Who owns Colston?

Page Details
Section: Articles =>
Projects: Edward Colston
Subjects: Slavery & Resistance
Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted: Modified:

A silent clause

When Edward Colston died in 1721 we can be fairly certain that before long his body had disintegrated into dust. To talk of Colston, therefore, is meaningless unless we recognise that our knowledge of that long dead figure will always be dependant upon how we read, interpret and understand the historical record which is made up of histories, biographies, memoirs, documents, images, statues and artefacts. And because most of the historical record was created, constructed, produced or manufactured long after Colston’s death the figure Colston will be a matter of interpretation and therefore also a subject of “political contestation.” This will be same for the statue of Colston which is simply a representation of the figure it represents.

Before we address the question – ‘who owns Colston?’ – we will also need to consider questions of ownership which necessitates debates about property and property rights to say nothing of the various ways in which the ownership of property is exercised in contemporary Britain. There are also questions as to whether the legal ownership of “things” will automatically guarantee their owners the full protection of the law. This talk of property also raises questions concerning possession, as opposed to ownership, and whether those who possess the legal right in a property also have an automatic right to dispose of it as they will. And can we address the question – ‘who owns Colston?’ – without acknowledging that disputes about legal ownership and possession were essential components in the trading of slaves and questions of ownership were often hotly contested during “the slavery debates” of the nineteenth century.[1] With these thoughts in mind it might be worth quoting some comments extracted from Ferdinand Lassalle’s The System of Acquired Rights (1861).

There is in every contract …. and underlying every legal institution a silent clause, something which is understood but not expressed, viz., that it holds good until it is disapproved by the social, conscience. But when the social conscience disapproves an institution or the property right which is implied in it, then the institution or right ceases to exist; then any rights acquired become null and void. [Lassalle] uses the case of slavery to illustrate this; that all contracts which implied slavery were valid so long as they were approved by the social conscience; but when the social conscience rebelled against slavery and demanded its abolition, then all contracts based upon slavery and all laws which implied slavery had no longer any force.[2]

The statue that provokes

In an article published in B24/7, on Wednesday 24 June 2020, Martin Booth[3] reported that Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees, “has said that ‘in some sense now’ [the question who owns the Colston statue is] irrelevant’” because a decision had already been made “‘with the statue due to be displayed in a museum.’” Rees was also reported to have said that:

Ownership has not yet 100 per cent been confirmed… We are open to anyone who wants to come forward and claim ownership but as yet they haven’t.

These reported comments suggest that the Mayor believes the question – who owns the Colston statue? – is both relevant and irrelevant. This is even more bizarre given that the Mayor also seems to have already resolved the matter by taking it upon himself to appropriate – or should that be expropriate? – the Colston statue for his own purposes without allowing any reasonable time for someone to come forward and claim ownership. The Mayor’s decision – to consign the Colston statue to a museum – also seems to suggest, at the very least, that the Mayor has already decided that the Colston statue belongs to the Council and so has made the decision about its future.

Having twisted the arguments about ‘private property’ into a series of illogical knots the Mayor also makes the following comment:

The decision to whether to prosecute or not is the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service irrespective of whatever we say and they will look at a couple of questions won’t they. Has a crime been committed? And is it in the public interest to prosecute?

But what happens if the owner or owners of the Colston statue chose not to pursue a formal complaint concerning its toppling? Then what sort of crime has actually been committed? On the other hand if the owner or owners of the statue choose to make a complaint to the police then, according to the Mayor, the matter becomes one of “public interest.” But what is the public interest in pursuing those who merely toppled a statue? No doubt it would suit some people to treat that toppling as if it were some heinous crime even though most people, by now, probably accept that the toppling was a profoundly political act and not some random criminal enterprise.

And if the toppling of the Colston statue was, indeed, a political act, then it suggests, at the very least, that the Colston statue must have spoken disrespect to those who took it upon themselves to topple it. But will a court ever listen to the words of a statue when the rules and procedures of that court are deliberately designed to focus only upon narrowly defined issues of property and property rights. And if that court choses to remain deaf to Colston’s insults then its scales of justice will inevitably remain weighted in favour of an unstated status quo however unjust or repressive that status quo might be. Which reminds me of that ‘Traditional Rhyme,’

They hang the man and flog the woman,
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

Bristol’s statues speak!

The Colston statue was unveiled during an elaborate ceremony which was held in November 1895. Less than a year later Clifton Society[4] noted that until recently Bristol, unlike many other major British cities, had not been well off for public statues.[5] There was the 1736 bronze equestrian statue of William III which was positioned in Queens Square;[6] and then there was that curious 1721 lead figure of Neptune[7] which, at the time of the 1896 article, was standing outside Temple Church. And that was it until, all of a sudden, four public statues appeared in relatively quick succession. The first was a statue of Samuel Morley carved by the Bristol born James Havard Thomas who had used a block of Carrara marble which had originally weighed 16 tons. That white marble statue of Morley, which was unveiled in October 1887,[8] was made possible through subscriptions collected from around 5,000 Bristolians many of whom had offered small sums as tokens of love, affection or respect for their late Liberal M.P. who had died in 1886 several months after the subscriptions had been opened. Next came the Queen Victoria Jubilee statue which was carved by J. E Boehm, also from a block of Carrara marble, and was unveiled on College Green in July 1888.[9] Then came the bronze statue of [Edmund] Burke which was a gift from W. H. Wills and was unveiled in October 1894. Finally, in November 1895, saw the unveiling of:

the bronze statue of Edward Colston which, with its ornamental pedestal and dolphin supporters…… [was] the latest effort at giving the old city permanent outward adornment.[10]

Leaving aside the Victoria statue, which clearly merits an analysis in its own right, what the Clifton Societys saccharine article reveals is that Bristol’s three outdoor commemorative statues – members of Bristol’s Ghostly Parliament – appeared within a nine year period. And this suggests that the Morley (1886), Burke (1894) and Colston (1895) statues can be situated within a broader national context, even if Bristol’s Ghostly Parliament did arrive somewhat belatedly. Through the second half of the nineteenth century there occurred an exponential explosion of outdoor public monuments up and down the land[11] not forgetting, of course, all those statues planted by British colonists throughout the British empire. Once grouped together the Morley, Burke and Colston statues suggest that they might be the manifestation of a particular invention of the late nineteenth century imagination and also representatives of a very particular type of bourgeois iconography which needs to be examined and analysed critically from within its own specific geographical and historical context.

