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.