THIS month we have witnessed the Great British Vandalism of 2020. A number of cultural heritage sites such as statues, monuments and place names across the UK have been destroyed, defaced, removed or renamed. A far greater number are in the sights of the vandals. In response I have decided to create the Vault, a record of the sites marked for destruction.
On June 6 there were ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in London over the death of an African-American man in the USA. The protests led to violence against the police and, as was widely reported, the Cenotaph was vandalised by a protester attempting to burn the UK flag. On June 7 the plinth of the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was defaced with spray paint and in Bristol the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbour.
On June 9 political activist Owen Jones used the social media website Twitter to share a link to a website called ‘Topple the Racists’ (hereafter TTR). This website consisted of a map of cultural heritage sites targeted by vandals for renaming, removal or destruction. The vandalism was not going to stop at the events of June 6 and 7.
What is the Vault?
I realised that if the TTR website could be used by those who wished to destroy, it could also be used by those who wished to preserve. I knew that this website would be the starting point of any kind of defence of our cultural heritage.
The most immediate concern was that the website’s publisher would take it down, rendering the information inaccessible. I set about manually reproducing the data, so that if the TTR website was lost we would still know which sites were threatened. This record would be called the Vault. Its purpose would be threefold:
1. To record sites targeted by TTR.
2. To plot the relevant authorities against each site.
3. To record what happened to each site.
While populating the Vault with data a disappointing thought came to me, that what I was writing might not be a witness protection list, but rather an obituary. I was surprised at the number of sites which had already been removed from public view, renamed or permanently damaged a mere few days after the initial unrest of early June. By the time I finished what would be left?
The Vault maps each site targeted against the link to the local council, police representative and Member of Parliament. My hope is that those concerned individuals may use this to contact their local representatives and prevent further destruction. You can see the site here.
What I have learned
The sites which were targeted vary and each tells us a different story. Some targets are pathetic, the names of schools or university halls. Some seem entirely mean-spirited. Consider the Jim Crow Stone in Dunoon, which appears to have been an artistic football for years. On June 10 it was reported that the stone was due to be cleansed of its character but by June 13 Black Lives Matter had covered it in their own markings.
Some cases seem impossible to resolve. Consider the case of Blairquhan Castle. Apparently the purchaser of the castle, in 1798, received financial recompense for his losses from the abolition of slavery and this ‘crime’ is passed on to his descendants. But what the person who marked this site on TTR wanted is unclear. Should we destroy the castle? Should we rename the castle? Should the estate return the money, if so, to whom?
Other examples are indicative of the culture war we are now in. Scrolling through the Vault one may notice that TTR targets Robert Peel and Sir Robert Peel. The former is the father and opposed the abolition of slavery, the latter is the son who supported abolition and who also founded the police force in Britain. The media have assumed that targeting the junior Robert Peel must be a mistake because he opposed slavery, unlike his father. This misses the point. In the USA the wider Black Lives Matter movement is calling for the police to be ‘defunded’ or even abolished and its sister movement in the UK regards the British police as ‘institutionally racist’. I will not rule out historical ignorance on the part of the vandals. However, teaching them who the younger Robert Peel was would make no difference, as his role in the foundation of the British police is justification enough to add him to the list of cultural targets.
Some sites have been boarded up for protection, for example the Churchill statue and the statue of Sir Robert Peel in Tamworth. A black statue was removed from a stately home in Manchester, as was the Black Boy pub sign in Retford. In Ashbourne the wooden face of a black man was taken down and whisked away by locals for protection, only for this ‘forbidden’ item to be handed over to the local council.
In Haverfordwest a property owner had a blue plaque for Sir Robert Picton removed fearing the building that hosted it could be the ‘target of attacks’. In Brighton a blue plaque for Admiral Sir Edward Codrington was broken. In Brecon a plaque for Captain Thomas Phillips was stolen.
In the next publication of the Vault I aim to include the status of each site, whether it has been destroyed, removed, vandalised or it remains undamaged. Events have moved faster than I could keep up with and the Vault will never be a perfect resource. I cannot possibly list all sites which the vandals may target. I will not be able to list all sites which are affected. The Vault may contain data which isn’t perfect. However, I will not make perfect the enemy of the good. If you identify errors in the data, find new threatened sites or have other reasons for communicating, please contact me via my WordPress site.
At the very least there will be a record of what was lost during the Great British Vandalism of 2020.