Although the historical figures of Edward Colston (1636-1721), Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Samuel Morley (1809-1886) inhabited very different worlds their statues are bonded together through important commonalities. Each statue was deliberately fashioned to convey that idealised representative of a type of bourgeois civic leader just at a time when Bristol’s mercantile hierarchies were consciously attempting to project themselves, and their civic power, under the guise of a new kind of localism which they were also attempting to construct out of a newly re-invented local democratic order. Each of the three statues were also designed to project that essence of individualism which the various promoters of the statues believed would best serve as inspiration and aspiration for all “right-thinking” Bristol citizens. This message was already heavily impregnated into the Morley statue and promoted unashamedly by Lewis Fry, Liberal and Unionist MP for Bristol North and also a  Parliamentary colleague of the late Mr Morley. In his comments, made during the unveiling of the Morley “monument”, Fry said that the statue would serve as a touchstone to “young citizens to emulate the justness, generosity and public spirit which characterised [Morley].”[12] The Burke statue carried a similar message because it depicted Burke as “the orator … in the act of addressing an audience” thereby projecting a “figure of dignified and stately bearing … asking the deepest attention.”[13] These and similar sentiments were made even more explicit through the Colston statue because where the figure of Colston was held up as an example of “business and benevolence,”[14] the statue itself was designed to serve as “an encouragement to the citizens of today to emulate [Colston’s] noble example and walk in his footsteps.”[15]

Apart from these moralising and didactic functions all three statues can also be understood as symbolic of an even more deeply embedded ideology of cultural ideals. During the late nineteenth century the understanding of history, and also of memory and of commemoration, had developed into a new radical Liberal discourse designed to re-shape, re-fashion and thereby reinforce a very particular type of historiography – a theory of history. A growing number of professional historians, having assumed the mantle of patriotism, were writing histories that we, today, would consider to be anachronistically weighted historical novels infected with spurious social Darwinian ideas. But at the time the production of those stories and histories were deliberately fashioned to promote and glorify that glorious British history which had already been constructed, manufactured or fabricated, as if it were the true record of Albion’s inevitable progress.[16] The hero figures that featured in those glorified histories were carefully selected to strut and stride, effortlessly, through the nation’s story so that they in turn could then be mythologised in the service of the story which they had made and which had also become their story. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to read about the figure of Colston as if he were already one of that mythical advanced guard, a prophet, railing against the coming of an already anticipated welfare state.

Two subjects that largely occupy the thoughts of politicians now are old age pensions and secondary education, and in regard to both of these the philanthropy of Colston has reduced the strain that would otherwise have been felt by the citizens if various proposals should be endorsed by Parliament.[17]

Having already caught the bad odour of socialism is it any wonder that Colston, like all those other late nineteenth century statuary heroes, should have been placed upon his own pedestal!

Statue of Samuel Morley in Lewins Mead, Bristol

Another argument advanced to promote public statues was that they would enhance their surroundings by investing the space they occupied, or colonised, with a sense of wealth and grandeur and at the same time would broadcast a sense of veneration and well being over those spaces thereby conferring a sort of beneficence upon those who gazed up upon them. The Morley, Burke and Colston statues, whether consciously or unconsciously, were all commissioned by their respective sponsors to serve as ornamentation for the specific public spaces they were always destined to inhabit. The white Morley statue, carved out of marble and imported from Italy, was placed on the city side of the Bristol bridge and was, from the very start, incorporated into the planed redevelopment around that area. As the Bristol Mercury noted:

The [Morley] monument occupies a conspicuous position in the space between Bristol Bridge and St Nicholas Church. Mr Morley’s face is turned towards Victoria street, and the statue commands the attention of all entering the city from the railway terminus and is a great ornament to Bristol.[18]

It is also clear that the Morley statue was positioned not only to guard the gateway into the city[19] but also placed, simultaneously, to welcome in, or perhaps more exactly to summon the working classes into work. This very point was made by Henry White, an active member of the Operatives’ Liberal Association who actively supported placing Morley on the bridge. White said that it was because “the inhabitants of the outlying districts and the working classes generally, who are connected with the industries of the city” would therefore have the:

opportunity of seeing [the Morley statue] without making a special journey, as large numbers would have to do, if it were placed in College Green.[20]

White’s unspoken allusion to some kind of ubiquitous pilgrimage to the site of the Morley statue is also worth noting. Despite the many wrangles and delays over the question of their positioning the Burke and the Colston statues were always destined for the newly reclaimed land being carved out and  constructed, maybe even consecrated, as a result of the recently approved plans for the redevelopment of the St Augustine’s bridge area. That redesigned space, which emerged from the building over of the river Frome, would became known as the City Gardens at St Augustine’s [St. Augustine’s] or the Colston Avenue. This new creation of St. Augustine’s was also seen and understood, by many Councillors at the time, as the new jewel in the crown of a City revitalised and at ease with itself.

