When Winston Churchill’s statue was sealed off from angry protesters last month, Boris Johnson warned that ‘we cannot try to edit or censor our past’. Why not? Ever since the London crowd tore down a statue of Charles I during the English Civil War there has been a healthy disrespect for monuments to the no longer so great and good.
Take Bristol, for example, where slave-trader Edward Colston was thrown into the harbour. For centuries downtown Bristol was overlooked by High Cross, a three-tiered monument to eight kings and queens of Britain. By the mid-18th century local residents were so tired of this eyesore that they had it removed.
Other royals have met a similar fate. A London statue of Prince William, the ‘butcher of Culloden’, was taken down from its plinth in Cavendish Square in 1868, never to be replaced. Even Queen Victoria, of whom there are probably more statues than all the other British monarchs put together, has been moved about and modified without too much fuss. In Ipswich her bronze effigy was melted down during the Blitz to aid the war-effort, and in Hull she was only saved from relocation from the city-centre by the addition of public toilets.
Despite what the PM says, political choices have often been behind decisions about statues. Where are the national monuments to Richard III, the infamous murderer of the princes in the Tower, or to ‘bloody’ Mary I, scourge of the Protestant reformation? The statue of Oliver Cromwell that now sits outside Parliament was only erected after half a century of opposition inside.
Most of the statues now under attack date from the nineteenth century. The Victorian age saw a proliferation of public sculpture. A cult of celebrity combined with the desire for new secular civic architecture. The Duke of Wellington was regularly immortalised in stone in his own lifetime. His garish equestrian statue topped the Marble Arch for many years until common-sense and traffic jams led to its dismantling. Indeed, so many statues went up in London that in 1854 legislation was passed to bring things under control. Outside the capital, the rage for statues continued unabated, unregulated and with scant regard for history or balance. In York the funds raised for a statue of ‘railway king’ George Hudson, a Tory, were diverted to a statue for his great Liberal rival George Leeman, when Hudson was bankrupted. Fame is fickle, but stone endures.
And isn’t this part of the problem? For the Victorians a park-bench, plaque or a tree could never suffice as a tribute. So we are left with a lot of gargantuan relics, protected because of their age as much as their relevance to national history. But the past is not like a statue: an immovable object never to be replaced. As Winston Churchill himself observed in 1951, as he backed the unpopular decision to erect a statue to General Smuts– war-hero but also supporter of segregation in South Africa– ‘posterity alone can judge’ whether a memorial is appropriate. Like Germany and the USA, Britain has an inconvenient past that posterity cannot ignore. Perhaps in future all statues should be cast in soap.
Miles Taylor teaches at the University of York. His most recent book is Empress: Queen Victoria and India (Yale 2018).