A COLOSSAL six-ton memorial, made in America and shipped expensively to Bishop Auckland, stands conspicuously centre stage in the Town Cemetery in honour of a man who wasn’t even dead when it was erected.

That man who Robert Watson, who was amazing: born in Hamsterley in 1819, he started as a farmhand in Over Dinsdale but ended up mayor of Lee’s Summit, a city near Kansas City in the United States. The key to his success was always being prepared, and so, in old age, knowing death was inevitably just around the corner, he designed and erected his own memorial in Bishop in 1890. In his last months, he liked to sit in its shadow and, unknown to passers-by, listen in on their comments as they gazed at his monument.

Robert started his career working on the land on the banks of the Tees near Neasham, but moved onto the railway as a platelayer. He obviously had something about him, for he was soon an inspector on the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and then on the London & North Western Railway.

His big move was to a similar post on the newly-built Chicago & Alton Railroad, which ran through the US state of Illinois to Kansas City. He must have gone out there in the early 1860s.

“But Mr Watson had more ambitious projects before him,” said The Northern Echo. “He went into farming, buying up lots, putting them into the best condition, and selling them as opportunity made it desirable.”

Based at Lee’s Summit – the highest point of the railway between St Louis and Kansas – he had 3,000 sheep on his farms. He bought more land in the neighbouring state of Missouri, and became a nurseryman.

“He despatched fruit stock, as he said, over every railway system in the States,” said the Echo. “The extent of his business may be conceived from the fact that at one time he had on hand, as a nurseryman, as many as 100,000 hedge plants.”

He became councillor and then mayor of Lee’s Summit – today the city has a population of nearly 100,000 and its 42nd mayor, William A Baird, has recently taken up office.

In his retirement, Robert spent seven years travelling to every state in the US, before in the late 1880s returning to south Durham. He never married, and lived with a relative, Richard Taylor, and his family in Hamsterley.

He was noted for his “open-handed charity”, giving to the poor of Weardale and donating to the workhouses, and for his broad American accent.

Eleven months before he died, Robert installed his own 20ft high monument in the Town Cemetery.

“He only built it in obedience to his ruling principle to do everything decently and in order and to be prepared for eventualities which were known to be in the future and might come at any hour,” said the Echo.

“It consists of a colossal memorial of design combining at once massiveness of proportion and grace of outline.”

It was made by the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgport, Connecticut, and shipped via New York to Liverpool on a steamer called America. It arrived in “huge, strong wooden cases” in Bishop and took a “huge and powerful block and staff of men” a week to assemble.

The Monumental Bronze Company’s speciality was to make white bronze monuments that looked as if they had been carved out of stone.

On its four faces, Mr Watson had chosen mottoes by which he had lived his life. “With charity to all – an honest man’s the noblest work of God” is on one side, with “Be honest to thy God, the world, thy country, thy fellow man, and thyself” and “God has revealed himself in nature, of which science is interpreter” on the others.

The fourth side he left blank for his date of death to be inserted – obviously after he had died.

Hundreds of people came from miles around to view the memorial to the man who was not dead yet.

“In fine weather,” said the Echo, “the old gentleman would sit on one of the comfortable metal seats he had provided for public use, and listen, with a good natured smile, to the comments of the curious as they gazed at the monument and talked without guile of its listening wonder, Mr Watson himself not being popularly known in person.”

They could not have missed his name, though, which was emblazoned “in conspicuous capitals” at the foot of the monument.

Robert died, aged 72, on May 9, 1891, and was buried in the shadow of the monument he had prepared for such an inescapable event.

Interestingly, the monument has not been forgotten by the people of Bishop Auckland. For decades, they have been scratching their names, with a date, on its soft surface. The earliest seem to be from 1899 and 1909 (presumably the one from 1066 is a joke), and there are several men’s names from the early 1940s – “Colin Woods 1943”, for example. Perhaps they were men off to war.

There is no need for the name of a punk band, Anti Nowhere League, to adorn one of the uppermost medallions, but the hundreds of names on it suggest that the monument to the man who wasn’t dead has found a new life of its own.

With many thanks to Billy Mollon