NOT many public parks in the country can offer such sensational views as Wharton Park in Durham; very few can have as many steps as the climb from North Road up to amphitheatre and the belvedere.

And there cannot be a single other municipal park with an unsolved riddle of an unknown statue at its heart.

Municipal parks tend to be very good at recording the story of every benefactor, artefact and even tree, which makes the mystery of Wharton’s headless statue even more intriguing.

The Northern Echo: William Lloyd Wharton, whose legacy extends far and wide in his adopted home town of Durham

There is no doubting the principal benefactor of Wharton Park: William Lloyd Wharton (above). It’s not just in the name but there’s also a statue of him gazing out over the tree-top panorama towards the cathedral.

William came from a long line of Durham mayors and MPs and in 1824, he built Dryburn Hall on the estate his great-grandfather had bought in 1760. On the steep hill next to it – called Windy Hill, because of its exposed position – he laid out a garden.


William had many business interests. The main street in Coundon is called Wharton Street because of his coalmine.

He was also a director of the North Eastern Railway and Durham station was built on his land in 1857. Above it on Windy Hill, he built a mock castle as a belvedere – “a beautiful view”.

The Northern Echo: William Lloyd Wharton's 1858 Latin inscription on the battery

A stone with a Latin inscription set into the wall says: “William Lloyd Wharton greets the citizens looking on this view, 1858.”

The Northern Echo: Even on a grey day the panorama from Wharton Park is amazingEven on a grey day the panorama from Wharton Park is amazing

In the days of steam, it must have been a thrilling, and a smoky and smutty, place to stand and look down on the engines working the main line.

The Northern Echo: Children play on one of the cannon placed in the battery in Wharton Park in 1935. The cannon were melted down in 1940Children play on one of the cannon placed in the battery in Wharton Park in 1935. The cannon were melted down in 1940

Like Ripon, Richmond, Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Sunderland, Durham was granted one of the Russian cannons seized at Sebastopol during the Crimean War, and it was placed on the belvedere with its barrel facing in a bellicose fashion towards the cathedral. Other cannon joined it, and the belvedere became known as “the battery” – a name it retains today even though its military implements were removed and melted down for the war effort in 1940.

The Northern Echo: Durham Women's Gala in the amphitheatre in Wharton Park in June 1957Durham Women's Gala in the amphitheatre in Wharton Park in June 1957

With a natural amphitheatre sculpted out of the hillside, Wharton Park became the venue for events: the city’s first hot air balloon took off from here in 1860; the Durham miners held their first gala there in 1871.

The Northern Echo: The crowds in Wharton Park, Durham, on the 1911 Coronation Day The 1911 Coronation being celebrated in the amphitheatre at Wharton Park

The Northern Echo: Neptune on crutches and short of a lower leg in Wharton Park in the late 1960sNeptune on crutches and short of a lower leg in Wharton Park in the late 1960s

In 1923, Neptune, the Roman god of freshwater and the sea, moved from the Market Place and took up residence in the park. He had been presented to the city in 1729 by George Bowes MP, of Gibside and Streatlam, who had visions of driving a canal north to the River Team at Gateshead, thus allowing Durham to be connected to the River Tyne and so turning it into a seaport. The vast cost holed the watery plan, but Neptune became a pant-topper, as drinking water was pumped into his plinth from Fram Well.

However, by the 1920s, he had become a traffic hazard and so was banished to the park where the ravages of time, and vandals, caught up with him. By the 1970s, he had lost the lower part of a leg and had to be held up on crutches. Then, in 1979, he was struck by lightning – “the old man from the sea has been struck by a bolt from the blue”, said the Echo’s sister paper, the Durham Advertiser.

Neptune was put into storage while the City of Durham Trust led a fundraising campaign to have him restored. Finally, in May 1991, he was put back in the Market Place just yards from where he had been originally sited 262 years earlier.

This has not left Wharton Park without curious pieces of artwork. Ps in a Pod, which look like jacks tumbling down a hill, have found their home in the park after their pre-pandemic tour of Seaham, Bishop Auckland and Hamsterley.

The Northern Echo: The Way in Wharton Park in sparkling condition on September 22, 1994, the day after it was unveiled with three-year-old Ashley Kell, of Murton, as its centrepiece. The sculpture, by New Zealander Hamish Horsley who has works throughout Europe and theThe Way in Wharton Park on September 22, 1994, the day it was unveiled with three-year-old Ashley Kell, of Murton, at its centre

And, most beloved of photographers, is The Way, a stone sculpture by Hamish Horsley that was originally called Aion and was commissioned by British Rail for the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990. In 1994, it was remodelled to utilise Wharton Park’s dramatic setting so that it now points the way to the cathedral.

Plus, down by the North Road entrance to the park, there is a statue of a headless chap which stands in front of a tree on a wall with an inscription saying it is “Albert the Good”. But it isn’t…

The Northern Echo: The headless statue in Wharton Park today

In great detail, we know that the oak tree was planted on March 10, 1863, the day of the royal wedding between the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

Durham awoke that morning to discover that a cold covering of snow had fallen on its flags and banners, but still it pressed on by distributing a generous meal to 2,000 poor people from the Market Hall: 180 stones of roast beef, 1,200 loaves of bread, two tons of potatoes and eight half-barrels of beer.

Then everyone processed to the park.

