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Liberties with statues


Sir Henry Havelock
Sir Charles Napier

So, have you ever heard of Harry Havelock and Charlie Napier?

I thought not. Actually they, or rather their statues,  occupy the south plinths in Trafalgar Square. Tourists and Londoners alike pass them by with scarcely a glance, or even a cursory thought as to who on earth they were. It’s rather sad. As Oscar Wilde said, “there’s only one worse thing than to be talked about, and that’s  not to be talked about”.


Oscar Wilde, by Maggie Hambling



Incidentally, Oscar’s own London statue is a stone’s throw from theirs, but is very different in design. I’m not sure Oscar would have approved of it.

“I have sinned”

But the reason the statues of Harry and Charlie stand in London’s most illustrious square is because they were Victorian war heroes. Sir Henry Havelock led military campaigns along the North West frontier, in what is modern day Afghanistan. Sir Charles Napier repressed rebellions by the locals in the Indian province of Sind. 

Napier, after re-capturing the province, was famously supposed to have telegraphed back to London the one word peccavi. It’s the Latin for the phrase I have sinned. Probably stretching the actual truth a little, but then again, the Victorians did like their puns.

But the reason I mention these heroes is because it’s not a particularly interesting way to enjoy  history, peering up at a statue of a now unknown and unloved general.  It’s far more intriguing to think about the reasons why the statue is there, and what it tells us about the people who erected it.

The sun never sets…

For example, the interesting thing about the statues of our two military men is that they represented success. Great successes in the imperialistic ambitions of the British people, at a particular point in history. Napier’s statue was funded by public subscription, mostly from the contributions of private soldiers. Both were erected in the age where there was no questioning of the might and right of the British empire. Invasion and subjugation of the indigenous population were considered an acceptable price to be paid in the battle to impose the values of Empire upon a grateful world.

Oliver causes trouble again

It’s also  often far more rewarding to look at the controversies and arguments around a statue, than the actual thing itself. Let’s go back to Oliver Cromwell ( no groaning, there at the back). As I wrote in my recent post about Oliver, he has always divided opinion. Yet, a statue to commemorate him, erected in 1889,  now stands outside the Houses of Parliament in London. 

Oliver Cromwell, outside Westminster

But it was touch and go. The original vote in the House to create a statue to Cromwell was defeated, partially due to the votes of the Irish MPs who were members of Sinn Féin. (These were the days before an independent Ireland). Remember what atrocities happened in Ireland, during Cromwell’s campaign there.  The vote eventually succeeded – with the aid of the Unionists from the north of Ireland – and the statue was installed.

It was funded by the Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, whose wife was heiress to the Rothschild fortune. Why is that significant? Well, the English Jewish community had cause to be well disposed towards Cromwell. He had welcomed the Jews back into England in 1656, and triggered their renewed legal acceptance into society. And the most prominent members of society who were there at the statue’s private unveiling were Lord Rothschild and Samuel Montague, representatives of the Jewish community in this country. 

Religious tolerance?

The Jews were officially expelled from England in the 1290s, and although many remained, they had to adopt the mantle of Christianity and practice their religion in secret. Cromwell reversed this, his motives being both religious and  pragmatic. The Jewish community he welcomed back were from Amsterdam and had strong  links with the merchant community there. Cromwell was trying to build up English commerce.  

In 2018, a group of historians demanded the dismantling of Cromwell’s Westminster statue. They  highlighted Cromwell’s bloody record in Ireland as justification. Mr. Albion, if I may call him that, hails from Manchester. He remembers the statue of Cromwell which stood in that city at the top of Deansgate being discreetly moved to a quieter location, sometime in the 1960s. This was done in deference to the feelings of the many Irish inhabitants of Manchester. 

 So, you have Cromwell’s religious tolerance towards the Jews contrasted with his persecution of Irish Catholics. Nothing in history is ever black and white.

“Cultural revisionism”

The Cromwell incident was one  of several  attempts to remove  memorials of historical figures, who are judged through the spectrum of “cultural revisionism” to be offensive. Similar memorials, like those to Cecil Rhodes and John Harvard also spring to mind. I’d argue it’s a naive and flawed concept – the idea of understanding history by attempting to eliminate it.

The unsinkable

Now, let’s travel north from Westminster to Lichfield, and to this statue. Any clues?

  It represents Captain Charles Smith. He was the Captain of the Titanic, which sank in 1912. He has no connection to the city of Lichfield at all, so why is his statue there? It’s because his home town of Stoke-on-Trent refused to give a home to it. Such was the shame, following the sinking of a ship previously thought of as unsinkable. There is now a popular movement in Stoke, to have the statue repatriated from the wilds of Lichfield, to the Captain’s home city. What an interesting shift in attitudes, in a hundred years.

