The toppled statue of Edward Colston lies on display in M Shed museum

A gap-toothed city

The campaign to put up a statue to Bristol’s greatest benefactor wasn’t about Colston, it was about Bristol

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“Statueless Bristol”. In the wake of the Colston affair, the phrase perfectly captures the forlorn state of the city — physically statueless and politically rudderless — as it grapples with the rectification of history by mob rule and, still worse, with the quasi-legitimation of the process by the perverse verdict of a bamboozled jury.

There is just one problem. The phrase is not early twenty-first century but late Victorian. And far from being a response to the pulling down of Colston’s statue, it was coined as part of the campaign to have the statue put up.

James Arrowsmith

Its author was James Arrowsmith. Arrowsmith was a characteristic Victorian with unlimited energy, wide talents and wider interests. He was printer, publisher (he had just enjoyed the success of his publication of Jerome K. Jerome’s international best-seller, Three Men in a Boat), amateur local historian and committed Bristolian with a finger in every pie, from the foundation of the University to the running of local sports clubs.

Not least, he was, as a leading local Liberal, president of the Anchors. This was one of the four differently politically and religiously affiliated societies which, since the eighteenth century, had kept the memory of Edward Colston’s charitable munificence to Bristol alive with annual celebrations and pageantry, culminating on Colston’s day, 13 November.

But, despite Arrowsmith’s Colstonian affiliations, his campaign to put up a statue to Bristol’s greatest benefactor wasn’t really about Colston. It was about Bristol. And what Bristol lacked. Which, in Arrowsmith’s opinion (and to come full circle) was statues.

The statement wasn’t quite true of course, since Bristol did have a statue. Indeed the superbly flamboyant equestrian statue of William III in Queen Square by the Flemish-born but thoroughly Anglicised sculptor, Michael Rysbrack, was one of the finest public monuments in England. It even served as the model for the statue of the same king in London’s then grandest address, St James’s Square.

Similarly, Queen Square itself — dominated by the Mansion House and Custom House and framed by regular classical terraces on the remaining sides — was one of the finest public spaces in provincial England. But both square and statue were eighteenth century and, like Colston himself, were a product of Bristol’s eighteenth-century prosperity as the apex of the so-called triangle trade.

Bristol exported cloth to Africa, where it bought slaves who were then shipped to the Americas and West Indies, where the profit of their sale paid for tropical goods like sugar and tobacco. These goods in turn were brought back to Bristol, which waxed fat off the profits of all three transactions.

Arrowsmith thought he could kickstart Bristol’s economy by tackling its cultural deficit

But that was the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century was much less kind to the city. The problems were set out unsparingly in two entries in Arrowsmith’s own Dictionary of Bristol. The first, entitled “Riots”, described the “Bristol Revolution” of 1831, when the mob, protesting against the Tories’ resistance to the Great Reform Bill, took over the city and looted and burned down the Mansion House, the Custom House and two sides of Queen Square. The square was quickly rebuilt but the damage was done and the prosperous fled the city for the genteel suburb of Clifton, safely across the Avon Gorge.

The second entry in the Dictionary, entitled “Ships”, administered the coup de grace. For nineteenth-century Bristol, literally and figuratively, missed the boat. Yet it had all begun so well. In 1835, only four years after the riots, the construction began of the Great Western Railway linking London to Bristol. And beyond Bristol, to America. Because in 1838 the paddle ship, Great Western, built in Bristol and sailing from Bristol, became the first steam vessel to make the return journey across the Atlantic and in record time, taking 15 days out and 14 days back.

But then Brunel, who had engineered the railway and built the Great Western, threw it all away with his recklessly experimental Great Britain. Several years and as many fortunes were wasted in an unsuccessful effort to make the iron-built, screw-driven vessel sea-worthy.

Meanwhile Samuel Cunard, in partnership with the Glasgow shipbuilder George Burns, had built four look-alikes of the Great Western and launched the first regular transatlantic service from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Boston. Henceforward ocean-liners would be built on the Clyde and sail from Liverpool, while Bristol, despite its antiquity, was relegated to the second division.

This is why Bristol barely appears in Tristram Hunt’s study of the great Victorian city, Building Jerusalem. There followed good and ill. Bristol largely escaped the Dark Satanic Mills. But it also missed out on the redeeming civic splendours. These are best exemplified in the Cottonopolis of Manchester, Victorian England’s second city, where Alfred Waterhouse’s vast neo-Gothic Town Hall faces Albert Square and its array of statues of civic and national worthies.

Which is where, at last, “statueless Bristol” comes in. Like many modern “levellers-up”, Arrowsmith thought he could kickstart Bristol’s economy by tackling its cultural deficit. He began in 1893 by being the prime mover of The Bristol Industrial and Fine Arts Exhibition.

Bristol’s lack of dynamism and relative economic decline left it with few heroes

The exhibition was held in a temporary wood, iron and glass pavilion, partly lit by electricity and with twin towers enclosing a central, railway-station-like nave. It was open for five months; had five hundred thousand visitors and made a profit of £2,000. These were impressive statistics, at least for Bristol. But it was the site Arrowsmith was interested in since the exhibition had taken place on land newly reclaimed from the now redundant northern end of the Harbour.

Here at last, Arrowsmith was convinced, Bristol had its Albert Square. It now remained similarly to people it with statues. The problem was that Bristol’s lack of dynamism and relative economic decline left it with few heroes and not much of a tradition of public munificence either. Only two figures stood out as worthy of commemoration: Edmund Burke, who had been a Bristol MP in the 1770s, and Colston himself. 

And it proved hard to raise funds even for these. But, by dint of putting his hand in his own pocket, Arrowsmith succeeded. Burke’s statue was erected in 1894; Colston’s in 1895; a monumental drinking fountain to commemorate the 1893 exhibition in 1901 and finally the Bristol Cenotaph in 1932. They made, as the English Heritage listing recognised, a fine group — until the tearing down of Colston’s statue left a gap as ugly as a knocked-out tooth.

The story of Colston’s statue has been told before, by Roger Ball in a pamphlet published by the Bristol Radical History Group. But there is little overlap between his account and mine. 

Ball begins by claiming that the Victorian cult of Colston was that hoary old trope of Leftish history, an “invented tradition”. Which is odd since all four Colston commemorative societies were founded in the eighteenth century and had been in continuous existence ever since. 

Ball’s account of Arrowsmith’s campaign to put up Colston’s statue is similarly narrow, mean-spirited and, still worse, without context. There is nothing about Bristol’s wider economy or relative decline; nothing about Victorian urbanism; nothing even about the statue’s novel location. Instead, the reader is left with the single trite conclusion that “that statue” was the “vanity project of one wealthy business owner”.

None of which would matter very much save for the fact that Ball’s pamphlet and his equally contentious companion studies on the slaver roots of Colston’s wealth were the sole substantial basis for David Olusoga’s “expert” witness statement at the trial of the “Colston four”. Olusoga’s ventriloquising of Ball’s leaden material was characteristically “eloquent” (that new “racist” term as identified by Olusoga’s fellow culture warrior, Priyamvada Gopal).

But an historical judgment, however “eloquent”, is only worth the evidence on which it’s based. And Ball’s Corbynista-like handling of his evidence is so skewed that it’s fragile at best. And certainly inadequate grounds on which to leave Bristol gap-toothed and “statueless” once more.

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