Since 1905, the four statues sitting high up on the front of Deptford Town Hall have looked down on pedestrians on what was once a bustling Edwardian thoroughfare through New Cross. The statues even survived a World War II bomb that damaged the building’s baroque surface, and today they still stand over the arterial road teeming with central London-bound cars.
When the statues were first erected, they were designed as a tribute to some of Britain’s greatest maritime heroes – a link celebrated by the ship at the top of the centre tower of the Grade II building, now part of Goldsmiths University of London.
But in recent years three of the statues have become a source of controversy because of their links to slavery: those commemorating slave trader Sir Francis Drake, pro-slavery naval commander and hero of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson and Robert Blake who helped secure the trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England. The fourth statue is of an unnamed naval figure.
In 2019, students from the University staged a 137-day occupation demanding their removal. The compromise with the university authorities to end the sit-in was that explanatory plaques would be erected outside to explain their links to slavery, alongside a commissioned piece of art to juxtapose the statues. But neither the plaques nor the art has been erected. Goldsmiths did not respond to Eastlondonlines when asked why these are not yet installed.
Now the status of the statues is under scrutiny once again in an event at Goldsmiths called “What Are Statues For?”. This is part of its Being Human Festival, an annual UK-wide event aiming to bring Humanities and its research to the public.
Milly Williamson, organiser of the event and Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths told ELL: “People may say they don’t want these statues pulled down but they have to ask themselves ‘what are they asking them to stay for? What is it that they are proud of?’”
The event includes a roundtable discussion with Rhian Graham, one of the Colston Four who were charged with causing criminal damage when they toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
The discussion will also include Dean Ryan from Stand Up To Racism and the Geffrye Must Fall Campaign, which seeks to remove the statue of slave trader Robert Geffrye from Shorditch’s Museum of the Home.
Also speaking will be Helen Paul from Deptford’s Museum of Slavery and Freedom, Artist/post-colonial student Fiona Quadri, and Chilean activist, journalist and filmmaker Marcela Pizarro, who has a background in political and social theory.
Williamson told ELL: “These statues are symbolic. They’re attempting to build a symbolic national identity based on notions of empire and superiority – and inferiority is implied in that as well.”
The event will also discuss why it is so difficult to get them removed.
Deptford Town Hall was listed in 2000, making it harder to make alterations. Following the student occupation, university authorities listened to community consultations, where over half of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the removal of the statues, with explanatory panels being the most favoured alternative.
Williamson said: “This event is about trying to raise awareness, pull people together and give people a voice who have to walk past it every day and feel offended by it.”
The event was preceded by a walking tour on November 9 exploring Lewisham’s statues, including the Deptford Anchor on Deptford High Street, which commemorates the area’s maritime history, and by extension, its links to empire and slave trade.
“What Are Statues For?” comes on the heels of the government’s Retain and Explain policy, making it harder to remove offensive statues in the name of preserving Britain’s history.
Williamson added: “The problem with statues is that their purpose is to present history as something static and stable and unchanging and of course we know that history is just the opposite.
“Putting statues up and pulling statues down is part of history. It’s usually the victors who put up and pull down, but as we’ve seen, activists can also make a big change.”