A history of the Great and the Good?

Laurie Cunningham Statue

Laurie Cunningham

Reflecting on the pulling down of Statues

There’s been a lot of talk of public statues since the citizens of Bristol decided to dump the bronze monument to slave trader Edward Colston in the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest. A couple of days later the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan was removed from its plinth in West India Quay down in Docklands in a more orderly fashion. And now there is much debate about who should be removed next and where this ends.

For me there is a wider question, that of whose history do we tell, who are the figures that we celebrate. Pick up a pre-war History book and they are littered with the deeds of the ‘great and the good’. Ordinary folk barely merit a mention, certainly not by name. You’d think that the pre-1945 world was populated purely by brilliant Lords and Ladies, Dukes and Earls. And even though Historians have done much to redress that inbalance in recent years, the legacy of that view of the past can still be found in the names of our streets, parks, buildings, and yes many of our public statues.

Thankfully this is trend that has started to change. Many beloved public statues now reflect more local histories celebrating people and events with resonant connections to communities rather than burnishing the reputations of the wealthy. The statue of Laurie Cunningham in Coronation Gardens, Leyton is much loved by local people. As the first black footballer to play for England at senior level and the first Englishman to be transfered to the mighty Real Madrid, he was a true trailblazer that we can all admire. Likewise the statue of Ada Salter in Bermondsey, who was the first female Mayor in London, and with her husband Alfred Salter, did much to improve the lives of people in the area.

Joan Littlewood statue

Joan Littlewood

Names of places are changed all the time to reflect contemporary mores and politics. Marsh Lane Fields in Leyton was changed to Leyton Jubilee Park in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The Royal Family themselves changed their own surname from Saxe-Coberg and Gotha to Windsor in 1917 due to strong anti-German sentiment caused by the First World War. Other streets and buildings that were given German names to honour Prince Albert were also changed at this time.  Changing names and removing statues is a normal evolution of the public realm.

Now is a good time to re-evaluate what history we want to tell ourselves.


  1. Dr Russell Dean   •  

    Edward Palmer Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class – ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper , the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’.

  2. Mick Holland   •  

    Hi John. A very thought provoking piece. One of the most revered public statues in my old home town Nottingham) is that of Brian Clough, a man who was a staunch socialist who I remember once considered standing for parliament as a Labour candidate. Whether Old Big Mouth’s way of talking could be tolerated these days is another matter. He was clearly a man of his time and used language well outside of what is acceptable today. There was a story doing the rounds many years ago that Nottingham born Andy Cole (Newcastle, Man U, Blackburn etc) declined an opportunity to sign for Forest after having been referred to in racist terms by BC – although this may be apocryphal. I did go to hear him at a public appearance once and to say he was outspoken would be putting it mildly.

    I think he would be likely to use far from Parliamentary language when pulling you up about who was the first black footballer to play for England at senior level. That was the great Viv Anderson, another Nottingham lad. Laurie was there first at U21 so he was indeed a trailblazer.

    My anorak was pinching so I’ve taken it off.

    Laurie also appears on a statue in West Bromwich, unveiled just over a year ago with some ceremony. It features himself, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis OBE. Officially called The Celebration Statue, local press and TV couldn’t resist dubbing it the Three Degrees statue, an epithet given to those three great players by none other than Ron Atkinson who has his own history. It seems we still have a long way to go.

    • JohnR   •     Author

      Thanks for that comment Mick – people are complex and I suppose it’s part of what makes this an interesting discussion

  3. O O   •  

    z-e-r-o comment from me on the taking down of any statues, but I did want to post a thanks about this great bit about local knowledge, John. Didn’t know about any of these except the brilliant one to an ex-Crazy Gang FA winner in Leyton!

  4. David Gent   •  

    Hi John. Although I now live in Devon, I was brought up in Highams Park and knew the Chingford/Woodford/Buckhurst Hill area very well. Winston Churchill was our local MP when I was a kid, but he was a poor constituency MP. There is a statue of the man on Woodford New Road, near the Napier Arms pub (RIP)… Over the years that statue has been toppled, painted, and adorned with grafiti, and as far as I know the bloody thing is still there. That’s the trouble with statues: they put down roots and we stop notiicing them.

    • JohnR   •     Author

      Wise words David – very true

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