Since the campaign to remove statues of people with links to racial oppression in the wake of the George Floyd killing, we are all looking at our statues and monuments in Tower Hamlets with fresh eyes.
Some of the metallic-skinned public figures we walk past everyday are sullied by their murky links to slavery. On 10 June, 2020, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets removed the statue of Robert Milligan – a notable slaveholder from the 18th Century – at West India Quay.
The Museum of London Docklands said the statue of the prominent British slave trader, who owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica, had ‘stood uncomfortably’ outside its premises ‘for a long time’.
While some of our local statues are associated with the UK’s colonial past, others are celebrations of inspiring public figures and testaments to the creativity and philanthropy of the East End.
Here’s a roundup of all the statues and monuments in our corner of Tower Hamlets around Roman Road.
Blind Beggar and His Dog
Elizabeth Frink’s bronze statue of the Blind Beggar and His Dog (1957) adorns Bethnal Green’s Cranbrook Estate, which was Berthold Lubetkin’s last major project before his retirement.
The statue is in the middle of a gated residents’ garden but can be viewed from the Roman Road, just west of its junction with Mace Street. The statue still draws admiration from locals and curious looks from outsiders. It received Grade II heritage status in 1998.
Among the various stories behind the statue, the most popular refers to a knight named de Montford, who was blinded in battle and left begging alms in Bethnal Green. His daughter was wooed by four suitors, three of whom were discouraged by an alleged lack of dowry. The fourth recognised her nobility and married her anyway, and he received a dowry from the beggar’s still-wealthy father.
William Gladstone statue
Just in front of Bow Church, along Mile End Road towards Stratford stands the statue of William Ewart Gladstone (1809 – 1898), a famous politician whose achievements included four terms as Prime Minister and four terms as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Firm and solemn, he holds a parchment in his left hand, whereas the right stretches out as to suggest a political imperative.
One of the most notable things about the statue, is the fact that its hands are painted red. The explanation lies in the back of the statue, where the inscription reads, ‘A gift to the east of London of Theodore H. Bryant’.
This refers to Bryant & May matches, a Bow factory where matchgirls – many underaged, all on starvation wages, barefoot through winter, vulnerable to white phosphorous poisoning – allegedly had a shilling skimmed from their pay to finance Bryant’s ‘gift’.
At the unveiling, several girls smuggled stones in their pockets, cut their hands and bloodied the statue in protest. The red paint on the statue stands as a tribute to these brave women.
Tow path statues, Mile End Park
Mile End Park, Tower Hamlets
Along Mile End Park’s Regent’s Canal, a series of steel statues represent the proud local history of East London. There is Ledley King, born in Bow in 1980, who defended for Tottenham Hotspur as well as England; Sylvia Pankhurst, who fought for women’s rights and best represents the stubbornness and passion of the Suffragettes’ movement as well as a campaigner for improving the living conditions of workers in the East End; and last but not least, a towpath horse, one of many who used to pull barges and flatboats up and down the canals that were once the spine of the Bow area.
Statue of Clement Attlee
Queen Mary University London, Mile End, Tower Hamlets,
This statue by Frank Forster commemorates Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and post-war Prime Minister. First as Mayor of Stepney, he defended the poor of this area against slum landlords.
During his time as Prime Minister between 1945 and 1951, the British government took major steps to nationalise major industries and public utilities as well as create the National Health Service. He also set standards of duty and decency at the top for all subsequent Prime Ministers.
The statue was originally unveiled in Limehouse by Lord Wilson of Rievaulx in 1988. Over the years it fell into disrepair and was vandalised. The relocation and repair of the statue in 2010 was funded by Queen Mary University of London and facilitated by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, from which it is now on long term loan.
Edward VII Bust
Mile End Road, Tower Hamlets
During 1910 Stepney Borough Council planted two long rows of plane trees on a strip of land along Mile End Road, laid out roadside gardens and erected some commemorative statues, among which was the Edward VII.
King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, ascended the throne at the age of 60 and only reigned 11 years (1901-1911). The bust was erected by freemasons of the Eastern District and unveiled the 12 October, 1911, by Edward White JP, Chairman of the London County Council, who presented it to the Stepney Borough Council.
The sculptor is unknown, but the casting was carried out by a local firm, Harris and Son of Mile End Road. The most notable trait of the statue is certainly the inscription placed underneath, which reads: ‘Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war,’ referring to Edward’s role in building good relations with Europe, especially France. The statue has been granted Grade II heritage status.
William and Catherine Booth statues
Mile End Road, Stepney Tower Hamlets
These statues in Stepney commemorate the work and the efforts of William Booth, the first Methodist preacher and first General in 1878, and his wife Catherine, known as the ‘Mother of The Salvation Army’. They are considered the founders of the Salvation Army.
Although they were not born in London, they worked towards improving the living conditions of many East Enders, especially in Whitechapel. William preached to the poor and marginalised members of the society, while Catherine spoke to the wealthy, gaining support for their financially demanding ministry.
William’s statue on Mile End Road, unveiled in 1979, is located near to the spot outside the Blind Beggar pub where Booth first preached in 1865. The inscription reads: ‘William Booth Founder and First General of The Salvation Army. Commenced the work of the Salvation Army on Mile End Waste. July 1865’.
The neighbouring statue of Catherine Booth was donated by the women of the Salvation Army in the United States of America, and unveiled in 2015, on the Salvation Army’s 150th anniversary.
Guard Dogs in Victoria Park
Installed in 1912, the original sculptures stood until 2009. They are copies of a Roman marble statue called ‘Jennings Dog’ which is today stored at the British Museum. They are recognisable for their short tail, since it was believed the same owner had cut it off.
There are many local beliefs about the identity of these dogs, including the belief that they rescue canal users in difficulty. In 2011 the severely damaged and heavily vandalised sculptures were replaced by replicas as part of a larger refurbishment of Victoria Park in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.
Old Flo by Henry Moore
Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets
Depicting a female figure in a seated position, a homage to the bundled figures who took shelter during the London Blitz, Old Flo is considered a symbol of the East End. It was created by Henry Moore who donated it to the Stifford Estate, Stepney, in 1962, where it remained until the demolition of the estate and in 1997.
It was then loaned by Tower Hamlets to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until October 2017. In 2012, Tower Hamlets decided to sell the sculpture, leading to a public campaign to prevent the sale.
Old Flo is now at Canary Wharf, on private land, yet back on public display. After having survived vandalism, the demolition of her original home, a custody fight and sale attempts by the council, it seems deserving of an, ‘All’s well that ends well!’
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