Following the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, controversy over a local statue in Stroud known as the Blackboy has resurfaced.
Stroud District Council recently launched a public consultation over street names, building names, and monuments, and is additionally gathering feedback on its draft Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy.
These developments have rekindled the debate surrounding the Blackboy, which has long been the subject of mixed and strongly held feelings, ranging from affection for the artisanship used to create it, to great dislike for its potentially offensive reminders of slavery.
Blackboy House in Castle Street, Stroud, is a Grade II listed building that was built in the 19th century as a school and is now a residential block of flats.
It features a rare example of an 18th century Jacquemart, or Jack clock. The clock was originally set on the front of the clockmaker’s shop in the High Street; after his death, it was moved to a nearby pub and subsequently, in 1844, to its present location.
A ‘Jack’ is a moving figure - in this case, a small boy holding a club - that strikes a bell on the hour every hour.
The origins and inspiration for the design of the clock are unknown, and it is not possible to define why the clockmaker, John Miles, chose to use the image of the boy. It is possible that the boy’s appearance derives from images of black people in the woodcuts and etchings of the time, including tobacco advertisements.
However, we do know that the statue was made at a time when the Transatlantic slave trade was at its height. Gloucestershire profited from this trade, both directly and indirectly, and the ownership of slaves is known to have existed in the county in the late 18th century.
Therefore, one way or another the boy’s image came directly or indirectly through the influence of slavery and colonialism.
Stroud and slavery
Stroud has a history of opposition to slavery – we are home to the Anti-Slavery Arch, a memorial to the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies. The Arch, located in Paganhill, was built in 1834 as the grand entrance to a Georgian mansion owned by a wealthy local businessman who was involved with the Stroud Anti-Slavery Society.
When I was an Executive Member for resources at Stroud District Council, I was able to authorise its restoration in 2001, using funds from the District and Town councils.
Nick Hayes’ gripping and excellent “Book of Trespass”’, recounts how the famous stately homes and prominent names of the UK are mired by slavery’s profits. Stroud is no different – our historic ties to slavery must be acknowledged.
With the debate rekindled, the time was right to look in more depth at how buildings and streets gained their names, and at whether – in addition to the Blackboy – we have local versions of Bristol’s Colston statue.
The ruling Labour/Green/Lib Dem alliance agreed to undertake a public consultation and review of the Blackboy statue and of our exhibits at the Museum in the Park, as well as the names of some buildings and streets in the District.
The Equalities working group, which I chair, has been entrusted with the role of setting up a review board, made up of community representatives, councillors and historians. The review aims to identify any monuments, plaques, buildings, street names or other representations of history that don’t align with the values we want to live by.
Issues like this are directly related to ongoing racism in society. Commemorations of history should be appropriate to the current time and representative of local people’s values and those of a modern, inclusive council.
So, what are the options in relation to the statue?
Several suggestions have been raised, such as renaming the clock and statue, and the building itself, subject to the agreement of the private owner. Alternatively, they could remain in place, with a plaque erected to educate onlookers and acknowledge links with slavery.
The town’s museum has been identified as a potential destination for the clock and statue, mirroring the trajectory of Bristol’s Colston statue, where the historical context can be fully explained and used as an educational resource.
However, this would require the agreement of the building’s owner, and any physical alterations to the building would require listed building consent. The Government’s plans to prohibit the removal of historical statues, regardless of listing status, could present a roadblock in this scenario.
Even if the Council granted permission, Historic England could object, meaning that the final decision would be left to the Communities Secretary.
With the outcome undetermined, we could see the Council taking no further action at all.
Consulting the community
The review is additionally looking at how we can better celebrate the diversity of our community in the naming of streets, buildings, and monuments. The public has been asked to nominate names and events in recent history, particularly in relation to under-represented groups, for consideration.
Hearing from people through this consultation about what’s important to them will help us ensure that in future that all histories and achievements are reflected equally.
Reactions so far to the review on local social media, however, have ranged drastically in opinion.
Some are firmly in favour of removing the statue because it is seen as a racist and inappropriate symbol that celebrates a dark time in our history; some have pointed to the fact that the boy is attached by his neck to the wall behind him, a symbol of his subservience.
Other commentators have accused the council of being ‘woke’ and even ‘Marxist’ for simply considering the statue’s future.
There’s no evidence that the boy was a slave, they say; he is just a well-made piece of art. Where does all this end, they ask, and hasn’t the council got better things to spend our money on?
We are certainly expecting a lot of responses on both sides, with others arguing for a middle ground.
Once the public consultation period ends on September 1, the review panel will collate and analyse the responses and publish its recommendations based on the representations made, reflecting the consensus of views as far as possible.