All this white-washing, with its gloss and those blatant hagiographies attached to the figures of three deeply flawed old men, can also be analysed alongside the carefully crafted manipulation of the iconography of the city’s public spaces. A growing unease, fed by end-of-century anxieties, had already started to infect many of the commercial classes who watched, as in slow motion, the rising tides of militant working classes and dreamt nightmares haunted by that spectre of a new political party stridently claiming to represent the working man. It was therefore not always easy for the Bristol elites to conceal, let alone repress, what they knew to be happening just beneath those pristine surfaces of new pavements and redesigned tram lines. But those anxieties also prompted, in part at least, a new found energy and confidence amongst the more progressive elites who had come to realise that if they were ever going to have any hope of staving off socialism then it was their duty – or self-interest – to start looking after the poor.[21] Something of this zeitgeist might help to illuminate some of the other reasons why three unlikely Bristol M.P.s should have been chosen for particular veneration. Morley for his statesmanship, his philanthropy, his deeply embedded connections with the Liberal Party as well as those sections of its working class constituents. There was also the politically unifying factor of Morley’s profound adherence to temperance as well as deeply held christian values[22] – although it was probably best if the promoters forgot Morley’s “intensest repugnance,” not to say “intolerance”, of Charles Bradlaugh’s freethinking atheism.[23] Burke was chosen for veneration because of his statesmanship and the assumed brilliance of his rhetorical skills although probably best not to mention his “deep moral conservatism.”[24] Colston was venerated for his philanthropy but probably best to forget his profiting from the slave trade.[25] It is also worth noting that behind each of these three statues stood three key figures prominent in the Bristol Liberal Association who were also de facto members of the Bristol and Colston elites. Charles Townsend (1832-1908), who was President of the Bristol Liberal Association, was undoubtedly the driving force and inspiration behind the Morley statue. W. H. Wills, a liberal councillor in 1870, who was subsequently a Liberal MP for Bristol and a significant benefactor in his own right, was the inspiration and sole motivation for the Burke statue. And finally there was James Williams Arrowsmith, a founding member of the Bristol Liberal Association, a highly successful printer-publisher and an astute behind-the-scenes political and cultural ‘fixer’, who was undoubtedly the guiding genius behind the Colston statue.

What said the Colston Statue?

The veneration of the figure of Colston, which Roger Ball has aptly referred to as the Colston myth,[26] can be traced back to 1724 – just three years after Colston’s death – when a movement was initiated to honour Colston’s birthday (2 November). That movement manifested itself in 1726 with the founding of The Colston [Society], subsequently renamed the Parent. The Parent then spawned, or inspired, the Anchor Society[27] made up, by and large, of supporters of the Whig or Liberal Party; the Dolphin Society[28] made up, by and large, of supporters of the Tory or Conservative Party; and the Grateful Society[29] which, like the Parent, was made up of members who had no obvious party political allegiances. By the mid 1880s both the Dolphin and the Anchor were vying with each other to see which of them could attract the most prominent national politician to speak at their respective Annual dinners. Although that competition was dressed up as friendly rivalry and glossed with that false myth of the common Colston cause, an increasingly passionate identification with their respective political parties – “thorough going Liberalism” in the case of the Anchorites[30] – meant that the political tensions between them could not always be contained. And those tensions would shape the ways in which the various Colston societies interacted with each other.

Another Colston society appeared in 1854 this time named The Colston Fraternal Association which was formed to gather together all those who had originally received their education in the Colston’s School or Colston’s Hospital [Colston’s]. The Fraternal Association, which had started life as a charitable institution of Colston’s, soon became a highly successful quasi-philanthropic venture and an obvious target for hijack by the Merchant Venturers Society who were already invested in Colston’s. By the 1870s the Fraternal Association’s Annual Dinner had become an important conduit for the networking ambitions of all those Bristolian commercial venturers and politicians who thought it expedient to dress up their self interests under the impeccable guise of Colstonian philanthropic credentials. Sometime towards the end of the 1880s J. W. Arrowsmith, by then an important member of the Anchor Society, and of the Bristol Liberal Association, started a campaign to encourage all the Colston Societies to pool their charitable funds so that their collective philanthropic endeavours might be administered in the most advantageous way.[31] Arrowsmith’s campaign was countered by serious ideological and political opposition and the tensions sparked would have important consequences. Just when Arrowsmith was becoming an increasingly important figure within the Colston orbit he started to attract significant hostility from the more conservative Colston interest groups who wanted to preserve their autonomy at any cost.

On 31 October 1893 Arrowsmith, who was President of the Anchor Society that year, announced his idea for a Colston commemorative statue during the Annual Dinner of the Fraternal Association which, by then was known as the Colston Fraternal Association Benevolent Society.[32] During his speech Arrowsmith said:

there was a matter he should bring before the Anchor Society, and he thought it might well be brought before the other societies also. It seemed to him a shame there should have been a man living in their midst two hundred years ago who had done so much good for Bristol charities and schools and yet who should be unrepresented by a statue in Bristol. One ought to be erected at the earliest opportunity. Bristol had few statues and now that the generosity of a citizen [W H Wills] was about to give them a statue of [Edmund] Burke it would be well to place upon the open space near St Augustine’s Bridge a statue of one of the greatest men who ever lived in Bristol. (Applause). He did not think this should be done by one society [i.e. the Anchor]; it seemed a fitting opportunity for each of the societies, in proportions to be agreed upon, contributing towards the erection of a lasting monument to one of their greatest philanthropists. (Applause).[33]

Although Arrowsmith was clearly preaching to the converted it is of some significance that he singularly failed to make any mention of the Morley statue despite the fact that he had been actively involved in that project. His silence was no doubt prudent given that he was hoping to attract wide-ranging cross-party support from the other Colston Societies and, in particular, from the Conservative dominated Dolphins. Arrowsmith’s initial politicking appears to have succeeded because he received approval from Sir Michael Hicks-Beach who was, at the time, president of the Dolphin.

