local history

We're all talking about statues now.

I live in Bromley-by-Bow, a quiet neighbourhood in East London. My immediate local area doesn't have a huge amount of history, it having been mostly goods yards and a "sick asylum" until well into the 20th century, according to old maps of the area. 

Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is one of absence: in the soap Eastenders, the set-dressing for the local tube station contains a fake map of the London Underground that places the stop, Walford East, directly between Bow Road and West Ham on the District Line – where Bromley-by-Bow sits in real life.

But go a bit further afield, and things get more interesting.

To the south, within the radius I can cover in my 5k runs, is – was – a statue of Robert Milligan. Last week, I was probably one of a small minority of people who would even recognise his name, because I'm the sort of person who stops and reads the plinths under statues. Today, he's on the front page of the Times and the Mail.

There were good reasons to put up the statute of Milligan. He founded West India Docks, the area in which his statue was placed. And there were good reasons to take down the statue of Milligan. Because the business of trading with the West Indies was the business of slavery.

In practice, the reason why Milligan's statue was removed probably had less to do with the compelling arguments against honouring him – even with the fact that he stood directly in front of the Museum of London Docklands, one of the capital's best museums, which offers a deep and harrowing look at the evils Milligan and his colleagues perpetrated – and more to do with the fact that it was placed, well, on a dock. And we've seen what happens to statues of slavers placed too close to water.

And so Tower Hamlets Council removed it.

The front page of the Daily Mail calls this "toppling the past", and Sarah Vine worries we are "erasing our history".

Millligan's statue was, in fact, in storage between 1943 and 1997. It will probably spend less time out of view now than it did in the 20th century, when it was removed for no reason other than urban degeneration, and restored for no reason other than abstract beautification.

Statues don't create history, and they barely represent it.

To the north of me is another statue, of William Gladstone. It's the only figurative statue, outside of a churchyard, in the area.

This neighborhood is where Sylvia Pankhurst founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes. There is no statue to Sylvia Pankhurst in Bow, and so there is no statue for Sarah Vine to defend, though there is, a few hundred meters down the road, three stories up, a small green clock dedicated to her fellow activist Millie Lansbury.

This neighbourhood is where Gandhi stayed in 1931 when he visited London. There is no statue to Gandhi in the area, and so there is no statue for Sarah Vine to defend, though there is a small plaque on the building he stayed in, restored using private funds – largely those of Richard Attenborough, director of the statesman's biopic.

This neighbourhood is where the 1888 Matchgirls' strike happened, a watershed moment in both British labour history and the suffragette movement. The workers of the Bryant and May factory, overwhelmingly women and girls, went on strike over unsafe working conditions. The phosphorus they used to make matches was inhaled as a vapour, bonded with the bones of their jaw and teeth, and destroyed them. Their jaws rotted in their faces, and those that didn't begin starving to death because of their inability to eat without extreme pain eventually suffered brain damage as well. 

The girls struck, and won. There is no statue to them, and so there is no statue for Sarah Vine to defend. There was, however, a memorial fountain. Not a memorial to the historic 1888 strike; the fountain was put up in 1872, after a different protest moved the girls of the factory to action.

The government at the time wanted to tax matches; a likely revenue raiser, but a tremendously unpopular one, seen, as it was, as a tax on light and heat, affecting rich and poor alike. The girls marched with their bosses, against the tax, and in 1870, won. 

Through "private subscription" – but, overwhelmingly, from the money of the Bryant and May factory owners – two memorials were put up commemorating this victory. One, a public drinking fountain, thanked the workers of the factory for organising for all. The other, a statue of the statesman seen to have struck the final blow against the tax: the statue of William Gladstone.

In 1953, the fountain was demolished. 

Ian Vists writes

Nothing else seemed to change, the forecourt of the station was untouched — they just got rid of the fountain.

That may have been related to a planning application in 1953 to change the use of the upper floors into a social club, but I can’t find a specific reason for its removal. It just happened. No protests seemed to happen, nothing, it was just torn down.

Gladstone's statue, put up at the same time, paid for by the same people, commemorating the same event, still stands. Statues don't create history, and they barely represent it.

As for the Bryant and May factory itself, its history continued. The factory fell into disuse, and then, in the 1980s, achieved two firsts at once. A group of property developers bought it – by this point, its beautiful brick towers were firmly back in fashion – and renovated it as luxury housing. 

The surrounding, unreconstructed area of Bow would have turned off the Yuppies they wanted to sell to, and so they made the most of the existing walls around the campus, so turning it into London's first gated community. You could drive straight off the A12 – or near as – and through gates, into your private haven; if you didn't have a car, a free travelcard let you hurry to nearby Bow Road station and hop on the tube.

It didn't work. And a few years later, the factory received its second, and greatest, 20th century claim to fame, as the first homes to fall into negative equity in the 1980s housing crash. It took owners six years to bring their mortgages above water.

There are no statues to that, either.