Ecstatic Elizabeth’s Group campaigners were “over the moon” on Monday when their plan to erect a statue in the town centre honouring Congleton’s own suffragist was approved by Cheshire East Council.
The decision meant that preparations for the unveiling of the bronze sculpture commemorating Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy on Bridge Street on Tuesday, 8th March – international women’s day – can now go ahead in earnest.
While the vast majority of comments sent to the local authority about the statue were in favour of the plan, opponents said the 1.48m life-size figure should be on a plinth.
But included in the planning officer’s report were comments from Hazel Reeves, the artist commissioned to create the sculpture.
She said: “It is important that Elizabeth is positioned among the people, her public, not above the people but at ground level, so that all can actively engage with her, touch her, have a selfie with her and get the sense of her small stature yet her power.
“Having her statue at around 4ft 10-11in (her height plus heels) gives a real sense of this tiny yet powerful woman. It reinforces the message that you don’t have to be large to kick a punch and make an impact on the world. It is also a beautiful size for the public to engage with, including younger and smaller people.”
Responding to the planning decision, Susan Munro, of Elizabeth’s Group, which raised £60,000 for the statue, said: “I’m absolutely over the moon and relieved that we can put everything in place for a wonderful event coming up in March.
“It’s great that Cheshire East was sensible and saw that our choice of the statue’s location from the very beginning was the right one. It’s perfect.”
The unveiling will take place on international women’s day exactly four years since the statue campaign began.
‘She is coming home!’
Mrs Munro added: “We are going to be in town to meet Elizabeth – she is coming home!
“There will be plenty of Victorian-themed events to enjoy to mark the special occasion.
People will be dressing up in Victorian costume and we are going to be organising Victorian games and that kind of thing. It’s going to be a wonderful day and of course Lady Richmond of Hale will be here to perform the official unveiling.”
In the planning officer’s report, the council’s public art and heritage officer said the statue “gives recognition to a local historical figure that is of interest and importance to the local community, and particularly relevant to women in society in the current context.
“This statue recognises one of the most important and iconic residents of Congleton, promoting equality for women in achieving the right to vote.”
They added: “A town centre location is fitting for this on the basis that the artist’s intention is for it to be ‘amongst the people’, maintaining the integrity of the piece.
“A town centre location provides for maximum interest and engagement with the statue and would attract residents into the town centre. Equally, this location has the potential to support tourism and visitor economy and its prominence allows for wide interaction by all age groups.”
They described Bridge Street as “wide” and “should not therefore be detrimental to accessibility for pushchairs / wheelchairs”.
The council received 42 comments of support reflecting much of what the planning officer said in backing the application.
Congleton Town Council did not comment on the plan.
There were four letters of objection. Reasons for opposing it was that the statue would be an obstruction, underground utilities could present problems for maintenance work and that the community garden would be a more appropriate location.
Town councillor Coun David Brown was an objector as there was no plinth “to halt wheels and with an outstretched arm could be very damaging to walk into”.
He requested that the application was called in so that it was considered by councillors in an open meeting.
Coun Brown had stated that while the majority of residents were in favour of the statue, not all agreed that it should be located on Bridge Street and that “in the interest of transparency and fairness” it should be discussed in public”.
His call-in request was considered by the head of planning in consultation with the chair of the Southern Planning Committee and rejected.
Instead, the application was determined by planning officers under delegated powers.
• Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy is important in Congleton’s heritage as a national figure in the campaign for women’s rights. She lived in Congleton for more than 50 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s and ran a girls’ school in the town on Moody Street. She worked tirelessly for girls’ education, for women’s rights to own property, for their right to vote and other women’s rights, earning her the moniker “the scourge of Parliament”.