Saving Oldham's War Memorial
|The conserved and repaired memorial, which was rededicated at a special Remembrance Day service on
10 November, 2013 (All photos: Eura Conservation Ltd unless otherwise stated)
Oldham War Memorial occupies a
paved triangular space in the centre
of this once thriving Lancashire mill
town. The site is framed by a grand redbrick
public house, the Greaves Arms, to
the east and by the imposing neo-classical
town hall to the south.
The parish church is
immediately to the north and its entrance
forms part of the memorial, with seven
bronze plaques and three smaller ones set
into its curved sandstone-clad walls. These
plaques record the names of the dead from
the first world war and subsequent conflicts.
A three-metre high granite base, surmounted
by Albert Toft’s magnificent sculptural
group, stands in the centre of the space.
A programme of conservation work
carried out between May and August 2013
encompassed not only the memorial’s
stone plinth and bronze sculpture but
also a mechanical book of remembrance
housed inside the plinth (illustrated below).
The memorial plaques attached to the
nearby churchyard wall, the wall itself and
the approach to the church opposite the
sculpture were also repaired and conserved.
Funding, coordinating and carrying out
the project brought together a wide range of
organisations including Unity Partnership
(representing Oldham Council), the War
Memorials Trust (WMT) and Oldham Liaison
of Ex-Service Associations; conservation
architects Lloyd Evans Prichard and main
contractors Lambert Walker Conservation
& Restoration Ltd; conservators from
the University of Manchester and bronze
specialists Eura Conservation Ltd. English
Heritage’s consultant Richard Harris
was brought in by WMT to advise.
Best conservation practice was
followed throughout all procedures, with
minimal intervention in line with Institute
of Conservation standards, and every
attempt was made to ensure that the bronze
sculpture, the plaques and the churchyard
were safely conserved for future generations.
A full photographic record was also kept
throughout all the processes, which should
give future conservators invaluable insights
into the 2013 project (a lack of detailed
records of past treatment was a particular
challenge during the recent works).
Albert Toft (1862-1949), the sculptor
commissioned to produce the memorial,
was born in Handsworth, Birmingham into a
family of Staffordshire pottery artists. Toft’s
father was Wedgwood’s principal modeller
and Albert also served his apprenticeship
with the firm.
||The mechanical book of remembrance was removed from the plinth and taken to the University of Manchester’s
Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care. The pages were removed from the drum with the help of staff and students from Oldham Technical
College then cleaned and repaired using Japanese tissue and a wheat starch paste. (Photos: The University of Manchester)
This early training may account
for the cameo-like effect of some of his
sculptural work. The plaque depicting the
three Graces on Cannon Hill Park’s Boer
War Memorial in south Birmingham, for
example, has a remarkable delicacy and
definition. His figures too, although they are
frequently war memorials, have a delicacy
and grace that belies the horrors of war.
After working at Wedgwood, Toft went
on to win a sculpture scholarship to the South
Kensington School of Art where his work was
awarded medals in both his second and third
years. Along with such notables as Hamo
Thorneycroft and George Frampton, Toft is
recognised as an important figure in the New
Sculpture movement which, beginning in the
late 19th century, challenged the dominant
neo-classical style with a new naturalism.
Toft was already a well-established name in
the art world by the time he was commissioned
to commemorate the appalling losses of the
first world war. Like many war memorials of
this period, Toft’s sculptures tend to idealise
the soldiers they portray. While soldier poets
like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon
depicted men physically and psychologically
maimed amid the squalor of the trenches,
memorial sculpture typically presents happier
and healthier images of young men prepared
to die nobly for their country.
for the Oldham memorial, set on its massive
granite plinth, depicts four of these idealised
soldiers, perhaps crawling out of the horror
of the trenches to stand, victorious, aloft.
The memorial was dedicated in April
1923. The model for the topmost figure was
also used for the Royal Fusiliers’ Memorial
in Holborn, London which was unveiled the
previous year, and another sister piece was
cast for the memorial to the 41st Division at
Flers, on the Somme battlefield. The Oldham
memorial is the only composite piece.
Inside the granite plinth is a small
room which was originally sealed by pairs
of imposing bronze coffered doors on the
north and south side. The south doors were
later replaced with a viewing window which
displays the book of remembrance, its pages
turned daily by a special mechanism.
Toft’s bronze sculpture was in a sad state by
the time conservation work commenced,
with corrosion holes and active corrosion
cells, and the surface was disfigured in many
places by dark sulphides and leaching salts.