On 8 March 1894, some five months after the Fraternal Association dinner, a Colston statue committee [statue committee] formed and was made up of:

representatives of the Anchor, Dolphin, Grateful, Parent and other Colston commemoration societies, for the purpose of raising the necessary funds[34] … Each of the Colston commemoration societies will be invited to solicit support from its subscribers and others, and when sufficient funds are collected a competent sculptor will be selected to execute the work. It is proposed to attach to the pedestal a tablet containing the names of the Colston Societies, and as to the site it is intended, we believe, to ask the Council to allow the statue to be placed on the site above St Augustine’s Bridge, so as to form a companion to that of Edward Burke, which has been given to the city by Sir. W. H Wills.[35]

Although the statue committee sought to convey a sense of unity and purpose it is possible to detect, from the very beginning, that not everything was sweetness and light. For a start it had taken Arrowsmith nearly five months before he had succeeded in assembling the statue committee.

In early April 1894, about a month after its formation, the statue committee issued a press release.

The Bristol Town Council will be asked to allow the statue to be so placed as to form a companion to that of Edmund Burke, (which has been offered to the city by Sir W. H Wills).[36]

Some two weeks later, when the statue committee published their first list of subscribers, they reported that the total amount raised to date stood at “upwards of £200,” although an unsigned article, probably based upon a further press release from the statue committee, noted:

A window in the mother church is all very well in its way; but something more than this is necessary to enable the general public to appreciate [Colston’s] worth. A handsome statue would, we believe, have the desired effect, and we therefore sincerely trust that before another month passes over our heads the funds will be forthcoming. A guinea each from the subscribers to the various societies would at once assure success.[37]

In response the Bristol Mercury estimated that as the cost of the scheme would be £1,000 it was scarcely likely that subscribers to the various Colston Commemoration Societies would each offer “a guinea subscription.”[38] By June 1894 the Colston statue appeal “was not considered very encouraging” which was an understatement given that circulars had been sent to some 1,550 members many of whom must be considered to have been amongst the wealthiest merchants and philanthropists in Bristol.[39] Furthermore, on top of those 1,550 subscribing members there were also some 2,000 old boys who had “passed through Colston School” and who surely would have wanted to show some appreciation for their benefactor?  No wonder “Subscriber” thought the response to the appeal was “so feeble.”[40]

With the fund raising having stalled Arrowsmith, and his supporters on the statue committee, now had some hard decisions to make particularly if they were going to fulfil Arrowsmith’s original promise to have the statue completed and installed in time for Colston’s 1895 Anniversary. And so the committee went through the motions. In early October 1894 they reported a high degree of interest from sculptors wishing to be considered for the Colston commission and announced that they had received some 23 applications. They also confirmed that they had failed in their fund raising because they had only managed to raise £400 which they considered “a rather discouraging rate of subscriptions up to date.”[41] The Bristol Times and Mirror was even more scathing:

In the meantime one would like to know where the £600 or so still wanted is to come from. That so small a sum as £400 has taken so long to collect is not particularly creditable to some people.[42]

It is quite probable that the newspapers had heard gossip about the in-fighting amongst the various Colston groups but then having pointed a vague finger at unnamed people they were clearly not prepared to elaborate any further. By 16 October 1894, notwithstanding its deep financial crisis, the statue committee had clearly resolved to make a number of key decisions. First, they made formal application to the Council for permission to erect the Colston memorial statue. Second, they interviewed John Cassidy “whose model has been selected for the statue of the philanthropist which it is proposed shall form a companion to the Burke Statue[43] at St Augustine’s Bridge.”[44] Third, they had approved Cassidy’s designs, agreed the order for works and also announced that they “hoped to have the statue completed by the Colston anniversary of 1895.”[45] There was now no going back. So, in what must be considered an act of desperation, the statue committee tried, for a last time, to solicit funds from potential Colston subscribers by drawing up a sort of begging letter which they then “distributed amongst the guests” at the various Colston Anniversary dinners. Following this final appeal, which failed to make even so much as a dent in the shortfall,[46] the statue committee all but disappears from the narrative. Their resounding silence strongly suggests that its members probably more or less disbanded themselves leaving only a rump. For his part Arrowsmith had little choice if he was to save face and, at the same time, secure his own position within the Colston orbit.[47] So together with several of his close Anchorite and Liberal colleagues Arrowsmith took absolute control of the statue committee in a last desperate attempt to see the project through to its final conclusion.

Arrowsmith’s inability to collect the necessary funds from such a wealthy constituency suggests, at the very least, that the Colston statue project must have created deep unease amongst many of the stalwart subscribers to the various Colston Societies. Originally what seems to have held the statue committee together was its desire to present a united front through exclusivity. This can be seen through its determination to keep absolute control over all aspects of the project, including its funding. This may explain why the committee only ever tried to solicit funds from those who were already subscribers of the various Colston commemoration societies. It is difficult to understand why, not withstanding its subsequent funding crisis, the statue committee refused, point blank, to widen their appeal to include Joseph and Josephine public.

In an article describing the unveiling of the Colston Statue, the Western Daily Press reported, presumably without any sense of irony, that:

It is strange, indeed, that it has been left to this generation to render special honour to the memory of two men whose names stand out most prominently in Bristol history – Colston and Burke – and it may be surely hoped that the reminder today that the funds for the Colston statue are not yet complete will suffice to bring to a successful conclusion the plan suggested by Mr J. W. Arrowsmith two years ago.[48]

When the final balance sheet was issued, in February 1896, it revealed how the statue committee had squared its financial circle.

