NOSTALGIA: Tale of Cirencester’s missing Black Jack statue

MENTION “Black Jack” to anyone from Cirencester and they will know exactly what you refer to, writes Robert Heaven.

Black Jack Street is a 120 metre long street at the back of the parish church with a popular pub – the Golden Cross, and a renowned butcher that has been there for two centuries – Jessie Smiths.

The name of the street is unique and derives from a statue of St John Baptist that once graced a niche 24.4 metres up the north west exterior of the 55 meter high, 15th century parish church tower.

The street was formerly named St John Street, but this was changed to its present name by the Local Board in 1877 to reflect the condition of the medieval statue of that had become blackened over the centuries by grime; variously attributed to blacksmith’s smoke, sulphur from street lighting torches and smoke from the Cirencester Brewery. “Jack” is a derivative of name “John”.

In 1963, following one of the worst cold weathers on record, “Jack” and another statue that stood in an opposite niche were inspected.

Jack had been severely damaged by the weather conditions and the statue opposite that was once believed to have been the Virgin Mary was so disfigured that both were deemed dangerous to the public below and were removed.

It was quite a feat to do this, as each statue was 1.98 metres tall and they weighed half a ton each.

Initial efforts by local firemen with the largest turntable ladder in Gloucestershire were thwarted by the protruding stonework.

But eventually two stonemasons were lowered down the tower on ropes to affix steel cables that then enabled the statues to be lowered to the ground in two halves.

The niches on the tower have been empty since 1963 and the whereabouts today of “Jack” and his companion are not known. They were initially stored by the church, but despite the efforts of a restoration group set up in 2018 to locate them, they were unsuccessful.

Restoration of the original “Jack and Mary” was not to be, and so the group set about finding a modern-day replacement.

A national competition was held to identify designs and artist Rodney Munday was chosen to recreate the former saints.

Bronze was chosen as the material to make them with, rather than the original soft limestone. Unlike medieval artistic convention, which prescribed rigid and upright form for religious work, bronze as a material facilitates a perception of movement allowing a figure to lean out of a niche rather than appear flat within a niche.

The new statues when completed will be 2.32 meters tall and will fit neatly (and securely) in the former home of Black Jack and the Virgin Mary on the north and west sides of the church tower.

The intention is to install the statues in August 2021 and there they will be blessed by the bishop in September 2021.

They are being worked on at the moment, but the maquette models can be seen in the Trinity Chapel during parish church opening hours.

Follow progress on the website https://projectblackjack.org.uk/

Thanks to Meg Blackman of the BlackJackProject group for the information and to the Bingham Library Trust for use of the photographs

Robert Heaven, 2020

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a photo of the missing “Blackjack” statue that was removed from the Parish church tower in May 1966 –

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