After the end of World War I, a committee in Bridgwater was formed to discuss what kind of tribute to the war dead should be put up. This committee could not have foreseen that that their work would result in one of England’s most unusual and beautiful war memorials.
Lengthy discussions took place over the site the memorial. After rejecting Blake Gardens and the High Street as possible locations, King Square was chosen which at that time was being restored. The design, by West Country sculptor John Angel, was decided upon, and the cost of the project was estimated at £2,000. Over several years, this sum was raised and in 1924 the memorial was unveiled.
On an overcast day in September 1924, the artistry of John Angel was revealed to a public. King Square was crowded with relatives of the dead, ex-servicemen, local dignitaries and John Angel himself. The Angel was unveiled by Earl of Cavan KCB, GCVO. At this time in history all over the country, the traditional representation for war memorials was of a soldier. John Angel’s sculpture was hailed as innovative. He had highlighted symbolically the sacrifices of those men who died in the name of civilisation.
The central bronze figure – the angel – is civilisation. Below her feet is a monstrous head, a skeleton, a figure with its head in its hands and two figures engaged in combat. These represent the atrocities of war – bloodshed, corruption, strife and despair. In the Angel’s right hand is an orb decorated with four tiny characters representing the Four Corners of the Earth. A banner they are holding symbolises the earth united in brotherhood. The book of law rests in her lap protected by two children beneath her wings. Under the main canopy of her wings are a group of people symbolising labour, education and the home.
Upon her granite base more names have since appeared – those who died in World War II, the Korean War and the Falklands conflict.
John Angel was born in Newton Abbot in 1881 and lived in Exeter until he was twenty-two. He became apprenticed to a stone and woodcarver for seven years whilst also training at Exeter School of Art. After studying at Lambeth School of Art and the Royal Academy, he won a Gold Medal Prize. He used his travelling studentship to continue his studies in Greece and Italy. Back in England, he was commissioned to complete both Exeter and Bridgwater’s memorials before emigrating to America. He became a U.S. citizen in 1936 and continued a successful career, which included the creation of the bronze doors of St Patrick’s cathedral, New York. John Angel died in 1960.