Donations amount to £675 13s 5d. The fee to Cassidy was £300 which was more than the amount of the total of individual donations. The committee of the Handicraft Exhibition came to the rescue with £165 11s 11d which made the account balance to a farthing. The report suggested that this was probably not a coincidence. A Friend had donated £117 12 4d.[49]

It was fairly well known, at the time, that Arrowsmith, who was also involved in that year’s Handicraft Exhibition, had raided their funds in order to help pay for the Colston statue. But it was also an open secret that the “friend” who “made the account balance to a farthing” was, of course, none other than Arrowsmith himself.[50]

The Colston Statue at repose

A close up of Colston's face from his statue in Bristol's centre

The question as to where to put the Colston statue was one of political contestation not because there was overt opposition to the idea of a public statue commemorating Colston but because of the political and ideological struggles fought over St. Augustine’s, the area recently “‘formed by the covering over of the water space above St. Augustine bridge and of the ground formerly quays abutting thereon.’” This is the area at the bottom of town and known as Colston Avenue which runs parallel with the A38 and St Augustine’s Parade near to where the main road forks to the right and rises up towards the Cathedral at the bottom of Park Street. Some Council members believed that St Augustine’s offered an ideal opportunity for redevelopment; others, particularly members of the Finance Committee, were determined that the Council should agree that it was desirable not to put any permanent building on the site because they wanted to preserve it as an open public space.[51] It was only in May 1894 that the Council finally approved the application from W. H. Wills to erect a statue of Edmund Burke, at his own expense[52] and agreed in principle that the Burke statue should be incorporated as an ornamental feature in that reclaimed land which the Council had by now decided to lay out as a park. Once the Council had approved the application for the Burke statue there were many who believed that St Augustine’s would now become the natural home for the Colston statue. As Councillor Baker said;

that practically the Council had approved the introduction of ornamental features, by consenting to the erection of the Burke statue. To stop there would, Mr Barker thought, look ridiculous, and doubtless Colston and Cabot and other Bristol worthies would find their permanent presentments on the same spot.[53]

Baker’s comments suggest that the promoters of the Colston statue, and Arrowsmith in particular, were now keen to get the project completed as quickly as possible lest somebody else step in and persuade the Council to offer Colston’s spot to another Bristol worthy. As we shall see shortly those fears were not unfounded. Although there were many Councillors who supported the idea of the Colston statue being placed in St Augustine’s, near to the Burke statue, the matter was by no means settled. Even as late as October 1894, when arrangements were being finalised for Lord Rosebery’s visit to unveil the Burke statue,[54] the final approval for the erection of the Burke statue had still not been officially granted. That October, 1894, the Finance Committee, following one of its regular meetings, reported:

A communication was received from Mr J W Arrowsmith asking for a site for the Colston statue and though no site was decided upon it is understood that the committee will be prepared to favourably entertain the application.[55]

It was one thing for the Finance Committee to propose quite another matter for the Council to dispose not least because the question as to what to do with St Augustine’s was, once again,  mired in political wranglings. There were those who thought that the Council should approve the final design for the open space drawn up by Mr Yabbicom, the assistant borough engineer. There were those who failed to see any merit in the Council spending ratepayers’ money on public gardens. There were those who clung to the belief that there was still money to be made in re-developing St Augustine’s and, as a result, now decided to mount a rear-guard action in a last ditch attempt to overturn the Council’s previous decision to refuse permission for any permanent buildings on the site. There were those who objected to Yabbicom’s designs for the layout of the new road system because they would have meant the removal of a footpath.[56] And finally there were those who:

thought the central promenade suggested by Mr Yabbicom was too straight and stiff, and there was also a difference of opinion of the question whether the sides should be laid with gravel or with turf, with occasional flower-beds. It was thought that there should be trees on each side, with sufficient space reserved for a fountain, bandstand and seats.[57]

And as if all of this was not bad enough there were Councillors reluctant to make potentially controversial decisions so close to the forthcoming Council elections due to be held the following month (November 1894). All of this was further complicated by the long anticipated visit from Archibald Philip Primrose (aka Lord Rosebery) who was due to arrive in Bristol on Tuesday 30 October 1894 to unveil the Burke statue and to receive the freedom of the City.

The plans for Rosebery’s visit offer a brief insight into how the various warring factions within the Bristol ruling elite managed to coalesce so as to manufacture and manipulate consent. Rosebery, who had become something of an unpopular Prime Minister, was also the leader of the Liberal Imperialist faction and, as such, a particularly divisive figure for radical liberals. Fearing that demonstrations might mar Rosebery’s visit pressure was applied from London, through Bristol’s Liberal hierarchy, making it clear that Rosebery would only consent to visit Bristol on the strict understanding “that there should be no attempt at any political demonstration of any kind.” So the Executive of the Bristol Liberal Association successfully persuaded the Committee of the Keynsham Liberal Club to postpone the formal opening of their new club building scheduled to take place at around the time Lord Rosebery and Wills would be passing through on their way to Bath. In the end the Rosebery visit seems to have passed off without incident probably because of the weather and also because of Rosebery’s last minute change of plans.[58]

The Rosebery visit had come and gone, the Burke statue unveiled, the elections concluded, and yet the debates around St. Augustine’s continued to drag on, and on until there were intimations that a final decision would be made at the next full Council meeting due to take place on Tuesday 5 January 1895.

The Burke statue has been erected facing the bridge, but it seems more than probable that, in view of the alterations referred to, its present position will be found inconvenient. Before the end of another year it is hoped that a statue of Edward Colston will be erected as a companion to that of Edmund Burke.[59]

When the Council met on 5 January 1895 they deferred the decision, yet again, because members were unable to agree upon the lay out of the new road scheme. Then some three months later it seems as if somebody made a last minute attempt to steal a march on Arrowsmith because the Finance Committee noted that following its meeting in April 1895, they had “refused the gift from a well-known citizen of a marble statue of an Italian boy.” As one newspaper noted:

The committee are evidently in no amiable mood over statues just now, as they have also declined to decide upon a site for the Colston effigy. Of course, Mr Burke is at the bottom of it all.[60]

Although it is difficult to interpret these comments the idea of a marble statue of an Italian boy, as opposed to a bronze statue of Colston, certainly raises the possibility of a rear-guard challenge to the prevailing aesthetic which seems to have governed late nineteenth century ideals for public monuments. What ever the deeper meaning of the “Italian boy” the application seems to suggest, notwithstanding the official history, that there may well have been an active minority in the Council who remained unconvinced of the need for yet another effigy of a dead man. On the other hand there were those who were prepared to approve permission for a Colston statue but preferred that it was not given pride of place in St Augustine’s. Although these are only speculation they may go some way towards helping to explain the statue committee’s lamentable failure to secure the necessary funds for a Colston memorial statue.

