Written by George Evans-Hulme.
Amongst the many valid and important discourses that have come to the fore of public life as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the western world following the murder of George Floyd, the debate surrounding who, and what, we as a society choose to remember in our public spaces is amongst those that have emerged.
It does not take long, whilst scrolling on social media, to come across an image relating to the recent deposition of the Edward Colston statue into Bristol harbour. Video footage shows that the statue was pulled from its plinth by protestors before being dragged to the quayside and dumped over the railings into the water below. The reaction has been somewhat polarised between those who argue that the statue, and the man it represents, should topple and that it has no place in Bristolian public space; and those who see the event as wanton criminal damage.
It is not the place of this piece to comment on the legal and moral case for and against this action; rather, it is to set it in a historical context.
A Tale as Old as Time
The debate about public memorials in Britain, of course, is not a new phenomenon (you do not have to cast your mind back too far to recall the debate surrounding the ‘Rhodes must Fall’ campaign that called for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the public façade of Oriel College, Oxford); the fall of the Colston statue will now form the newest strand in this debate.
It should also be acknowledged that, more generally speaking, the arguments for the removal of statues from British public places are not solely confined to those who were complicit in the slave trade; but also to those Britons who were more generally involved in the subjugation and suppression of foreign nationals.
(Statue of Charles James Napier, Trafalgar Square. Image owned by George Evans-Hulme [author], 2020)
For example, the debate in the early 2000s about the presence of the effigies of Charles Napier and Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square (sparked by the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone) made the British people ask whether they wanted the images of two men, each involved in their own controversies on the Indian subcontinent, front and centre in, what some call, the ‘front room’ of the British nation. Although, the key difference in the debate around these monuments and that of Colston is that Napier and Havelock still reside in Trafalgar Square whereas Colston is currently at the bottom of the Avon.
However, not all statues in Trafalgar Square that might be considered controversial by modern standards have remained there. A statue of Charles Gordon, a Victorian general known (and formerly glorified) for his involvement in savagely putting down rebellions across the British Empire, was removed from Trafalgar Square during the Second World War to make way for a Lancaster bomber that was placed in the middle of the square as part of the 1943 ‘Wings for Victory’ campaign.
(Statue of Henry Havelock, Trafalgar Square. Image owned by George Evans-Hulme [author], 2020)
A discourse of identity surrounding the statue emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, with people asking whether Trafalgar Square was an appropriate place for the British General. Some were explicitly in favour of the statue being returned, including the then Leader of the Opposition Winston Churchill who thought it an appropriate place for military heroes. Others, however, labelled Gordon as barbaric, and thought he was undeserving of being re-erected in the square. In the end, the statue was simply never put back (and now resides on the Embankment). Although, it must be said, this was because the statue did not fit in with proposed (but never realised) government plans for the square rather than the influence of public opinion.
Why 'should those who destroy be at the forefront of public remembrance’ rather than those who sought to preserve life?
The Trafalgar Square statue that prompted the most polemical debate amongst the public, however, was that of Edward Jenner, the physician known for his role in the development of the smallpox vaccination. His effigy was placed in Trafalgar Square in the spring of 1858 and was removed just four years later; officially, as a result of the aesthetic juxtaposition between the seated Jenner and the erect Charles Napier on the western side of the square.
(Statue of Edward Jenner, Kensington Gardens. Image owned by George Evans-Hulme [author], 2020)
The debate surrounding the placement of the statue in the square persisted throughout its short time there. A variety of arguments were put forward for the statue to be permanently removed. Some contemporaries, amongst them MPs, called it a ridiculous juxtaposition to the other statues already in Trafalgar Square both thematically (i.e. a medical practitioner intruding on a piazza dominated by military figures) as well as aesthetically. It was viewed by many as a veritable sore thumb (not to be confused with David Shrigley’s Fourth Plinth sculpture) amongst the military ‘heroes’ memorialised in the square.
These complaints could easily be taken at face value but, seen in the light of a British identity (shared by many in the contemporary ruling classes) that was predominantly built on the ideals of segregation and difference, it is not difficult to see why there was such opposition to Jenner’s presence in the square. Napier and Havelock (and later Gordon) were known for their imperial conquests against the Other, the different, which validated their effigies entry to the Valhalla of Trafalgar Square; a condition that Jenner did not satisfy.
This led many who opposed the removal of the Jenner statue to despair. They lamented why anybody would want ‘the finest site in Europe [to] be appropriated to soldiers only?’. They also asked why ‘should those who destroy be at the forefront of public remembrance’ rather than those who sought to preserve life? The cries of the opposition were not heard, and the statue was removed to Kensington Gardens (where it still stands) not long after the death of Prince Albert, one of the main proponents of the statue.
The story of the Edward Jenner statue is a fascinating inversion of the removal of that of Colston, with the statue of the man who’s work would save life being removed because it did not fit in with the effigies of those who destroyed or exploited it. The message that should be taken from the banishment of the Jenner memorial is that statues deemed to be incongruous with the values of a place are not impervious to removal and relocation to somewhere more suitable. That could be a less prominent public space, a museum or elsewhere.
And whilst not the most recent of examples, it shows that past Britons were comfortable debating the values that they wanted to project to the world from that most prominent of places in Trafalgar Square (a discourse that has continued ever since). Therefore, going forward, as part of the societal re-evaluations that will rightly result from the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations, contemporary Britons should take some inspiration from the past and begin to look afresh at the people memorialised in our public spaces and ask ourselves: do they reflect who we really are?
Written by George Evans-Hulme
"George Evans-Hulme is a history graduate of the University of Kent, and a freelance writer. He has previously researched and written for the Illustrated London News and BBC History Extra"
(Image owned and produced by Garry Hulme, 2020)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.