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Story behind Chatham's Thomas Waghorn statue which featured on RuPaul Drag Race


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When pioneering Thomas Waghorn set about revolutionising long-distance post, it's doubtful he foresaw his efforts being honoured with a much-loved statue in his home town.

It's even more unlikely he would have understood the reason his memorial holds such a sentimental place in locals' thoughts.

The statue of Thomas Waghorn in Chatham
The statue of Thomas Waghorn in Chatham

He might have guessed it was down to his Anglo-Indian efforts, his intelligent analysis of time and distance or the fact the statue is quite fetching...as statues go.

But it's none of these. The reason why the lovely landmark holds such a special part in people's hearts is the fact someone years ago decided to climb it and plonk a traffic cone on its head.

Nobody knows who the first person to do this was, or how much they'd had to drink.

And it's anyone's guess who keeps on making sure the cone keeps its pride of place in all seasons and all weathers.

The statue was given a national nod last week when drag queen, River Medway, sported a colourful costume featuring the traffic-calming measure on BBC's RuPaul's Drag Race.

River Medway took to the Runway Challenge on RuPaul's Drag Race UK dressed as Chatham's Thomas Waghorn Statue. Picture: BBC
River Medway took to the Runway Challenge on RuPaul's Drag Race UK dressed as Chatham's Thomas Waghorn Statue. Picture: BBC

The Towns-raised performer was labelled 'iconic' for dressing as the infamous statue and although the judges were left confused, River has been praised by fans who instantly recognised the Medway image.

In fact, the positive response has led to the 23 year old releasing Waghorn merchandise in partnership with illustrator Jamiee Andrews.

But who exactly was Thomas (1800-1850) and why are we all so obsessed with him?

A Victorian sailor and naval officer, he was born in Chatham High Street.

He became famous after suggesting a new postal route between Britain and India before the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.

The Thomas Waghorn statue decorated in St George regalia
The Thomas Waghorn statue decorated in St George regalia

The pioneer shortened the three-month journey into 35-45 days by going through Egypt on land.

His statue on Railway Street was erected in 1888 and depicts the explorer pointing northwards...the wrong way.

This is because when it was first proposed, the statue was to be built at a different location which would have seen him pointing eastwards towards the postal route he discovered.

But plans changed leading him to be pointing instead at public toilets.

Buried at All Saints Church in Snodland, the popular figure was celebrated last year in a street party put on in his honour to remind residents of his legacy.

Thomas Waghorn pub in Chatham
Thomas Waghorn pub in Chatham

Sadly for him though, few people know of Waghorn's true legacy with artist Jonathan Ash suggesting he is far better known for wearing a bright orange cone than any of his adventures.

He said: "It is what he is remembered for. It has probably changed the memory of him."

Chatham-born Jonathan is one of many who feature the Towns' hero in their work, plastering the iconic pose on prints, mugs and cards.

He added: "I am a local boy it is a major iconic thing."

He says the products are his best sellers and recalls stepping into the world of Waghorn art after his niece asked him to create a painting depicting the statue.

Jonathan and his Waghorn mug available to buy on his website. Picture: Jonathan Ash
Jonathan and his Waghorn mug available to buy on his website. Picture: Jonathan Ash

A fan of the statue himself, he comments on growing up with the anticipation of not knowing if Waghorn would be donning a cone crown or not when walking around the town centre.

Yet, Jonathan is not the only artist to picture the legend in their work.

Vanessa Crew is another who sells Waghorn products including brooches, jewellery and Christmas cards.

Talking as to what inspired her, she said: "Growing up in Medway, the Thomas Waghorn statue has always been a talking point and reminder of home.

"One thing I especially love is how the cone on his head disrupts the formality of it being a public statue. Not to mention how funny it is that he is actually pointing the wrong direction.

Jonathan's collection of Waghorn products available to buy on his website. Picture: Jonathan Ash
Jonathan's collection of Waghorn products available to buy on his website. Picture: Jonathan Ash

"The sense of humour to the cone head statue, as well as being a Medway centrepiece, is one of the main reasons for wanting to use it in my work, so it is no surprise that so many other artists have too."

Saying she could babble on about Waghorn all day, Vanessa decided to create wearable pieces as an alternative Blue Peter badge for residents.

She added: "So often Chatham and Medway are spoken about negatively, but through the Thomas Waghorn as a 'people’s choice' local motif there is a warmth.

"This Medway in-joke creates a sense of community. Even more so as the action of putting the cone on his head is down to local residents, and it is a trend that has transcended generations too."

Not only inspiring products, Waghorn has a Wetherspoon's named after him located on the same road and is featured in a mural at The Fire Station Brasserie, Chatham.

Waghorn brooch available to purchase on Etsy by VanessaCube. Picture: Vanessa Crew
Waghorn brooch available to purchase on Etsy by VanessaCube. Picture: Vanessa Crew

Some other local Waghorn fanatics include:

Nick Ashton aka Chicken Monster who creates digital art with some Waghorn inspired pieces.

Mona and Cam at Art is for All sell a varitey of different Waghorn products here.

Amy at OodblesOfDoodles sell water bottles and mugs including a Halloween range on Etsy.

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