Inspection also revealed cracks, casting flaws
and holes in the surface where there were
joints in the bronze. The whole of the sculpture
had been cleaned, and possibly over-cleaned,
in the past and a lacquer finish of unknown
date and composition had been applied.
The most active corrosion was apparent
where the lacquer had become degraded or worn, although there were also areas where
porosity in the original casting had allowed
material from the core to leach through to
the surface. In several places there were large
encrustations of salts and corrosion products
forming a distinct disfiguring layer, with
further corrosion continuing underneath.
There were also problems where the
separately cast components of the piece
had been joined. In places, the sections
had been brazed in with copper, which
was an entirely different colour, and there
were areas where pieces of metal appeared
to have been hammered in to fill gaps.
Water entering the sculpture through the
original casting joints and through corrosion
holes presented a problem for the room
beneath, where the book of remembrance
is displayed. The book was removed to be
digitally recorded, conserved and temporarily
displayed at the University of Manchester.
In addition to working on the repair and reinstatement
of the page-turning mechanism, conservators at the university also had to
consider adding new pages to commemorate
those killed in more recent conflicts.
The removal of the book of remembrance
in early May 2013 allowed Eura’s staff to
begin the process of testing appropriate
cleaning techniques. It was decided to
select a small area of horizontal surface not
visible from the ground and closely examine
the lacquer to determine its condition
before carrying out cleaning trials on it.
|Salts and other material which had leached from
the core of the bronze formed thick encrustations in
|Salt accretions with active corrosion (the green areas)
and a band of black sulphide staining
|Staining and pitting around a large, active corrosion
hole which had penetrated to the core of the rifle butt
|Poorly sealed gaps at the feet of the topmost soldier
where the castings had been joined together
A lightweight scaffolding tower was used
to gain access to the base of the bronze and
an area on the south west corner was chosen
for the trials. Micro-photos were taken of
the selected area before and after testing to
enable precise recording and assessment of
The area was then cleaned
using a one per cent solution of Triton
X-100 non-ionic detergent, agitating with
natural bristle brushes. The surface was
swab-dried, rinsed with de-ionised water
and allowed to dry. To the naked eye there
was no apparent difference between the
trial area and the surrounding metalwork,
although it could be seen from the swabs
that some soiling had been removed.
It was clear from the micro-photographs
that the lacquer was thicker in some places
than others, that the colour varied considerably
and that green corrosion products were visible
in many places. Examination of the surface
also showed that the sculpture was greener
where the lacquer was more severely degraded.
Once the trials had been completed the
results were disseminated to all interested
parties, including WMT and English Heritage,
to allow for discussion of the best way forward.
As the lacquer coating was clearly failing
it was necessary to remove it, a conclusion
supported by English Heritage’s consultant.
Further trials were carried out and
the best results were obtained with a
dichloromethane-based solvent. The use of
dichloromethane has been heavily restricted
under EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation,
Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals)
regulations since 2012. However, its use
is sometimes necessary when removing
historic treatments which weren’t applied
with reversibility in mind and, if used
carefully by conservators, it can safely remove
coatings without damaging the substrate.
The memorial was completely scaffolded
and screened for access and safety reasons.
Further protection was added by laying a
geotextile membrane (a permeable synthetic
fabric) over surfaces to collect residues and
to protect the local drains from the runoff
of cleaning products and old lacquer.
The dichloromethane was applied with
soft bristle brushes and swabbed off, and the
bronze was thoroughly cleaned between coats
with a high pressure steam cleaner, taking
care not to damage any existing patina. Even
with this treatment it took up to five coats in
some areas to fully remove lacquer residues
from sheltered crevices. All chemical residues
were caught in the geotextile membrane
and removed from site for safe disposal.
The removal of the lacquer coating
allowed for further assessment of the
surface and a photographic reference
was made of problem areas.
While some loose corrosion products
were effectively removed by repeated steam/
pressure washing, there were still areas of
active corrosion, intractably stubborn salts
and black sulphide accretions to deal with.
Working closely with WMT and the other
organisations concerned, it was agreed that
the worst areas of active corrosion should
be selectively and carefully cleaned further
using the wet Jos method. Jos is essentially
an air/water abrasive cleaning system which
is suitable for removing active corrosion
from bronze. In this case the medium used
was marble dust (calcium carbonate) mixed
with water and applied under pressure.
On bronze statuary, great care must
always be taken by the operatives when using
an abrasive system like Jos as it is possible
to damage the surface of the bronze. For
this reason, only a select group of highly experienced
operatives and technicians
was allowed to undertake the process. In
addition, it was used as lightly as possible
and only in those areas where it was
absolutely necessary, with a small nozzle
fitted to confine the spread of the medium.