The question of the Colston statue was raised once again, in May 1895, at the Finance Committee meeting with the Mayor presiding. Although the matter was deferred, yet again, it seems as if a final decision had been made in all but name.

It has been decided that the Burke statue, when it is removed from its present position shall be placed just inside the entrance to the open space at the St Augustine’s bridge end. Several members of the committee seemed to think that whatever is put on the site in the centre of the space should be of a more imposing character than the Burke statue; and before coming to a definite decision for giving the Colston statue that position the committee want to know more about its character and dimensions.[61]

By July 1895 the decision was as good as final because;

the laying out of the garden itself is proceeding rapidly. The Burke statue has been safely transplanted, and it has been definitely settled by the Finance Committee that the Colston statue, when ready shall be placed in the centre of the space. There has been a suggestion to remove the beautiful equestrian statue from Queen-square to St. Augustine’s but it strikes one that it may be an easy thing to overcrowd the ‘lung’ space which many members of the Town Council were so anxious to preserve.[62]

And yet it was not until 8 October 1895 that the Council finally declared:

The Mayor moved the adoption of the report of the Finance Committee recommending the Council accept, on behalf of the city, the generous offer of the Colston Statue Committee to erect a statue of the famous philanthropist and to agree to allow the statue to be erected in the centre of the pleasure ground at St Augustine’s … He was delighted to know that the statue had already been completed and he was sure that the Council would gladly welcome its erection upon the open space.[63]

Mr Barker, in seconding the motion, said: “It was very gratifying, moreover to know that the gift was not that of any one man, but of a great many men, who differed materially in their opinions.”[64] Although Barker’s comments may well have been a calculated dig at Wills’ gift of the Burke statue, they were also a complete travesty of the trajectory of events because Barker, and others on the Council, would have known that only very few men had actually contributed to the Colston statue. Still that was going to be the official version of events and the Western Daily Press, along with others in the know, were content not to rock the boat.

The report of the Finance Committee, allocating a site at St Augustine’s open space to the Colston Statue, was adopted, and thanks were tendered to the [Colston] Statue Committee for having provided a monument of the great philanthropist; special mention being made of the prominent part which Mr J W Arrowsmith had taken in the matter.[65]

Unveiling Colston

When the Colston Statue was finally unveiled on Wednesday 13 November 1895[66] it was against a backdrop of grand ceremony with the full pomp of civic dignitaries and all the hallmarks of a carefully choreographed parade, including “the Colston boys with their band.” No doubt such a display helped further reinforce the status quo and perpetuate the Colston myths which had accreted over so many years.[67] Originally Herbert Thomas (1820-1903)[68] was going to officiate as de facto chairman of the statue committee. Despite his age Thomas remained a key figure in the Bristol Liberal Association and, like Arrowsmith, had been heavily involved in the Morley statue committee. Thomas was also an active member of the Anchor Society[69] which suggests, notwithstanding the subsequent gloss on the unveiling ceremony, that the statue committee had lost its cross party support and was now simply a front for Arrowsmith and his Anchorite and Liberal cronies. But Thomas was indisposed that day so the honours fell to Alderman Cope-Proctor who claims to have been chosen because he was President, that year, of the Parent, which was the Oldest Colston Society in Bristol. Having invited the Mayor “to unveil the statue of Edward Colston”, Cope-Proctor said

He would ask his Worship to accept that statue in trust for the citizens of their ancient city, and might the bright example of Edward Colston long continue to be emulated by the citizens of that town (Applause). The Mayor said it gave him much pleasure as their chief magistrate for the year to accept from the committee the gift of that beautiful statue.[70]

Much the same point is confirmed by the Western Daily Press[71] who reported that the official hand over had already taken place the previous day to the unveiling.

It may be mentioned that the statue had already been presented to the city through the Finance Committee, and that Mr Arrowsmith and those who have been associated with him in the movement have been thanked by the Council on behalf of the citizens.

Some concluding comments

When the statue committee was formed in March 1894 it “proposed to attach to the pedestal a tablet containing the names of the Colston Societies;” but when the statue was finally unveiled that bronze panel simply stated: “erected : By: / Citizens of Bristol.” The erasure of the names of the various Colston Societies underlines the abject failure of those Societies to co-operate in the joint venture to persuade their subscribing members to provide the necessary funds to pay for the Colston statue. Notwithstanding that funding fiasco it suited Arrowsmith to conceal the failure behind a rather carefully crafted fudge. On the one hand he presented the Colston statue as if it were a gift from the statue committee and on the other hand he made sure that the bronze panel announced that the statue was “erected: By: / Citizens of Bristol.” Of course this was technically correct just so long as the panel was read as if said “erected by [a few] Citizens of Bristol” rather than what most people assumed – “erected by [all] Citizens of Bristol.” Perhaps Arrowsmith thought that this small deception would be acceptable.

