Messenger by Joseph Hillier

Messenger by Joseph Hillier, Theatre Royal Plymouth

18th March 2019 2.00am

I stand in the dark and deserted dockyard. The night is still but fresh. My hi-vis jacket helps protect me from the cold and drizzle. On the quayside a giant pontoon barge lies ready, it’s cargo lashed to the rusted and battered steel deck. A bronze towering seven metres tall. Ten tonnes and more than a year’s labour. Cast and fabricated in Wales from over a hundred lost wax plates. Welded and finished. Cut up, transported and reassembled in the naval yard, “Messenger” is ready to complete her journey. The only way out is by sea… or cut her up again.

…. December 1990. A Saturday morning. Thirty long years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. It’s freezing. The corrugated iron shed is covered in a film of frost. Inside it’s dark, silent and cold. My mate is here to help. The foundry is ready. I am ready. For the first time in my life I am in charge… 

The pilot boat pulls up and we get on board. We head out to check the conditions. Nothing is being left to chance today. The bracing sea air and adrenaline have got me wide-awake. All’s well and we head back to collect our precious load. In darkness the pilot pushes the pontoon out to the open sea. The crew chat, laugh and make tea. Just another early start for them. I’m only here for the ride. A passenger. Safe in their hands I watch in silence as the first glimmer of daybreak reveals our silhouetted giant, surfing across the open sea.

…Nervously I fire up the new furnace I had dreamed of and lovingly built. I start slowly as steam is forced out of the freshly cast lining. I turn up the heat. The iron shed begins to gently rattle as the furnace sucks in the energy and then suddenly rockets it’s flame out of the top for the first time. It’s dangerous but I hide my fear. It’s in my hands now. I have to concentrate on what I’ve learned. Second nature will come in time…

We plough on across Plymouth Sound circled by a crowded press boat and a drone. Apparently we’re live on breakfast TV today. Its only 6am but people are all ready gathering on the Hoe to watch the arrival. As we approach the port a fluorescent army awaits. This operation has been planned to perfection with know how, but you can only hope the weather behaves. With luck it does. Back on dry land experts spring into action as one. “Messenger” is untied, lifted and secured on the enormous low loader without a hitch. 

…The furnace begins to glow bright orange, lighting up the shed with its own florescence. The crown of flame turns copper green as I charge the pot. We enjoy the warmth now created and chat about the new foundry. I step outside to get some air and cool off. A mist of steam rises from the tin roof. The furnace blasts out it’s roar as the winter sun casts it’s own golden glow. All that matters is this moment… 

The show must go on and we’re ready to move. Everything has been checked and checked again. Blue flashing police cars lead the procession out of the dock gates. Roped down on her carriage like a modern day Gulliver, “Messenger” moves at walking pace through the city streets, crowds of “Lilliputians” gathering to watch the spectacle. She sways, stops and starts as the roundabouts and bumps are negotiated. I walk along side watching every move so intensely I hardly notice the swelling crowds. But I feel the excitement in the air.

…I check the molten bronze. We are simply trying out the furnace. Having fun. We knock up some sand moulds to pour. Nothing special. Some wooden patterns my friend had turned on his new lathe. The proper work is for a future I cannot imagine now. I check the bronze again as I was taught, as I would countless times in the years ahead. Teach others to do…and they would teach others in turn. Four thousand year old magic to be mastered, refined and passed on. We dress in our brand new foundry gear and set up the shiny tools. I shout instructions as I check the metal one more time and turn off the blower. Our voices drop with the impact of sudden silence. We lift out the glowing pot, chain it to the irons and pour…

Outside the Theatre Royal public wait to watch the show. Inside the fenced off site the stage is set. We have checked those measurements over and over but still I’m anxious. A sea of faces look up as the giant crane raises her up for the grand finale. The intensity, the planning, the artist’s vision, the weight on our shoulders. Our reputation hanging on this final moment. The giant gently lands inside the compound and like all well laid plans, she fits of course. Pins, resin, tightened bolts. Relief. Our biggest project complete.

…We knock out the boxes to see what we’ve got. I brush off the sandy forms, satisfied the furnace worked and looking forward to a real project to cast. My mate carried his treasure home. Mine, discarded, forgotten. A few years later I came across that first casting while searching for something else and remembered…

 I sit outside the theatre and watch peacefully as the curious gather to inspect the new arrival. I’m able to admire it too, at last. The bronze is touched by hands and snapped by phones. A child runs up to it, turns back and reappears excited to show her friend. “See, I told you she was big”. She certainly is.

Now that was some project. I am in awe of our achievement. The collective energy. The skill and dedication. The effort to get here. Day by day, step by step for thirty years. Our journey.

If success is a journey not a destination, then I couldn’t ask for more. Complex, intense projects simply become markers along the way. My mind wanders back to that carefree day where it all began. When all possibilities lay ahead. I have something more than a faded photo to remind me. That worthless casting could have gone back in the pot, but it became a treasure. A personal artefact. A marker. Now polished up and often handled, I am lucky to have it. It’s powerful. I keep it close to me now.First


  1. Bill Heckle · · Reply

    Great memories Chris !!


  2. Lovely writing Chris – glad to be your oldest customers – if not the best! Proud of what you have achieved, the company you have built up with talented, friendly staff are a pleasure to work with. Plus we have enjoyed the adventures along the way with you.


  3. Ian Storey Storey · · Reply

    Nice one Chris!


  4. Rob Wantling · · Reply

    Fantastic article, loved the early memories and feelings interlaced into the narrative. Fantastic achievement.


  5. Chris,
    That’s a very beautiful piece of writing and I felt like I was there when you were casting for the first time in your own foundry. Honoured to have worked together on messenger and she stands as a monument in our lives as well as in Plymouth. Thank you.


  6. Thank you Chris, a fabulous achievement and a wonderful story.


  7. Sam Thomas · · Reply

    A pleasure to read thanks. I found my experience with the factory so enriching and enjoyable. Every visit seeing all the work in progress in each and every stage was a delight. Everyone working there so friendly, helpful and tolerant of this visitor staring in awe at their work and asking loads of questions.

    I only wish I had the time and money to dive deeper into this fascinating world, I will be back my last sculpture of two crows was all but complete when life forced my sculpture adventure to be put on hold, they shall see the fiery furnace 🙂


  8. Really good to see these blogs back. Compiling this album of touching stories is a very valuable thing for everyone in the family. This piece reminds me of how time moves back at the same time as forward, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. KORITFW


  9. Helen Costello · · Reply

    Such an uplifting read Chris. I felt quite emotional looking at those photos and proud to have been a tiny party of an amazing project…what a journey so far!


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