A mystery that had the weight of the world on its shoulders

He watched over the people of Barnsley for generations, and couples were said to canoodle beneath his arms.

The surviving face of Atlas. Picture:  John Timmis
The surviving face of Atlas. Picture: John Timmis

But the whereabouts of the figure of Atlas, which once stood above the old Alhambra Theatre, have been surrounded in mystery since the building was razed to the ground in 1982.

His discovery this week, embedded in the garden wall of a collector in Wakefield, is a mixed blessing – for only his head remains and even that has needed a nose job.

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The figure, a local landmark in Barnsley, stood at the left-hand side of the theatre, which had been opened in 1915 by Countess Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. Atlas, carved by Alfie Popplewell, was added a few years later and formed a reassuring umbrella for the queues outside.

The Alhambra became a cinema in 1926 and later a bingo hall, before closing in 1979.

When the demolition crews moved in, the figure was thought to have been among the rubble. In fact, Eric Wilkinson, oblivious to its local significance, had put it in his garden as an ornament.

The globe that had been on Atlas’s shoulders had already been broken beyond repair, and over the years other bits of him also dropped off.

“I used to have all of him but there’s only the head left now,” Mr Wilkinson said. “It was made of pot, like a toilet, so it was easy to break. “My wife had to make him a new nose and painted up his face. There are marbles where his eyes should be.”

He said he had been driving past the demolition site by chance and rescued the figure before it went in the skip.

Local historians Dave Cherry and John Timmis tracked Atlas to Mr Wilkinson’s home and advised him of its history.

“Everyone had been looking for Atlas,” Mr Cherry said.

“For years people would queue under him as they went into the theatre. Nobody knew where he had gone when it was pulled down. Barnsley FC wanted to buy him at one stage,”

A shopping centre, which has retained the Alhambra name, now stands on the site of the theatre in the town centre.