Monty and the Casket, 1947

The  Casket

The Casket

Freedom of the Borough for Viscount Montgomery, 1947

During the hundred years of its existence, the Borough of Royal Leamington Spa awarded the Honorary Freedom of the Borough to sixteen individuals and three military establishments. Of those individuals, all were men who had had a close relationship with the town but there was one notable exception. He was arguably the most celebrated and widely revered of the bunch known by all as ‘Monty’ but more properly as Field-Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG,GCB, DSO, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At his installation as a Freeman in the town hall on 4 October 1947 he felt obliged to allude to the fact that this was in fact his first visit to Leamington. The most tangible elements of the day’s proceedings were the beautifully illuminated freedom scroll and the engraved silver casket that contained it. In the case of Monty’s award, the production of the casket posed a number of problems.

Viscount Montgomery in characteristic pose

Viscount Montgomery in characteristic pose

The members of the corporation came up with the rather original idea of having on the lid of the casket a scale model of the tank from which Monty had in 1942 directed operations in the Libyan desert. The model would be made of sterling silver and British oak and would be mounted on a base plate of phosphor bronze salvaged from the battlefield at El Alamein. Mr Sidney Allen of the Birmingham silversmiths Gilbert and Allen was commissioned to make the casket. To his great frustration and in spite of visits to many different parts of the country, he had great difficulty in tracking down an authentic model or replica of the tank on which he could base his design. It was thanks to the army that Monty’s own tank was eventually found in Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire having only recently been shipped back to England. Unfortunately for Mr Allen and for the Corporation at the town hall, the discovery came barely a week before the date arranged for the award ceremony and not in time for the model to be completed. We don’t quite know what the unfinished casket presented to the Field-Marshall looked like. When completed, it was photographed by the Courier photographer and the photograph reproduced here is from their photographic archive.

On the face of it, the choice of Montgomery as a recipient of the Freedom seems to have been based solely on his success as a military commander and mayor Owen Davidson spoke in glowing terms of his ‘committed leadership’ comparing him to Nelson. So far as can be established, the only local connection he had was having been commissioned into the Royal Warwickshire Regiment back in 1908. The worthy town councillors and aldermen doubtless looked on Monty’s award as something of a public relations coup but whether the Field-Marshall ever re-visited Leamington to exercise his rights prior to his death in 1976, we know not.

Alan Griffin,   February 2016

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