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This monument to slavery’s abolition must not be overshadowed


THE Buxton Memorial Fountain stands in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. It commemorates the abolition of slavery, brought about by the many men and women who devoted their lives and sometimes their fortunes to the eradication of this abominable practice. This public symbol of something Britain should be proud of is being threatened by a planned Holocaust Memorial in the Gardens. Why should the Buxton Memorial Fountain be eclipsed and overshadowed by a project which commemorates something for which Britain is not guilty, for once?

The struggle to abolish slavery was a long one. In Georgian times, slavery was part of the warp and woof of society; people of all stations in life had some shares in it. So much so that when an anti-slavery society was formed in 1787, it was considered too monumental a task to abolish the practice in toto; instead the society focused on the slave trade. Its abolition was achieved in 1807, with William Wilberforce justly praised for his leadership in the House of Commons. Slavery, however, did not disappear and by 1830 there were some 800,000 slaves in the British Empire, notably in the West Indies.

In 1823 Thomas Fowell Buxton was asked by the ageing Wilberforce to lead the anti-slavery party in Parliament. Buxton and his colleagues succeeded by informing the British people about the evils of slavery. At that time, few could vote – but they could sign petitions. Thousands were submitted to Parliament signed by people all over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In the final debate in Parliament, Buxton presented a petition signed by more than 187,000 women of Great Britain, needing three strong men to carry it into the chamber. At last slavery in the British Empire was abolished. The date of emancipation was August 1, 1834.

Buxton was awarded a Baronetcy by Queen Victoria and his statue stands next to that of Wilberforce in Westminster Abbey. Today he has almost been forgotten; yet he spent his life and Parliamentary career seeking the betterment of men, women and children whom he had never met.

The Buxton Memorial Fountain, above, was raised by private funds, not taxpayers’ money. It was dedicated to Buxton and fellow campaigners William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham and Stephen Lushington. It was constructed in Parliament Square but it was removed in the post-war redesign of the square and reinstated in its present position.

Victoria Tower Gardens is a unique public green space at the heart of London on the river bank adjacent to the House of Commons. Londoners and tourists find it a retreat from the bustle of London crowds.

The design for the Holocaust Memorial comprises 23 tall bronze fins and an underground learning centre. The estimated cost is £102million – £75million to be provided by the taxpayer, the remainder by the Jewish community. The work will involve costly excavation and shoring up of the Thames embankment, and possible damage to the large plane trees along the riverside. The bronze fins will dwarf and overshadow the Buxton Memorial Fountain.   

It is by no means clear why this Holocaust Memorial is needed and the Jewish community is split on this issue. The Yad-Vashem accredited Holocaust historian Dr Irene Lancaster, Journalist Melanie Phillips and Baroness Ruth Deech all argue that Holocaust memorials do not reduce anti-Semitism. 

This view is supported by many Jewish scholars who argue that limited resources would be better deployed in education, see here and here. Even so, it seems that education about the Holocaust is not enough to combat anti-Semitism. Harvard professor Dr Ruth Wisse, a scholar of Jewish history and culture, has noted that anti-Semitism in the United States has spread in tandem with increased teaching about the Holocaust. 

This memorial in the heart of London is likely to attract every anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist terrorist organisation in the world. interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in 2019, Lord Pickles and Ed Balls, co-chairs of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation Advisory Board, indicated that police would be on hand to provide security – as if the police haven’t enough to do.

There is already a Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park, a stone engraved with these words from Lamentations: ‘For these I weep / Streams of tears flow from my eyes / Because of the destruction of my people.’ Next year a £30.5million Holocaust Exhibition is due to open in the Imperial War Museum, about a mile away from Victoria Tower Gardens. Why does the nation require another Holocaust memorial and education centre in London? What extra education will be offered that cannot be given at the Imperial War Museum? Is it worth the extra £102million?

The success of the efforts of Clarkson, Wilberforce, Sharp, Macauley, Lushington, Buxton and so many others in the abolition of slavery could not have succeeded without the support of the British people.  Every effort was made through the Royal Navy to stamp out slavery throughout the world at the cost of the lives of many British seamen.  Buxton with the support of the British Government also provided funds to train teachers so the emancipated peoples could be educated. This led to the foundation of the Mico University College in Jamaica, which still flourishes today.

The Buxton Memorial Fountain is an opportunity for us to remember that the people in this country recognised that slavery was a great wrong. It commemorates their success in abolishing this disgraceful practice. It reminds us to focus on the nation’s continued determination to stamp out modern slavery. It needs to maintain its prominent position in the gardens and not be overshadowed by this unnecessary edifice.

Footnote: In 2005, the Royal Parks turned down a proposal by the Windrush foundation to install a memorial in the Gardens to commemorate the slaves taken from Africa. That memorial’s footprint was only 11 ft, yet the reason for refusal was that there was not enough space for any more memorials.

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John Fannon
John Fannon
John completed his doctorate in nuclear physics at King’s College London. He spent his career with the Ministry of Defence, managing equipment projects for the Royal Navy, Army and RAF. After retirement he co-founded a small company involving multimodal logistics. He is a founder member of the Thomas Fowell Buxton Society.

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