Deptford Town Hall was built in 1905 for the Borough of Deptford, in south London. The façade is adorned with sculpture with a naval theme by Henry Poole (1873-1928). Following the merger of Deptford and Lewisham Boroughs, the building was sold to Goldsmiths’ College in 2000. A student group, Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action, is now demanding that the statues of four naval personalities be removed from the façade because of their associations with slavery.
Does this matter?
When the Town Hall was built, local opinion enthused over its quality. The Brockley News of 30 July 1905 described the sculpted front as “a triumph of imaginative architecture.” The contemporary souvenir booklet said that it was a Town Hall “of which every resident may justly be proud.”
No other group of sculptures celebrates Britain’s naval heritage with as much skill and vitality.[i] Pride of place must go to the sea battle in the principal pediment: a riot of tossing and pitching ships. Elsewhere we find anchors, windlasses, and Tritons; a ship under full sail emerging between two dolphins; and above it all a weathervane in the form of a two-decker warship.
Four relief statues depict Sir Francis Drake, Robert Blake, Lord Nelson, and a 1905 admiral. Drake is portrayed with a wreath full of Spanish plunder and stands beside a globe, recalling his extraordinary achievement in being the first explorer to circumnavigate the world and come home safely; Blake is portrayed with a wreath containing a Bible, symbolising his Puritan faith; Nelson is portrayed against anti-boarding netting and a gun carriage; and the modern admiral is portrayed with a wreath containing a sextant and a pair of binoculars.
The significance of the building and its carved work is threefold. First, it is a remarkable instance of the work of Henry Poole, who was later chosen for the sculptural work on Britain’s three Naval War Memorials, and may well be Britain’s foremost sculptor of naval themes. Second, it is a monument to the naval history of Deptford, capturing also the moment when civic administration in Deptford came of age, and expressing the municipal spirit of the ratepayers of 1905. Third, although some people may disagree on whether Britain’s military and naval past is something to be celebrated, the fact is that many others may well feel proud of the contribution made over the centuries by the Royal Navy (not least for its role in supressing the slave trade as detailed further on). Whatever we might think about this personally, the statues have a national significance – and they should remain as reminders for all who wish, to ponder on and come to their own conclusions. A student activist group does not have a democratic mandate to remove public statues because they find them offensive.
Goldsmiths’ says[ii] that Francis Drake “was a pioneer of the slave trade.” Hardly. Drake took part in three slaving expeditions, conducted in 1564-8 and led and planned by Sir John Hawkins. Drake probably sailed as a seaman on the first two, and may have commanded a ship on the third.[iii] The capture and sale of slaves was then regarded as a normal part of war and commerce, and Hawkins was only a pioneer in that he was the first Englishman to try to break the monopoly already established by the Portuguese, who had been trading in African slaves since 1444.
Robert Blake fought “to secure the trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England.” This is an oversimplification. England and the Dutch Republic fought first, to shut each other out of global trade routes, not least the lucrative East Asian trade, and second, over the Dutch failure to join an anti-Catholic league.[iv] Goldsmiths’ goes on to say that “Cromwell was responsible for trafficking the first waves of enslaved people …” So, if Cromwell was responsible, why take down Blake’s statue?
Horatio Nelson used his influence “to argue against the abolitionist movement.” This goes back to a a letter dated June 1805, in which Nelson refers to “the damnable cruel doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” Nelson, having seen the horrors that followed the French Revolution, was viscerally opposed to anything that might upset the constitutional order.[v] Advocates for of slavery felt that Nelson’s letter did not sufficiently support their position, and circulated fraudulent copies in an attempt to claim him as their ally.[vi] In fact, in 1802 Nelson had supported a proposal to abolish the West Indian slave trade and replace the slaves with free Chinese labourers.
Goldsmiths’ can find nothing critical to say about the modern admiral. This is hardly surprising, since by 1905 the Royal Navy had spent eighty years suppressing the slave trade, initially on the West African coast, and afterwards on the East African coast. During the period 1819-69, for example, the Royal Navy’s Preventive Squadron “freed about 160,000 slaves and lost some 17,000 seamen to death by disease, battle, or accident.”[vii] The total is not so very different from the 25,500 Royal Naval personnel lost in the First World War. To put it another way, for every nine slaves freed, one British life was lost.
The reasons for removing the statues turn out to be flimsy in the extreme. Drake was acting no differently from his contemporaries, and in any case played a minor role. Blake, as we might expect, carried out the instructions of his government, and was in fact concerned with much bigger issues than the Caribbean slave trade. Activists pounce on a phrase in a private letter from Nelson, but ignore his concern to avoid the massive bloodshed that Europe had witnessed in the 1790s. Finally, the activists want to remove a representative of the Navy that did more than anyone else to eradicate slavery.
This is the basis on it is proposed to mutilate an outstanding sculptural group of national significance. Yes, Deptford Town Hall matters.
Have your say: a public consultation exercise, closing on 17 October, can be found at:
[i] For photographs, see Bob Speel’s website http://www.speel.me.uk/sculptlondon/deptfordth.htm
[iii] The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660-1649, by N A M Rodger, London (1997), p. 201; Sir John Hawkins : Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader, by Harry Kelsey, New Haven (2003), pp. 13-15, 19, 56.
[iv] The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, by N A M Rodger, London (2004), pp. 6-9; Seapower States : Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World, by Andrew Lambert, New Haven (2019), p. 173.
[v] See also Nelson: the Sword of Albion, by John Sugden, London (2012), pp. 684 & 859n7.
[vii] Sîan Rees, Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships that Stopped the Slave Trade, London (2009), p. 308. For the East African patrols, see Suzanne Miers, Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade, New York (1975).