The Parkes love Walsall's Hippo
The story of Walsall's friendly Hippo
Ever since Walsall planners created a concrete homage to one of nature’s largest, ugliest and most bad-tempered mammals, the same question has crossed many a shopper's mind - why have we got a Hippo in our town centre?
Walsall's concrete Hippopotamus statue has become a much-loved landmark that has attracted international attention. It even has its own internet fan-club.
The Mills' hitch a ride
Ridiculed by many when first unveiled in 1972, the statue's popularity has never been higher.
Nearly two thousand people have joined a group on networking website facebook to post pictures and express their love for the motionless mammal that's behind so many happy memories.
Group founder Heidi Ashley describes the webpage as for "anyone who ever sat on his back, played around him or chose him as a meeting place, or just damn well loves that funky hippo!"
Identifying exactly why a Hippo was placed in Walsall in the first place throws up a whole host of possibilities.
George from Rainbow
Could marble-munching game Hungry, Hungry Hippo have been the inspiration behind the statue? It seems not, as makers Hasbro launched it six years after Walsall embraced its mud-wallowing beast.
And TV’s Rainbow? Was a shared appreciation by council members for the tomfoolery of Geoffrey, Zippy, Bungle and George behind their thinking?
Rainbow did first air on ITV in 1972 and whilst many locals do call the statue George (others christen it Harry or Hoppy), we may never know for sure.
Source of Ingenuity
Which leads me to imagine, nay ‘hippothesize’, how the old West Midlands County Council may have considered the matter at its public art commissioning meeting in the late 60s.
Sister Dora statue
Chairman: “So, we’re famous for saddlery, Jerome K Jerome and Sister Dora, but we need to think outside of the box for this new statue. We need something different, something new, something….
Walsall Council spokesman Dan Slee says there were plans drawn up to axe the Hippo in the late 1990s to make way for another piece of public sculpture - Tom Lomax's The Source of Ingenuity.
But it seems that the people of Walsall were having none of it.
Trawl through the archives
"A clear message came back from people, particularly the young, that they wanted it to stay because it was such a popular meeting place for everyone," says Dan.
Statue The Source of Ingenuity
"A nearby site was found for the new work of art, which is a sculpture of the two-faced Roman God Janus, and this was erected in 2001."
Walsall’s Local History Centre provides another lead in the trail for Hippo facts.
"There’s not a lot of information in the archives about him I’m afraid," admits centre manager Ruth Vyse.
"He’s just a very nice meeting point for people and everyone I speak to feels proud of the Hippo. I wouldn’t swop him for anything!"
If indeed it is a 'he'.
A trawl through the centre’s archives does unearth a few surprises.
Taking a breather...
The Walsall Observer newspaper reported in March 1979 how 16-year-old John Simpkiss, representing Goscote Boys Club, managed an "astonishing" 1,111 leaps in what is reported as the ‘Hippo Leaping World Championships’.
However, the origin and legitimacy of this contest remains an even bigger mystery than the Hippo itself.
The paper goes on to report how £300 was raised towards the town’s summer festival from people being sponsored to jump over the “much-maligned Hippo” – including Lord Mayor Cllr Wilf Clarke.
Festival director Josef Lopuszynski heralded the event a triumph.
Dudley Zoo's Hippos
"Apart from a few bruises and scrapes and blistered hands the event put smiles on everyone’s faces – except for the Hippo!" he gushed.
Vital clues to the Hippo’s origins do, though, emerge from a mothballed council leaflet (author unknown) which states it was commissioned to "symbolise the protection of children" but no-one has come forward to admit this.
A real-life hippo
Given that the Hippopotamus is responsible in Africa for the deaths of more people each year than all other animals combined, it is a curious choice.
"I’ve no idea why Walsall should have a Hippo in its town centre,” explains a bemused Dr David Beaston, Dudley Zoo’s research co-ordinator.
"One thing they’re certainly not is friendly!
"We had two elderly Hippos at Dudley Zoo in the 1970s called Hercules the First and Hercules the Second, but we didn't really have a suitable enclosure so they were not replaced when they died."
He adds: "At least the concrete cows in Milton Keynes are in the fields! I suppose it is something different."
Milton Keynes' concrete cows
Further digging reveals the concrete Hippo was in fact designed and made by local architect John Wood, who initially thought it an April fool’s joke and needed some persuading from the council before he believed them!
John moulded and sculptured the figure in Pinfold Street, Darlaston, with assistance from Keith Jones, although little is know about its mysterious creators.
Glen Buglass, the council’s creative development team manager, thinks the Hippo may have been chosen as a symbol for an improve Walsall campaign and that initially the plan was to make more than one.
World class art
"Who knows what the council was thinking then!" he admits. "It was hated but that’s certainly not the case now!
Stand up if you love Hippos...
"People in Walsall are fiercely proud of where they live and many would have been taken to the Saddlers’ Centre as children and taken turns to sit and play on it so it holds happy memories for them.
"There’s no way we can say it is world class art - it is, after all, a concrete Hippo - but people have fallen in love with it."
Park Street was the Hippo’s original ‘home’ but the statue was moved a short distance to nearby Digbeth and Bradford Street, near Tesco.
Made from clay by Brownhills’ Pottery Clay Company, the Hippo was cast in reconstructed stone by firm Mono-Concrete, with the final bill a ‘monkey’ - £500.
In this part of the Black Country that’s a Hippo to you and me.
last updated: 28/05/2009 at 13:17
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