“Numerous banners and flags were hoisted on the batteries and in other parts of the park, and the scene was as lively as it was possible for such accessories to make it, but it required a very warm feeling of loyalty to counteract the disagreeable sensations which were engendered by the rawness of the weather and the slipperiness and tenacity of the mud,” said the Durham Chronicle.

The Durham Advertiser’s reporter was also shivering miserably.

“The New Park on Tuesday morning had a cold and bleak aspect as it frowned from its height upon the good old city,” he wrote. “The Russian gun made a black line against the sky, and the other batteries presented a grim aspect, with the background of white which the snow had made of the hills. Several flags were hoisted and the fort-like park had certainly more of the appearance of hostility than festivity.”

The Northern Echo: William Lloyd Wharton in his park todayThe statue of William Lloyd Wharton in his park today

On the battery, Mr Wharton led the toasting to the royal couple with “bumpers of champagne”, and he unfurled a red and white Danish flag.

“This was followed by a royal salute of 21 guns, and the effect of these explosions on the tympanum of the human ear may be judged from the fact that the concussion of the air rent one of the parchment ends of the big drum to pieces,” said the Chronicle. “After the firing of the salute, the band played for a quarter of an hour, and an opportunity was afforded in the meantime for those who had been on the battery to recover their sense of hearing.

At precisely 12.55, the moment Prince Albert was due to slip the wedding ring onto the finger of his bride in Westminster Abbey, Mr Wharton began his first speech.

The Northern Echo: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are seen in an archive photo from The Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace in London on May 11, 1854. Buckingham Palace said on Sunday it has launched an account with online photo management site Flickr. The BritishQueen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace on May 11, 1854. The Wharton Park oak was planted in Albert's memory - could the mystery statue once have been Victoria?

When he had finished, people moved down to the North Road entrance for 1.30pm. The previous November, Queen Victoria had planted a memorial oak in Windsor Great Park as a symbol of her undying affection for her husband, Prince Albert, who had died on December 14, 1861, and a wave of oak planting swept the country.

Mr Wharton, himself 71, wished Durham to join that wave, and so began another speech by saying: “During my passage through a long life, I have for years past regarded a truly good man as more entitled to honour and reverence than a great man, when his greatness depends upon wealth, power and rank, unaccompanied by high and noble conduct (hear, hear). The late Prince Albert was a good as well as a great man (cheers). Placed in one of the highest situations which a man can occupy in this country, he devoted his powerful talents and his commanding influence not to selfish objects of ambition and vainglory but to the good of his fellow men (cheers).”

The Northern Echo: The Prince Albert memorial growing with the mystery statue, apparently with a head, in front of itThe Prince Albert memorial tree growing with the mystery statue, apparently with a head, in front of it

After much eulogising, Mr Wharton concluded: “Ladies and gentlemen, I will now, without further preface, call upon some of my friends to assist me in fixing this tree in its new position in the receptacle which has been prepared for it with very great care, and where I hope it will flourish for many a year (cheers). I hope those who may hereafter wander into these grounds may gaze on these walls, and on the inscription engraved on them, with benefit to themselves and may share with us in our reverence and respect for the memory of ‘Albert the Good’ (much applause).”


The mayor of Durham, Archibald Bland, inflicted a further speech upon the frozen masses, saying: “Let us hope that this Prince of Wales may grow in power, influence and in glory as this tree which, though now but a mere sapling, may become the greatest in all this park when I, and all who now surround me, will be nothing but dust and ashes (cheers).”

Eventually, schoolchildren with their banners “filed in front of the mound where the oak tree had been planted and sung a new version of the National Anthem, in which the whole of the assemblage joined,” said the Chronicle. “This terminated the proceedings in the park, and in the midst of a sleety shower, the company dispersed.”

Planned dancing was cancelled because of the weather.

In all of this elaborate description, there is no mention of a headless statue. It is just the oak tree, dedicated to “Albert the Good”, that was planted that day.

In fact, people with long memories cannot remember the statue being there in the 1930s and 1940s.

But then, one day, it was.

The Northern Echo: The headless statue in Wharton Park todayThe headless statue in Wharton Park today

It brought with it another inscribed stone which says: “While we have time, let us do good to all men."

It may even have had a head, perhaps until the late 1960s, when it was mysteriously decapitated.

No one knows where the statue came from, and no one knows when it came. It appears to be Victorian, and has a maker’s name on it: J Gibson. There was a highly regarded Welsh sculptor called John Gibson (1790-1866), whose work includes a statue of Queen Victoria in the Houses of Parliament and one of Sir Robert Peel in Westminster Abbey. Could it be one of his?

And no one knows who the statue represents: in its hands it holds the orb and the sceptre, the symbols of power of a British monarch, so it cannot be Prince Albert,

A best guess might be that it is Victoria, and someone thought it suitable to place her next to the tree dedicated to her husband – although without a head, we shall never know for certain.

The mystery adds to the enigmatic air of Wharton Park and gives the visitor something else to ponder as they look out at the majestic views from the gun battery that no longer has any guns.

The Northern Echo: The Duke of Kent tours the newly refurbished Wharton Park in 2012. Picture: TOM BANKS.The Duke of Kent tours the newly refurbished Wharton Park in 2012


The Northern Echo: Durham Cathedral from the battery at Wharton Park. Picture by John Lyons of The Northern Echo Camera ClubDurham Cathedral from the battery at Wharton Park. Picture by John Lyons of The Northern Echo Camera Club