We’re clearly about to have a wave of statues toppled across London. But if so, who should go and what should replace them?
Let me talk about which statues I think should go and surprise you with how many statues and memorials have been replaced or hidden away in London over the centuries. And then, let’s think about who we should be commemorating today with statues?
To me, the current situation is untenable. It doesn’t reflect the country we are and it often accentuates the worst of our past. Take Whitehall for example. Walk down it and it’s a parade of generals from top to bottom. You’d think Britain was a military-police state and not a civilian democracy.
We’ve had some great social reformers, inventors and artists but instead we celebrate Earl Haig. This is a man whose tactics in the First World War earned him the nickname “Butcher Haig”. And that was because of his cavalier attitude to casualties among his own men – not the enemy.
Get to the top of Whitehall and you’re in Trafalgar Square. I’ve got no issues with Nelson. He can stay up there on the column. But King George IV on horseback. This was the most reviled monarch of the 19th century. I’ve got Victorian era history books where the authors can’t bring themselves to say a kind word about him.
Contemporary satirists dipped pens in poison and lacerated him. He treated his own wife abominably. Built a palace at Brighton while men returning from the Napoleonic wars starved on the streets. Indulged every passion until he died a horrendously obese, self-pitying mess. So – he can go.
And then at the top of Trafalgar Square, there’s a diminutive statue to a king of little stature – James II. The brother of Charles II became king in 1685 and set about trying to return Britain to the Catholic faith but more perniciously, creating an absolutist monarchy based on that of Louis XIV of France.
If James had got away with this plan, Britain would have seen its democracy strangled in the cradle. Fortunately, parliament decided that James would not get his way and forced him from power. They brought in a Dutch prince who became William III.
And which statues have already gone?
What might surprise you is that London has been removing statues from view for a long time. Sometimes they go and come back again. So, here are some toppled statues that either disappeared or moved around.
For example, in 1888, a statue of General Gordon of Khartoum was unveiled in Trafalgar Square between the two fountains. Gordon was always a controversial figure whose handling of the 1885 Sudan revolt, that led to his death at the hands of rebels, was frequently questioned.
In 1943, the statue was removed to the Victoria Embankment and never returned despite a demand in parliament from Winston Churchill in 1948 to reinstate it. The statue remains in its current rather obscure location.
The statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square dates back to his reign in the 1630s. It was toppled under Oliver Cromwell and given to a metalsmith in Holborn called John Rivet.
He claimed to have melted it down and sold cutlery made from the brass. But after the Restoration of Charles II, Rivet revealed that the statue had never been destroyed but buried by him. And it went back on its pedestal where it remains today.
Then there’s the statue of Queen Anne in front of St Paul’s cathedral. It’s a copy of the 1712 original which was attacked several times. Given the queen’s love of a drink, somebody etched on to it: “Brandy Nan, Brandy Nan, left in the lurch; Her face to the gin shop, her back to the church”.
Other statues toppled include one of George I in Leicester Square and a large one of George IV, mentioned above, that once stood at Kings Cross. Sir Robert Peel stood for decades in Cheapside but was carted off in 1935 to the police college in Hendon.
Hyde Park corner was once graced with an enormous equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. Queen Victoria hated it but while Wellington was alive, it couldn’t really be taken down. His house was nearby! But after he was dead, it was spirited away and is now to be found in far off Aldershot.
And who to replace them with?
I love history. And it’s not all about General Bufty-Tufty beating up the natives in Bechuanaland in 1879. Which is the impression you get from many of our statues.
History is about great social reformers, inventors, people who cured disease, architects and creative artists. Let’s throw up some statues to them and create a more balanced and nuanced picture of our past.