George Walker Milburn (1844-1941)

Woodcarver, stonemason and sculptor

Location of plaque: St Leonard’s Place

THERE is an enduring myth in York that the statue of George Leeman in Station Avenue was originally of George Hudson, but was reshaped as Leeman when Hudson fell from grace.

It's a great story - but it happens not to be true. It was debunked by the late and much-missed York historian Hugh Murray, who pointed out there was clear evidence the statue was designed and commissioned from the outset to be of Leeman. In fact there was a public competition to make it.

The man who won that competition was George Walker Milburn, the York master woodcarver, stonemason and sculptor who later in his life was described by renowned stained glass artist John Knowles as 'the best Gothic sculptor in the country'.

Milburn was born in Goodramgate in 1844, the eighth of ten children of York tailor Lionel Milburn. In his teens, he was apprenticed as a woodcarver to Stonegate 'Pianoforte Manufacturer' William Waddington. Milburn attended York School of Art then went to London to study stone-carving.

He returned to York in 1872 and set up his own stoneyard in Gillygate. One of his first commissions was to carve decorative stonework for a restoration of the South Transept of York Minster. Then, in 1885, he won the competition to carve York's first public statue, of Leeman, the York MP and three times Lord Mayor. The statue established his reputation as a sculptor.

Milburn moved his stoneyard to St Leonard's Place, and during a long working life that lasted well into his eighties, he carved many other statues - among them the one of William Etty which stands in Exhibition Square, and a statue of Queen Victoria for the Guildhall. This received widespread praise, and when unveiled by the Queen’s daughter, Princess Henry of Battenberg, she broke with protocol and shook the sculptor’s hand.

During his lifetime, Milburn suffered great personal tragedy. His first child, Lionel, died at aged one; his first wife, Ellen, died of TB in 1885 aged 28, shortly after giving birth to their fourth child, Norah; Norah herself died one year later. In all, of five children in his two marriages, only two survived to adulthood. But his second marriage, to Isabella Fletcher in 1888, lasted until her death in 1924 and for many years he worked with his son, Wilfrid Joseph Milburn, at the G.W. Milburn & Son stoneyard in St Leonard’s Place.

By the end of his long life, Milburn had gained a national reputation. While his works, of which more than 270 survive, were mainly in Yorkshire and the North East, they can be found throughout the country, from Bournemouth to Edinburgh, where he carved the statue of John Hunter on the façade of the National Portrait Gallery.

George Milburn died in York City Hospital, Huntington Road, on September 3, 1941.

To read the stories behind other York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.org.uk