Walsall Hippo’s hidden history


A photo of the Walsall Hippo
The Walsall Hippo. Pic: Dan Slee

A letter from sculptor John Wood reveals the hidden Egyptian history of the famous piece of public art he created – Walsall’s stone hippopotamus.

The Walsall Hippo is one of the most loved pieces of public art in the Midlands, England, UK. It sits in Walsall town centre and has been a meeting point for generations of local people. Comedian Mark Steel has written about its star status, but little was thought to be known about its history.

If you have more information or photos about the hippo’s creation or history, please add a comment below, or get in touch. Thank you.

Back in 2007 I was in touch with John Wood, the hippo’s creator. Today, when clearing out some paperwork I came across a letter from Mr Wood, titled ‘The Definitive Hippo’, it’s his account of the hippo’s history.

The Definitive Hippo by John Wood

Mr Wood writes:

“Although I have refrained from comment over the years, the work is now referenced on the internet at Icons : Art in Public Places, amongst other websites. As its sculptor I retain copyright and it is perhaps time to record what I know of its inception.

I believe the year was 1972 and around the end of March when I received a somewhat mysterious enquiry for what was described as a piece of play sculpture to be sited in the town centre.

I can recall my Council contact’s name was Anthony and he assured me the project was absolutely genuine. He insisted that it should be treated in the strictest confidence because a small group of his colleagues, whom he did not choose to identify, intended to present the elected members with a fait accompli.

Their first preference was for a traditional granite carving, but since that was clearly outside the meagre budget that had apparently been gleaned from odd corners of the Council’s coffers, we settled upon what is now termed as reconstructed stone.

The form was sculpted in clay at my then Pinfold Street, Darlaston studio and Keith, a young lad fresh from school assisted in the initial manipulation of around a ton of the material obtained from Potters Clay in Brownhills. A two-piece mould was taken using glass reinforced resins and the work was superbly cast by Mono Concrete, whose usual production was kerb stones and car park bollards.

My fee for making the piece was £500.00, which works out at £14.70 for each year of its existence to date.”

Why a hippopotamus?

A photo of the Walsall Hippo
The Walsall Hippo. Pic: Tim Ellis

“Why a hippopotamus? At the time I had the distinct impression that its commissioners intended a more symbolic meaning than a simple piece of play sculpture.

Erich von Daniken’s book ‘Chariots of the Gods’ was very much a “Da Vinci Code’ parallel of the time and I knew zoomorphic deities were very common in antiquity. After some elementary research I began to appreciate the suggested hippopotamus form had remarkably appropriate antecedents from ancient cultures.

Early Egyptians witnessed first-hand the female hippopotamus’s aggressive protection of their young. Tarewet, their god of the northern horizon, the major part of whose form being hippopotamus, became a protective deity for childbirth and children.

The hippo’s original home outside Lloyds Bank was also an inspired placement. For many years the hippo sat comfortably upon the bank of the culverted Walsall Brook, providing a safe focal point for mothers and their children even into adulthood. It guarded the now subterranial remains of the last bridge over the Brook as it gazed towards the northern sky.

Do the people who took the decision to disturb the hippo appreciate there are those even today who hold that evocations of past cultures may carry risks? Certainly most sculptors would concede some unfathomable creative guidance in producing their work.

A second hippopotamus form from the same millennium was the feared masculine deity Seth, who supposedly reigned over chaos and revenge. Mythology also theorises that such immortals, when displeased, could change their gender at will.

When I occasionally attempt to pass through the incoherent jumble that is today’s Walsall, I often ponder exactly what influence now oversees the town.

Someone recently said, if you look very carefully, the hint of a smile tells you it knows something we don’t. Perhaps indeed it does.”

Letter sent to CTS Ryan, 2007.

Walsall Hippo photo
The Walsall Hippo. Pic: harrypope

List of credits – here’s a list of the people responsible for creating Walsall’s hippopotamus
It would be great to add some faces to these names, so please send in more info or photos if you have them.

John Wood – sculptor
Keith Jones – assistant to John
Tony Harrington – Walsall architect (played a part in the initial commissioning?)

Elsewhere
Hippo photo – Dan Slee
Hippo photo – Tim Ellis
Hippo photo – harrypope


16 responses to “Walsall Hippo’s hidden history”

  1. Comment from Christopher Carpenter on Facebook, about where the Hippo was located:

    “Random fact: They chose a hippo as he used to sit above the river which runs directly under “Bridge” street. You can still see the river just pop behind the imperial pub (they wont mind).”