The question as to who owned the Colston statue prior to the unveiling might now seem somewhat irrelevant. On the other hand the answer to the question – who owns the Colston statue? – seems fairly straight forward. The newspaper reports confirm that the Colston statue was gifted to the citizens of the city and this is clearly confirmed during the symbolic exchange which occurred during the brief unveiling ceremony. Here Alderman Cope-Proctor, on behalf of the statue committee, gifted the Colston statue to the citizens of Bristol and then the Mayor publicly accepted the gift on behalf of the citizens of Bristol. Through this simple act of exchange ownership of the Colston statue passed from the statue committee into the hands of the citizens of Bristol and unless there are documents to prove otherwise the evidence clearly suggests that the ownership of the Colston statue has always resided in the hands of the citizens of Bristol. So if the Mayor is, indeed, sincere about following “a restorative route” for resolving the question as to what to do with the Colston statue then he has a duty to ensure that all the citizens of Bristol are democratically consulted about the statue’s future. And what better way to begin a process of restorative justice?


Anon 1901, A 1901 picture of Bristol Bridge with the Morley Statue visible


Anon 1919, The Morley statue Looking up the High Street from Bristol Bridge https://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2056349789/

Ball, R., 2018 Myths within myths … Edward Colston and that statue. Bristol Radical History website (14 October 2018) https://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/myths-within-myths/

Booth, M., 2020a, Ownership of Colston’s Statue still not confirmed. B24/7, 24 June 2020 https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/ownership-of-colstons-statue-still-not-confirmed/?utm_source=Bristol24%2F7&utm_campaign=ff5cc3d381-bristol247_newsletter_25.06.20&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_67a9a4e1bd-ff5cc3d381-38908609&mc_cid=ff5cc3d381&mc_eid=10eb3a98b8

Bristol, nd (a). Bristol City Docks. https://bristolcitydocks.co.uk/bristol-frome-river-st-augustines-reach/

Bristol, nd (b), Bristol Archives. http://archives.bristol.gov.uk/TreeBrowse.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&field=RefNo&key=43207%2F15

Cheever, G. B., 1857, God Against Slavery and the Freedom and Duty of the Pulpit to Rebuke it as a sin against God. Cincinnati; Am Reform Tract and Book Society.

Collingwood, R. G., 1961, The Idea of History. Oxford; Oxford University Press

Dresser, M., 2020, Colston Revisited. History Workshop, 27 June 2020. https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/colston-revisited/

Ely, R. T., 1922, Property and contract in their relations to the distribution of wealth. New York; Macmillan Company.

Fox, J., 2013, Edmund Burke: an unspoken villainy. Open Democracy 6 August 2013. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/edmund-burke-unspoken-villainy/

Kuhn, L., & Gill, C., 2005, Topple the Mighty. Kilmarnock; Friction Books

Losurdo, D., 2014, Liberalism. A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliot. London; Verso

Mawer, W., The Latest Constitutional Struggle. A Register of Events which have occurred since April 2, 1880. London; Freethought Publishing Company

Meller, H.E., 1976, Leisure and the Changing City 1870-1914. London; Routledge & Kegan Paul

Merritt, D., & Greenacre, F., 2011, Public Sculpture of Bristol. Public Sculpture of Britain Vol.12. Liverpool; Liverpool University Press

Morley, J., 1921, Burke. The Works of John Morley Vol.14. London; Macmillan & Co.

Steeds, M., & Ball, R., 2020, From Wulfstan to Colston: Severing the sinews of slavery in Bristol. Bristol; Bristol Radical Pamphleteer

