Statues and public memory in twenty-first century Britain


by Dr Jeremy Burchardt

Look at the photograph below.  What is your reaction?

  • it’s a pompous, embarrassing monument to imperialism.  Knock it down!
  • it’s a precious part of our heritage.  Those were the days!
  • times have changed but we shouldn’t try to airbrush out the past.  Keep (critically).
  • I don’t care – it means nothing to me.
  • none of the above.

As some of you will know, the statue is a representation of King Edward VII.  The photo was taken by Sam Moss for the Reading University Photographic Society/Department of History project.  You can see a higher-resolution version, and the other entries for the project, in the department’s Flickr stream. The statue was the work of George Edward Wade, a well-known late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sculptor.  It stands rather forlornly in the middle of a roundabout outside the main entrance toReading station.  What did it mean at the time it was erected, how has that meaning changed over time, and what can that tell us about the relationship between history and public memory?

The statue was intended to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.  This was at a moment when the British Empire was close to its maximum extent, when the map of the world was proverbially painted pink in the school textbooks – in short when Britainwas close to the apogee of its imperial power. Britain was still an industrial and trading superpower and something like a third of the world’s population lived in theBritish Empire.  This pride, confidence and power leaps out at you from the statue – the tall, dignified, upright figure, firmly grasping the royal mace, surmounted by the imperial crown, gazing out boldly at new worlds to conquer.

Yet there were always hidden strains and anxieties beneath the proud face of empire.  This was especially true in the early years of the reign of Edward VII.  The British army, bastion of the empire, had been badly exposed in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) despite greatly outnumbering the largely untrained troops opposing them.  Confidence in Britain’s imperial prowess had been shaken more rudely than since the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  There were also anxieties about Britain’s place in the world in the new century.  Military and imperial rivalries with other European countries were intensifying and it was apparent that Britain would struggle to retain its economic predominance against competition from the USA, Germanyand perhaps even Japan.  Upper-class Britons were trained through their reading of such admonitory works as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice to anticipate the downfall of empire and there was plenty of evidence in 1902 that the turn of the British Empire was about to come.

Finally there were anxieties about the new king himself. Victoria’s long reign had coincided with a period of unprecedented growth, stability and international pre-eminence for Britain, and this was closely identified with the sober, respectable persona of the Queen herself.  Could Edward, her notoriously hedonistic, irresponsible and loose-living son, ever match up to this?  So the dignity and grandeur of G. E. Wade’s statue may have been as much an expression of hope as of certainty.

What does the statue mean to us today, more than a century on?  It is profoundly incongruous, and, to some, frankly embarrassing.  Encompassed with traffic and fumes, the king still visually dominates a radically changed environment.  But most passers-by probably do not even know who he is.  At almost every level he jars on modern sensibilities: his flagrant imperialism, insistent maleness, formality and uncompromising assertion of authority.  In twenty-first century Britain there is still plenty of authority and power around, and some might argue that imperialism isn’t far away either, but what makes the statue potentially problematic is the huge change in cultural values and assumptions over the last half century.  Informality rules and overt assertions of authority or superiority are unwelcome. Britain may still project military power but this is in the name of human rights or defence against terrorism rather than empire.

What then to do with the statue?  Perhaps it could be conveniently carted off to an out-of-town warehouse and put into permanent storage.  But that doesn’t seem quite right either – too much like trying to rewrite history, erasing the traces of our imperial past.  As L. P. Hartley famously observed, ‘the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’.  You could argue that a confident, open, democratic society should take a multicultural attitude to the past as well as the present.  It’s precisely the encounter with different values, perspectives and assumptions that makes History such an exciting subject to study.  Perhaps the unsettling otherness of objects left behind by time, like the Edward VII statue, is a reason to leave them where they are, not hide them away.  We should welcome their provoking power to make us reflect critically on both past and present values.


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4 Responses to Statues and public memory in twenty-first century Britain

  1. Dan Healey says:

    The striking thing about Reading’s statue of King Edward VII is that it is – from my unscientific sampling of British towns – a rare example of a monument to a modern English *king*. There are probably good cultural- and gender-historical reasons why full-blown monuments to Britain’s male monarchs of the 19-20CC seem rarer than relatively ubiquitous Victorias (Reading of course has one of those, too, facing O’Neills Irish Pub in Blagrave St.). Were the British ashamed of their male monarchs in the shadow of Victoria? Discuss.
    I think Edward VII suffers from the position he is in: centre of a taxi/bus roundabout, facing a pub, and walled up beside a rather ghastly 1970s office block. He deserves relocation but not relegation.

  2. milldarwin says:

    What a wonderfully thought-provoking blog. Iconizing and iconoclasm are both deeply political acts, and our attitudes tend to change on a case-by-case basis. To take two extreme examples, there were few who weren’t appalled by the Taliban’s destruction of seventh century sandstone Buddhas – the so-called ‘Bamiyan Massacre’ – in March 2001. But two years later no one objected when US Marines orchestrated a ‘spontaneous’ toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Closer to home the politics may be less clear-cut, and statues of Edward VII appear to be little more than irrelevance. But context is everything and the Irish republicans who marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising by blowing-up Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 1966 certainly understood the enduring relevance of that particular idol. When, a few years ago, Ken Livingstone suggested removing statues of Major General Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier from Trafalgar Square, on the grounds that not more than one in 100,000 Londoners knew who they were, many right-wing commentators were moved to levels of indignation they rarely find when confronted with evidence of, say, social deprivation. Livingstone’s proposal fell flat, however, not on a wave of militarism, but a tsunami of indifference. For the historian, perhaps the most interesting aspect of monuments and statues is the way in which meaning and significance changes over time. Twenty years ago I am sure the Maiwand Lion in Reading’s Forbury Gardens struck all but the most ardent imperialists as an anachronism. Today, when I read the inscription commemorating the 328 men of the 66th Berkshire regiment who lost their lives in an Afghan village it seems all too relevant, but perhaps not in the way originally intended.

  3. Peter Kruschwitz says:

    Zukunft braucht Herkunft, future needs its heritage, as we say in German. That doesn’t mean that one endorses every aspect of the past one chose to remember, but it does mean that one sees one’s past as a powerful reminder of the way we have developed (for the better, as one might hope). Besides, this particular king was not bad enough to deserve a damnatio memoriae, was he?

    Finally, if you consider the statue’s position and location now, why not embrace its symbolism: this ruler, quite literally, is a turning point (at least for the taxis and the RailAir coaches) – right in the middle of our town.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Peter – I love the turning point idea. Though in a way I think the turning point in Reading’s modern history came much later, perhaps in 1976 when Huntley and Palmer’s ceased producing biscuits in the town and Sutton’s Seeds moved out to Torquay. Up till then, a lot of the Victorian fabric of the town survived but now much has gone, although there are still some fine buildings here and there. Until recently the Council seemed to want Reading to become a purely modern town (or city), based on the M4 corridor, the IT sector and the Oracle shopping centre. There was even a (nightmarish/delusional) suggestion that Reading should become the ‘Los Angeles of the Thames valley’!! But in the last few years a more sympathetic attitude to Reading’s past seems to be emerging – the restorating of the Victorian concert hall in the Town Hall and the renewal of the Abbey quarter are encouraging signs.
      Jeremy Burchardt

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