Bomber Command

Bomber Command

At the  north edge of Green Park in London, there’s another controversial statue, or rather, group of statues. I was so impressed, when visiting for the first time last year, the monument and statues to Bomber Command, a tribute to their contribution  in World War II. The statues are larger than life – literally – and realistic rather than ceremonial in their detail. But it took over 60  years for the monument to be assembled.

Many people thought it was inappropriate to celebrate a unit responsible for so much death and destruction in occupied Europe. It was only erected in 2012. It will be interesting to see if future generations think it should be dismantled, as time shifts people’s opinions.

The evidence of absence (again)

Memorial to Edith Cavell

And on to a topic dear to my heart, and one on which I have previously posted, when discussing the graves of fallen soldiers –  the evidence of absence. So, when it comes to statues, what missing? The answer is: statues of women. Or at least, non-royal women. For most of our history, women have taken a back seat in affairs of state, and so have not performed the sort of public acts which are  commemorated with a statue. It’s only over the past hundred years or so that, as women became more prominent in public life,  statues to honour them have appeared. 

I can only think of a handful, compared to the many hundreds of male statues. The statue of Edith Cavell,  shot as a spy in the First World War;  a sprinkling which  honour  Florence Nightingale; one statue set up very belatedly, to acknowledge the similar nursing efforts in the Crimea of Mary Seacole; and of course, the statue of Margaret Thatcher put up  in Westminster – another controversial decision for future debate! 

Victoria rules the waves

One of many Victorias

It’s rather different, when you consider statues of royal females. I did the nerdy thing and researched how many statues exist of Queen Victoria. In the UK, there are 77,  (or 76 if you discount the one melted down in Ipswich for ammunition in the second world war).

And overseas, there are at least 57, discounting the one beheaded in Quebec ( those French again).  Another destroyed by vandals (or were they freedom fighters ?) in Kenya. They are scattered throughout the globe, from Gibraltar and Malta, to Hong Kong, India and Yemen, besides the 25 or so in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. There’s even one in Paris! 

So what would amateur historians make of this, when in a thousand years time, they look at the global distribution of the statues of a short, rather dumpy ageing woman? Especially in the absence of much statuary of contemporary female Victorians? They might conclude that in the 19th century  an all-powerful female ruler dominated the world, one who governed the world with a cohort of male generals. A statue doesn’t show you the realities of a democratic monarchy. That’s the trouble with looking at only the surface of historical evidence, it’s hard to pick up the subtleties or historical nuances.

Brandy Nan

Queen Anne, not facing Saint Paul’s

It’s the same with the statue of Queen Anne, which stands outside Saint Paul’s cathedral in London. At first glance, it’s a standard royal sculpture, showing the queen in royal garb, with orb and sceptre in hand. But, look closer – it’s neglected and unloved. In fact, most passers-by would be hard put to give her a name. And the statue doesn’t face the cathedral; instead, Anne gazes west down towards Ludgate. She was seen as a pitiable creature during her reign, even though she presided over a great period of British history, when its wealth and power were increasing greatly. But Anne was only judged on her inability to produce a living heir – and her supposed little drink habit. When her statue appeared, this cruel ditty became popular in the streets:



“Brandy Nan, Brandy Nan, left in the lurch,
her face to the gin shop, her back to the church”.

Chariots of Fire

And on to one last queen – Boadicea, or Boudicca as she is more popularly known now.  Her statue stands at the end of Westminster bridge, overlooking the Thames.

Appropriate really, since that’s where she threw the heads of the decapitated Roman soldiers she slaughtered, after her sack of London. You’d never think it of her, though, looking at her statue. 

She stands tall and lithe, with flowing garments, in a chariot with scythes protruding from the wheels. It’s historically incorrect on so many levels:  A warrior would have driven Boudicca’s chariot, leaving her free to direct the battle. She most probably would have worn trews or trousers. No-one goes into battle in a frock (apart from the Scots). And the chariot would have been more of a trundling truck, and definitely with no scythes. But the statue was not built with historical accuracy in mind. It was built to epitomise the ideals of Victorian womanhood. Even fierce battle queens must look as if they would scrub up well for the drawing room.

A bit of fun

Statue of John Betjeman

Even the less serious statues you see around will give future historians food for thought. They will wonder about what they meant to us and what they tell them about our society. How to explain the one of John Betjeman at St. Pancras station? They’ll know of his poetry, but will they grasp how he instilled a love of trains and railways into our common culture? 






Eric – without Ernie

And the statue of Eric Morcambe, of course in Morecambe.  How will they interpret what Eric and Ernie meant to the nation in the late twentieth century?

Hiding in plain sight

You can hardly escape seeing a statue in any major city or town in the United Kingdom. Try travelling back to when it was erected, and put yourself in the front of the crowd when it was unveiled. Or travel to the future, and wonder what those millennials intended with their quirky Damien Hirsts? Or indeed, the large blue rooster on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, a few years ago? Don’t look at the statue, look at the perspective.

Who knows?

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