  2. Comment by Karen Elliot, from Facebook, about the creation of the hippo:

    “OK – this is what I’ve found out…The Hippo was the brain child of my uncle, Tony Harrington, who was at the time an architect with Walsall council. He had been looking through a magazine – ‘The Concrete Quarterly’ (yes, I know…!!!)where he saw a similar sculpturemade from stone, situated in Denmark. In those days the idea of street art was quite new, but Tony felt inspired to give Walsall its own hippo.
    The problem was that a similar sculpture was much too costly for the walsall budget, so Tony suggested that it be cast in concret, and approached John Wood with the idea. Yes… at first the idea seemed a little crazy but nevertheless, funding was granted and the hippo came into being.
    These days, when the public are more intune with street art, the concept seems quite natural, but at the time was quite innovative and understandably not appreciated by all.

    I don’t believe that there was any hidden reason or meaning behind its conception, other than to create an object of interest, intrigue and pleasure for people to enjoy in whatever way they wish.
    It has given Tony a great deal of pleaure knowing that so many people (especially the younger generation) have taken the Hippo to heart. He hopes that the friendly beast will continue to delight for many years to come.

  3. Thanks for more information about our Hippo, a few years ago I tried to find out more so that I could start my collection of people`s memories concerning the Hippo, as with new technology allowing people to be instantly in touch, I want to record the period of our social history when we used to say `meet me by the hippo`.Please contact me by email and tell me your story, it doesnt have to be `exciting` etc, just how you and friends, maybe loved ones used to meet there or how you loved to sit on him as a child? [email protected]

  4. Hi, My name is Deb Slade, I work in Community Arts (Walsall Council) and we are using the hippo as inspiration for Young People’s consultation about being creative. We have cast 100 small models of the hippo in resin which young people have been decorating to display in a youth arts activities shop in the Saddlers centre for the first week in August 2013. & of the models are being decorated by Walsall Artists to be placed in the towns cultural centres as a trail for young people to follow to find out about creative opportunities in Walsall. The 7 decorated hippos will later in the year be exhibited in the Gallery.Next week Mon 22nd July we will be dressing the hippo in flower garlands for a publicity shot. If anyone would like to get in touch about the project please contact [email protected].

  5. Hi Gareth – I’ve not heard of Mr Jones’ signs. Do you have any photos or links you can send to us? Many thanks for getting in touch.

  6. My Father is Keith Jones the man named in this article. Gareth – You mention signs? would you elaborate a little further?

    I had the pleasure of speaking with John Wood a few times about their work on the Hippo.

    I would love to hear from people involved in the project.

    • hi Gemma
      i`m still trying to write a social history concerning the Hippo and how it became such a part of Walsall people`s life. I was in the audience a few years ago for a Radio 4 recording by Mark Steele and when he started taking the mickey out of our wonderful Hippo, the audience did not appreciate it and that part of the show was cut from the actual broadcast!
      So, as I`m still trying to collect people`s stories about their love and their memories of the Hippo.
      Could you email me shani,[email protected] or through this post. No story would be uninteresting to me, please dont think your memories are irrelivant.

      Shani

  7. The Chariot of the Gods was a book our Father, Eric Alison,Walsall Labour Councillor,had in is Library about the same time as the Hippos inception .

  8. The day it was laid down in Walsall the TV was there And I was asked to leapfrog it which I did and it was shown on TV

  9. Comment from Ross, December 2021:

    Hi, I am resident in Walsall (not born in). I was delighted to discover muriels of this hippo outside an arcade entrance in Walsall, and also badly cracked and broken porcelain tiles of the hippo in Chuckery and Caldmore.

  10. Related info:
    In the 1970s street art hippos appeared on the streets of Glenrothes, too.

    In November 2021, the BBC broadcast a documentary titled “Meet you at the hippos” all about art on the streets of the Scottish new towns. It’s not about Walsall, but it does perhaps explain some of the ideas about the role of municipal art at that time, that led to the creation of the Walsall hippos.

    “Stan Bonnar was the first assistant to seminal town artist David Harding in Glenrothes in the early 70s, then became town artist himself at East Kilbride and Stonehouse Development Corporation later on in the decade. His first new town artwork was the concrete hippos that have stalked Glenrothes for almost 50 years. ”

    bbc. co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00124rq/meet-you-at-the-hippos

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