  1. [1]See Cheever (1857, pp.95-96); also Lisurdo (2014, p.11) [Back...]
  2. [2]Quoted Ely (1922, Vol.2, pp.503-504) [Back...]
  3. [3]Booth (2020a) [Back...]
  4. [4]Clifton Society (1 October 1896, p.8) [Back...]
  5. [5]It should not be forgotten that Bristol has a long tradition of decorative craftsmanship (Merritt & Greenacre 2011) [Back...]
  6. [6]William III died in 1702. The statue is by Michael Rysbrack. [Back...]
  7. [7]The maker was John Randall but the sculptor remains unknown (Merritt & Greenacre 2011, pp.46-47) [Back...]
  8. [8]Clifton Society (8 February 1912, p.16) [Back...]
  9. [9]This statue was unveiled by Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, on 25th July 1888 and commemorates Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of the previous year. See also Clifton Society (8 February 1912, p.16) [Back...]
  10. [10]Dresser (2020) notes Arrowsmith’s desire to help beautify the city. [Back...]
  11. [11]The creation of so many public monuments provided an important source of income for a number of British sculptors thereby creating a self perpetuating system of patronage. (Kuhn & Gill pp.130-131). As public monuments became ever more popular this new cultural industry also created work for stonemasons and foundries. [Back...]
  12. [12]Bristol Mercury (24 October 1887, p.6) [Back...]
  13. [13]Bristol Mercury (31 October 1894, p.6, italics added) [Back...]
  14. [14]Western Daily Press (14 November 1895, p.6) [Back...]
  15. [15]Western Daily Press (14 November 1895, p.6) [Back...]
  16. [16]Collingwood (1961, pp.143ff) [Back...]
  17. [17]Western Daily Press (13 November 1895, p.5) [Back...]
  18. [18]Bristol Mercury (24 October 1887, p.6, italics added) [Back...]
  19. [19]See Anon (1901); Anon (1919) [Back...]
  20. [20]Bristol Mercury (3 February 1887, p.3) [Back...]
  21. [21]Bristol Mercury (14 November 1893, p.5) [Back...]
  22. [22]See Meller (1976, p.80) who notes this idea of the unifying aspect of “interdenominational co-operation under the leadership of the [civic] elite.” [Back...]
  23. [23]“Let the bigots who have taken him to task for his temporary aberration from the path of Pharisaism make what they can of [Morley’s] pitiful excuse. Other people can only regret that a man so useful in many ways, both as a politician and a philanthropist, should show himself so narrow-minded.” (quoted Mawer 1883, p.4) [Back...]
  24. [24]Morley (1921, p.62). See also Fox (2013) [Back...]
  25. [25]See Steeds & Ball (2020) [Back...]
  26. [26]See the excellent article by Ball (2018) which laid much of the ground work for our understanding of how the figure of Colston was reinvented in the late nineteenth century. [Back...]
  27. [27]The Anchor was formed in 1768 by the Whigs (Pall Mall Gazette 13 November 1897, p.8) [Back...]
  28. [28]“The Dolphin was established by the Tories in 1749 Colston himself having been a strong Tory and High Churchman, though much that has been said of his bigotry towards Dissenters was but the natural consequence of the times in which he lived.” (Pall Mall Gazette 13 November 1897, p.8, italics added) [Back...]
  29. [29]The Grateful was formed in 1758 (Pall Mall Gazette 13 November 1897, p.8) [Back...]
  30. [30]Bristol Mercury (15 November 1887, p.5) [Back...]
  31. [31]At a meeting of the Bristol Charity Organisation Society the Rev. Prebendary Percival said that; “He wished the gentlemen who managed the Colston Societies would set about some co-operation to cure the abuses which existed with regards to their charities.” (Western Daily Press 27 March 1873, p.3) [Back...]
  32. [32]It might be worth noting that Arrowsmith’s father, Isaac, was involved in the Worcestershire Committee for “promoting and obtaining Subscriptions towards a National Testimonial to Mr Rowland Hill” because of his “having originated and matured the plan of an uniform Penny Postage.” (Worcestershire Chronicle 29 May 1844, p.3) [Back...]
  33. [33]Western Daily Press (1 November 1893, p.3, italics added). See also Bristol Mercury (1 November 1893, p.6) [Back...]
  34. [34]The original committee consisted of S. G. James, W. Hurle Clarke, E. J. Thatcher and C. W. Cope-Proctor (representatives of the Parent Society); G. A. Wills, A. Robinson, John Harvey, and J. H. Woodward (representative of the Grateful); F. N Tribe, J. W. Arrowsmith, Herbert Thomas, and W. Howell Davies (representative of the Anchor); C. R. Hancock, A. Deedes, L. C. Danger and Sir Michael Hicks-Beach (representatives of the Dolphin). Deedes was honorary treasurer, and Danger and Arrowsmith joint honorary secretaries (Western Daily Press 10 April 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  35. [35]Western Daily Press (9 March 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  36. [36]Western Daily Press (10 April 1894, p.5) The Parent, Dolphin, Anchor and Grateful all joined in the appeal (Clifton and Redland Free Press 13 April 1894, p.3) [Back...]
  37. [37]Bristol Times and Mirror (23 April 1894, p.5, italics added) [Back...]
  38. [38]Bristol Mercury (24 April 1894, p.8) [Back...]
  39. [39]Bristol Mercury (8 June 1894, p.8) [Back...]
  40. [40]Western Daily Press (21 June 1894, p.3) [Back...]
  41. [41]Bristol Mercury (3 October 1894, p.8) [Back...]
  42. [42]Bristol Times and Mirror (3 October 1894, p.5, italics added) [Back...]
  43. [43]Fox (2013) offers a more realistic view of Burke [Back...]
  44. [44]Western Daily Press (17 October 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  45. [45]Western Daily Press (17 October 1894, p.5); Bristol Mercury (14 November 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  46. [46]Bristol Mercury (14 November 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  47. [47]Dresser (2020) makes a similar point differently. [Back...]
  48. [48]Western Daily Press (13 November 1895, p.5). See also the comments by Councillor A. Baker (Western Daily Press 9 October 1895, p.7) [Back...]
  49. [49]Bristol Times and Mirror (17 February 1896, p.5) [Back...]
  50. [50]Western Daily Press (17 February 1896, p.5) [Back...]
  51. [51]Bristol Times and Mirror (9 May 1894, p.3). For detailed maps and photographs of this area see Bristol, nd. (a); Bristol, nd. (b). [Back...]
  52. [52]This was not strictly correct because the Council paid for the installation of the statue and probably also the plinth. [Back...]
  53. [53]Western Daily Press (9 May 1894, p.5). [Back...]
  54. [54]Western Daily Press (8 October 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  55. [55]Western Daily Press (8 October 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  56. [56]Western Daily Press (15 October 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  57. [57]Western Daily Press (15 October 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  58. [58]Wills was unable to attend the unveiling (Bristol Mercury 31 October 1894, p.8). For some comment about the Keynsham Party see Weston-Super-Mare Gazette, and General Advertiser (24 March 1894, p.8) [Back...]
  59. [59]Western Daily Press (27 December 1894, p.5) [Back...]
  60. [60]Clifton and Redland Free Press (26 April 1895, p.2) [Back...]
  61. [61]Bristol Times and Mirror (20 May 1895, p.5) [Back...]
  62. [62]The Bristol Times and Mirror (8 July 1895, p.5, italics added) [Back...]
  63. [63]Western Daily Press (9 October 1895, p.7). [Back...]
  64. [64]Western Daily Press (9 October 1895, p.7). [Back...]
  65. [65]Western Daily Press (9 October 1895, p.5) [Back...]
  66. [66]A pen and ink drawing of the statue can be found in the Western Daily Press (14 November 1895, p.5) [Back...]
  67. [67]See for example Western Daily Press (12 November 1895, p.5) [Back...]
  68. [68]Thomas, through his first wife, was the brother-in-law of Mary Carpenter [Back...]
  69. [69]Bristol Times and Mirror (14 November 1894, p.6) [Back...]
  70. [70]Western Daily Press (14 November 1895, p.6, italics added) [Back...]
  71. [71]Western Daily Press (12 November 1895,p.5) [Back...]

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This