

Rick Picton Thomas would have known what to say to those bent on removing his ancestor’s statue

Artillery Row

The latest target of the statue-toppling iconoclasts – after the felling of Bristol’s slave trading philanthropist Edward Colston, and the decision by Oxford’s Oriel College that the statue of their benefactor, the arch imperialist Cecil Rhodes, must also fall, –  is another former hero of the British Empire, the Welsh soldier Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton.

Cardiff City Council has voted by 57 to 5 with nine abstentions to cover up the marble statue of the old soldier pending its eventual removal. The statue has stood in the ‘Hall of Welsh Heroes’ in the Welsh capital’s City Hall since 1916 when it was unveiled by our only Welsh Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, a century after Picton’s heroic death at the Battle of Waterloo.

By the time of his second trial and acquittal, Picton, a villain in the eyes of Liberal opinion, had become a national hero

Picton was certainly a controversial figure even in his own time, a less tender and more brutal age than our own. As Governor of Trinidad at the beginning of the 19th century he owned slaves, ordered the execution of a dozen others, and allegedly made money from the slave trade. Most notoriously, however, he was accused of authorising the prolonged torture of a 14-year-old mixed race girl, Luisa Calderon, to extract a confession of her suspected involvement in a robbery.

Calderon was suspended by one arm from a rope pulley with one foot resting on a wooden peg as her only support. She was subjected to this excruciating treatment twice for hours at a time. When news of the incident reached London, Picton – who himself maintained a mulatto mistress on the island – was tried for the crime.  Convicted, he successfully appealed on the grounds that Calderon – who gave evidence against him – had actually been sentenced by local magistrates under the Spanish colonial laws which still governed Trinidad, and which allowed the torture of suspects. He pleaded that he had merely been carrying out the letter of the law in permitting Calderon’s ordeal to go ahead. Interestingly, Trinidadians subscribed thousands of pounds to pay Picton’s legal expenses.

By the time of his second trial and acquittal, Picton, a villain in the eyes of Liberal opinion, had become a national hero. He was one of the Duke of Wellington’s bravest and most accomplished commanders in the harsh Peninsula War against Napoleonic France, although even the Iron Duke – no shrinking violet he – described the Welsh ruffian thus: “ ..as foul-mouthed and irascible Devil as ever lived”.

The fire eating Picton fought his way across Spain and Portugal, across the Pyrenees and into France. Leading from the front, he played a crucial part in Wellington’s victories. Wounded in the savage storming of Badajoz, he presented a guinea to every man who survived the engagement, retired to Britain to recuperate, but insisted on returning to the fray to share in the Duke’s final triumphs. By then an MP, he was called out of retirement in 1815 to take part in the Waterloo campaign against the old enemy.

Wounded once more at the Battle of Quatre Bras, Picton refused to leave the field, and at Waterloo itself he held a key sector of the British front. Aged 56, he died as he had lived: in the heat of the action leading a bayonet charge to repel a French cavalry assault. His last words were “ Hurrah! Hurrah! Charge! Charge!” Shot through the head by a musket ball, he was the most senior officer killed in the battle. His body was borne back to Britain with great pomp, and laid to rest at St George’s Church, Hanover Square. He was later exhumed to lie with his old chief, Wellington, in St Paul’s cathedral.

The statue topplers seeking to expunge Picton from History by removing his memorials will have their work cut out. As well as the statue in Cardiff, a blue plaque adorns his birthplace at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire; there is a memorial in his nearby childhood parish church; a tall obelisk in the centre of Carmarthen – to which King George IV subscribed £100; a huge marble memorial at his tomb in St Paul’s, with three figures, a lion, and a bust of the General; and, last but not least, a modest memorial stone near the spot where he was killed at Waterloo.

I had barely heard of Picton until I encountered his direct descendant early in my journalistic career. Frederick Picton Thomas was my editor at the commercial radio service Independent Radio News/LBC. Thomas, a roly poly, choleric but chortling Welshman universally known as ‘Rick’, was, like his infamous ancestor, “as foul mouthed and irascible Devil as ever lived”. He was also an excellent journalist with an infallible, if often eccentric, nose for news, who ruled his youthful troops with a rod of iron.

In those days, IRN/LBC was housed in a noxious basement in Gough Square off Fleet Street, and Rick had complete command of the news items selected for national bulletins. There was none of the stifling heirarchy of the ‘suits’ that I had hated in a brief stint with BBC radio news. I have often wondered how the anarchic young gunslingers in Rick’s barmy army – including such current Corporation luminaries as Martha Kearney, Ben Brown, Mark Mardell and Clive Myrie – have adapted to the boredom of the Beeb’s bureaucracy in their staid and respectable middle age.

Rick would have understood that if Picton was a cruel and sadistic monster, he was also a brave and successful soldier who played a big part and lost his life in saving his country and Europe from Napoleon’s tyranny

Rick and I shared a Welsh background, and knowing of my interest in history, he proudly told me of his forebear’s heroic military exploits, though said nothing, if indeed he knew of it, of the General’s more dubious activities in Trinidad. In contrast to his ancestor’s patriotic record, Rick was a fierce socialist, a Labour supporter, and despised what he called the “evil old Tories”. Despite this, in those pre-PC days, he was not without a hint of what would be seen today as racism. After one of those train crashes which regularly afflicted India’s railways, killing scores, if not hundreds, of people, I timorously suggested reporting the death toll in a bulletin. “Name one!” he cynically replied.

Rick died during Lockdown. He had hoped that there would be a big turnout of old colleagues at his funeral, but because of Covid restrictions only one mourner – his son – was able to attend. It was a sad and solitary send-off for such a rumbustuous figure and a huge contrast with his ancestor’s lavish obsequies.

Reflecting on Rick’s character, and whether some genetic ghost of the old General’s fierce and cruel spirit had percolated down the generations to him, I wondered what he would have made of the campaign to tear down his ancestor’s memorials. I think his response would have involved several choice Anglo-Saxon expletives.

For Rick would have understood that if Picton was a cruel and sadistic monster, –  an “evil old Tory” in his favourite phrase, – he was also a brave and successful soldier who played a big part and lost his life in saving his country and Europe from Napoleon’s tyranny, earning the extravagant thanks and memorials of a grateful nation. You cannot sanitise the evil that Picton undoubtedly did, but you cannot air brush his heroism away either. History, in short, is light and shade, black and white. Please forgive the dreadful pun – but you pay your money and take your Picton.

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