In June we witnessed the Great British Vandalism of 2020. A number of cultural heritage sites such as statues, monuments and place names across the UK were destroyed, defaced, removed or renamed. A far greater number, yet to be affected, were in the sights of the vandals. In response I decided to create the Vault, a record of the sites which were marked for destruction.
The timeline of the initial events that began in the first weekend of June 2020 is as follows. On 6th June there were “Black Lives Matter” protests in London over the death of an African-American man in the USA. The protests led to violence against the police and, as was widely reported, the Cenotaph was vandalised by a protestor attempting to burn the UK flag. On 7th June in London the base of the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was defaced with spray paint, in Bristol the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbour.
On 9th June political activist Owen Jones used the social media website Twitter to share a the link to a website called “Topple the Racists” (hereafter TTR). TTR consisted of a map of cultural heritage sites targeted by vandals for renaming, removal or destruction. The vandalism was not going to stop at the events of 6th and 7th June.
On 13th June various groups of counter-protestors (including veterans but described by the media as “Far-Right”) arrived in the capital hoping to defend monuments from destruction and again there were physical confrontations with the police. That same day Black Lives Matter supporters returned to central London looking to fight the counter-protestors. Videos and images of violent attacks were circulated online. The worst scenes recorded showed large groups of Black Lives Matter supporters ganging up on isolated counter-protestors, free to inflict severe physical harm with no police presence in sight.
Thus a series of protests and riots in the USA led to violent clashes over monuments within the UK followed by a wave of vandalism. To those of us who wish to preserve our culture and heritage the events which followed amounted to a Great British Vandalism where sites and artefacts were removed, renamed or destroyed in our own Year Zero.
What is the Vault?
I realised that if the TTR website could be used by those who wished to destroy, then it could also be used by those who wished to preserve. I knew that this website would be the starting point of any kind of defence of our cultural heritage.
The most immediate concern was that the website’s publisher would take it down, rendering the information inaccessible. I set about manually reproducing the data, so that if the TTR website was lost we would still know which sites were threatened. This record would be called the Vault. I decided links should be provided to the relevant authorities and that the status of sites should be recorded too. The purpose of the Vault would therefore be threefold:
- To record sites targeted by TTR.
- To plot the relevant authorities against each site.
- To record what happened to each site.
While populating the Vault with data a disappointing thought came to me, that what I was writing might not be a witness protection list, but rather an obituary. I was surprised at the number of sites which had already been removed from public view, renamed or permanently damaged a mere few days after the initial unrest of early June. By the time I finished what would be left?
I provide in this article a link to download the Vault. It maps each site targeted against the link to the relevant local council, police representative and Member of Parliament. My hope is that those concerned individuals may use this to contact their local representatives and prevent further destruction.
What I have learned
The sites which were targeted vary and each tells us a different story. Some targets are pathetic, the names of schools or university halls. Some seem entirely mean-spirited. Consider the Jim Crow Stone in Dunoon, which appears to have been an artistic football for years. The stone seems to be part of a cyclical cultural argument where it is painted and then re-painted. On the 10th June the press reported that the stone was due to be cleansed of its character but by the 13th June it was reported that Black Lives Matter had already covered it in their own markings.
Some cases seem impossible to resolve. Consider the case of Blairquhan Castle. Apparently the purchaser of the castle, in 1798, received financial recompense for his losses from the abolition of slavery and this crime is passed on to his descendants. But what the person who marked this site on TTR wanted is unclear. Should we destroy the castle? Should we rename the castle? Should the estate return the money, if so, to whom? Who knows what is being demanded?
Other examples are indicative of the culture war we are now in. Scrolling through the Vault one may notice that TTR targets Robert Peel and Sir Robert Peel. The former is the father and opposed the abolition of slavery, the latter is the son who supported abolition and who also founded the police force in Britain. The media have assumed that targeting the junior Robert Peel must be a mistake because he opposed slavery, unlike his father. This misses the point. In the USA the wider Black Lives Matter movement is calling for the police to be “defunded” or even abolished and its sister movement in the UK regards the British police as “institutionally racist”. I will not rule out historical ignorance on the part of the vandals. However, teaching them who the younger Robert Peel was would make no difference, as his role in the foundation of the British police is justification enough to add him to the list of cultural targets.
Some sites have been boarded up for their own protection. The Churchill statue in Parliament square was boarded up, as was the statue of Sir Robert Peel in Tamworth. A black statue was removed from a stately home in Manchester, as was the pub sign of the Black Boy pub in Retford. In Ashbourne a wooden face of a black man was taken down and whisked away by locals for its own protection, only for this forbidden item to be handed over to the local Council.
In Haverfordwest a fearful property owner had a blue plaque for Sir Robert Picton removed fearing the building that hosted it could be the “target of attacks”. In Brighton another blue plaque for Admiral Sir Edward Codrington was destroyed. In Brecon a plaque for Captain Thomas Phillips was stolen, who knows what its fate was.
I hope that this first published version of the Vault will allow a concerned individual to identify which sites are threatened and, if they so wish, to contact the authorities who are either responsible for their protection or who have influence which may help prevent further damage.
|1||Record sites targeted by TTR.||Vault version 1 – link above|
|2||Plot relevant authorities against each site.||Vault version 1 – link above|
|3||Record status of each site.||Vault version 2 – pending|
In the next publication of the Vault I aim to include the status of each site, whether it has been destroyed, removed, vandalised or it remains undamaged. Events have moved faster than I could keep up with and the Vault will never be a perfect resource. I cannot possibly list all sites which the vandals may target. I will not be able to list all sites which are affected. The Vault may contain data which isn’t perfect. However, I will not make perfect the enemy of the good. If you identify errors in the data, find new threatened sites or have other reasons for communicating with me please contact me by completing the form on the Contact page of my WordPress site.
Thank you to those associates of mine who helped me in this important work, your contribution and time is truly appreciated.
We are unable to protect all of these sites from destruction, but we can protect some of them. At the very least there will be a record of what was lost and how it was lost, during the Great British Vandalism of 2020.