Nothing lasts forever, says Stewart Home
When it comes to addressing what to do with artworks and memorials connected to historic racism and attendant issues relating to colonialism, some talk up their commitment to change, but their lack of action exposes a preference for the status quo. The City of London Corporation is the local authority that covers the capital’s international financial district. Not only does the Corporation pack more problematic memorials into its famous ‘Square Mile’ than almost any other council in the (or, for that matter, the world), it is simultaneously a major patron of the arts.
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, the Corporation issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. The insincere and performative nature of this is evident to those who know that at least two of its four signatories had attended the City’s annual celebrations of legacy projects connected to the slave-trader John Cass in recent years (a charitable foundation, a primary school and a business school named after Cass have since been renamed). The Corporation’s statement was followed by an equally performative Historic Landmarks Consultation that attempted to dodge the issues raised by racist memorials rather than confront them.
‘The debate over contested heritage, within and outside the City of London, has proven to be politically divisive,’ stated a report published earlier this year by the City’s Findings and Recommendations of the Tackling Racism Taskforce. ‘Following global protests after the death of George Floyd, there was a re-examination of the suitability of certain contested pieces of heritage, namely public statues that displayed subject matters associated with slavery and other forms of racism.’ The only problematic memorials mentioned in the report are statues inside the Guildhall, the City of London’s council headquarters, of Cass (and a copy of it that was removed from nearby Jewry Street last year by the charity that owned it) and of slave-owner William Beckford. Both men had been senior City Corporation councillors.
The Cass statue in the Guildhall had been on a long-term loan and the council decided to return it to its owners. After heated debate the City Corporation voted to remove the statue of William Beckford (which it owns), but that decision has since been kicked into the long grass: the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport intervened to say the Beckford statue should stay, and the status quo holds (the government has subsequently changed the law to make the removal of statues less straightforward).
By far the most visible among the plethora of problematic memorials dotted around the City of London are landmark buildings Cromwell Tower and Lauderdale Tower, named after two particularly odious men. The fact that the Findings and Recommendations report emphasises statues as the prime problem and then only addresses two of them would strike most people, if they believed that the City Corporation was genuinely attempting to tackle historic racism, as odd. Experienced Corporation-watchers, however, will recognise the report as classic City spin, oering the pretence of dealing with an issue while in practice ignoring most instances of it.
Recently a collective of Barbican Centre workers published the book Barbican Stories (2021) alleging racism at this jewel in the City Corporation’s arts crown. Institutional racism visibly rises above the Barbican Centre in the form of the landmark brutalist residential towers that dominate the skyline around it. Lauderdale Tower is named after a slave-trader (John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale), and Cromwell Tower memorialises a mass murderer (Oliver Cromwell) who oversaw English colonial atrocities in Ireland. There are a variety of Cromwell memorials in the City of London installed by the corporation
over the past 45 years or so – the most recent dates from 1999 – and, while some people who aren’t Irish or don’t identify with their Irish heritage prefer to see Cromwell as predominantly a parliamentarian and an opponent of monarchical power, there has so far been no indication the council views them as problematic.
While the City Corporation was not the only council to avoid the broader issue of racist crimes committed in the pursuit of empire when reviewing public landmarks, it can’t credibly claim ignorance of the matter, since through its livery companies it played a key role in the Plantation of Ulster. The vehicle created for the Corporation’s involvement in the colonisation of the north of Ireland was the Honourable Irish Society. Today this venture still owns the Walls of Derry, a major albeit contested European monument – the obnoxious loyalist Walker Monument that once crowned the Walls was blown up by the ¥¦§ in 1973. Many current City Corporation councillors are members of the Irish Society and some play key roles within it.
By way of contrast, councillors in neighbouring Hackney have been vocal about the need to remove the statue of the slave-trader Robert Gerye from the exterior of the Museum of the Home, which lies within their borough boundaries but not within their jurisdiction. Likewise, the Bank of England, located in the Square Mile, has been bolder too. It recently removed artworks depicting former bank grandees (a number of whom were also senior City Corporation councillors) from public display. The Daily Mail responded with fury, and in a piece titled ‘Bank of England is accused of undertaking a “bonfire of the vanities” after removing portraits linked to the slave trade’ (14 June 2021), it erroneously suggested that the former Lord Mayor of London Gilbert Heathcote, whose portrait was pulled, had not been linked to slavery.
The Mail’s claim about Heathcote exposed its ignorance of the slave trade, since it said it had failed to find anything incriminating about him on the «’s Legacies of British Slavery database, which focuses on plantation owners. City merchants including Heathcote bought slaves in Africa and transported them across the Atlantic, where they were sold to plantation owners. No one who has done research in this area would expect to find much about a slave merchant on the « database. Instead they’d look to sources such as William A. Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672–1752 (2013), which contains a wealth of information on Heathcote’s activities as a leading independent slave trader.
The City Corporation also has a political constitution unlike any other local authority in the . For the past 200 years the City
Corporation has used its extensive financial resources – including a sovereign wealth fund that is the envy of many nations – to defend its medieval political structure and privileges, as a result of which there is an urgent need for its democratic reform. Last year the Lisvane Report, which the City Corporation commissioned into its own governance, suggested the board of the Barbican Centre should no longer be controlled by local councillors, because many are appointed who lack any relevant knowledge of the arts or their administration. The suggested change, if the City Corporation implemented it, would provide a good place to start addressing the problem of institutional racism at the Barbican Centre.
Times have changed and I don’t see why the contested heritage in the City of London can’t be properly contextualised. The current Museum of London is about to be vacated, and the City Corporation has abandoned its plans to transform the site into a Centre for Music, so why not fill the space with the council’s extensive collection of contested heritage, which might very well form the basis of an institution dedicated to exposing the horrors of slavery and colonialism?