Nevertheless, at the end of this process
there still remained, in places, very thick
coatings of salts or black sulphide deposits
despite water/steam pressure of up to 80
bar and selective Jos treatment. So, the final
stage in the process was the careful removal
of these deposits by hand, using wooden
spatulas, bronze spatulas and dental picks.
The whole sculpture was again
fully washed and steamed before
patination trials were commenced.
SURFACE REPAIRS AND PATINATION
Large holes and cracks in the surface of
the sculpture were repaired with bronze
mesh solidified with bronze-loaded resin.
Smaller areas were filled with bronze-loaded
resin or, wherever possible, with
coloured microcrystalline wax.
All fixings on the sculpture were checked
and any that were found to be ferrous were
replaced with bronze threaded bar.
Of the two bayonets on the original
sculpture, only one survived. As this one had
to be removed to replace its ferrous fixings,
the opportunity was taken to use it as a model
for replacing the other. After testing for exact
metal composition, a cast was taken, and the
missing bayonet was then cast in bronze of
a similar composition to the original. Once
the finish of the rest of the bronze had been
determined, the bayonet was cold patinated to
match the surrounding metal. (Cold patination
uses chemical compounds to achieve a given
colour on bronze without the application of
heat, which can burn off original patina.)
Achieving an even surface finish across the
whole sculpture posed significant challenges
due to colour inconsistencies in the brazing
and original copper infills. The de-lacquered,
cleaned but otherwise untreated green areas
also had to be blended with the areas of
bare metal where active corrosion had been
Because the whole sculpture had
been cleaned in the past, it was not possible
to determine its original finish. Prior to
conservation, the surface of the bronze was
a relatively pale colour with no apparent
chemical patination. However, from their
work on several other Toft sculptures, Eura
Conservation’s team suspected that it would
have been chemically patinated originally,
probably in a relatively pale colour.
||A detail of Albert Toft’s Oldham War Memorial during conservation
The patination chemicals trialled to
blend in the various areas were potassium
polysulphide, ammonia sulphide and
ammonia. Small discreet areas were chosen
for the trials that would be out of sight in
the finished project. The results confirmed
the conservators’ suspicions: it would not be
possible to replicate the existing pale colour
over the whole sculpture.
Again there were
meetings on site of all involved, including
WMT and English Heritage to decide the
best way forward. The conclusion was that, in
this case, the merits of a unified appearance
outweighed the loss of the existing patina,
so the whole surface would be chemically
re-patinated using traditional methods.
After further trials, work began on
restoring the finish. Cold or slightly warmed
applications of potassium poly-sulphide
were used, brushed back with the softest
bronze brushes, if required. Several coats of
the dilute chemical were needed, building
up gently to a medium colour over the
whole of the sculpture to achieve a finish
consistent with other Toft memorials.
features of the sculptural figures were very
gently burnished to even up the patina and
to achieve an attractive, slightly variegated
mid-brown bronze colour. This highlighting
achieves an aesthetically pleasing finish,
bringing sculptured faces to life. A three per cent solution of
benzotriazole in methylated spirits was
then applied as a corrosion inhibitor.
The final treatment involved gently
warming the sculpture and coating it with
microcrystalline wax to ensure surface
protection. Although wax does not last as
long as a lacquer finish, it is considered
preferable because it is readily reversible,
relatively flexible and easy to repair and
It does require more frequent
maintenance than lacquer but this can
easily be achieved by regularly washing and
re-waxing the sculpture. It does not present
the same problems of differential corrosion
as a lacquer does when it begins to break
down or becomes chipped or cracked. Wax
can also be used to even out porosity in the
original casting and to fill small holes. Soft
cloths were used to buff the wax to a light
sheen to complete work on the sculpture.
Lambert Walker’s staff re-pointed the
granite plinth, re-leaded the drains which
take water away from the upper surfaces and
sealed the edge of the sculpture. An anxious
morning spent water-testing the whole
structure led to sighs of relief all around.
Internal work to allow the re-positioning
and lighting of the book of remembrance
completed this part of the project.
Re-dedicated on 10 November 2013,
Toft’s war memorial once more stands
proudly above the town hall as a fitting
tribute to those who lost their lives in the
first world war and subsequent conflicts.
G Archer, The Glorious Dead: Figurative
Sculpture of British First World War
Memorials, Frontier Publishing,
English Heritage, Practical Building
Conservation: Metals, Ashgate,