Deptford Town Hall Statues

Closes 17 Oct 2021

Opened 1 Sep 2021

Overview

This is a public consultation by Goldsmiths, University of London about the future of four statues on the front of Deptford Town Hall, which is part of our campus, with a focus on the views of people in the Lewisham area.

We want local communities to have their say about these statues and also welcome views from those outside the area with a particular interest in this building and its links to Deptford’s maritime history.

We want people to tell us what they think should happen to the statues of Sir Francis Drake, Cromwellian admiral Robert Blake, Lord Horatio Nelson, and an anonymous representative naval figure. These four figures either have links to Britain’s role in slavery or the colonial system that supported slavery. Options include retaining the statues with further explanation, altering some or all of the statues, or removing some or all of the statues. 

Goldsmiths does not have a policy position on the statues and we are undertaking a public consultation to understand the depth of feeling on this matter.

The results of the consultation will be part of a range of information shared with Goldsmiths’ Council, the decision-making body of the university, as part of discussions over the future of the statues.

If a decision is made to make changes to the statues and the building Goldsmiths would need to make a planning application to Lewisham Council.

As part of any such application, local authorities must now consider legislation published in January 2021 which the government introduced to “protect England’s cultural and historical heritage” and which can extend to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. More detail on this process is given below. 

Front of Deptford Town Hall

Photos of each statue and profiles of who they represent

The four statues on the front of Deptford Town Hall

From left to right:

  • Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 - 1596) made at least three royally sponsored trips to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them. Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581, which he received on the Golden Hind in Deptford
  • Robert Blake (1598 - 1657) was an admiral who served under Oliver Cromwell throughout the English Civil War. He fought the Dutch to secure control of global trade routes, including the transatlantic triangle between Britain, Africa and the Caribbean, and helped establish Britain as a naval power
  • Lord Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1805) was a naval flag officer whose leadership is credited with a number of decisive British victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815). Nelson spent a large part of his career in the Caribbean and developed an affinity with the slave owners there, with evidence suggesting he used his influence to argue against the abolitionist movement in Britain
  • The fourth statue is understood to be a ‟representativeˮ figure, rather than a specific person, from the period when the building was constructed. It shows an early 20th century admiral, with sextant and binoculars

Deptford Town Hall on Google Street View

The consultation takes place in the context of a national conversation about the contested heritage of statues of historical figures. Historic England recognises that there are “historic statues and sites which have become symbols of injustice and a source of great pain for many people”. In particular there has been increased focus on statues representing figures with links to slavery and colonialism.

The consultation responds to one of the demands of Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA), a Black and Person of Colour-led student campaign group founded at Goldsmiths in 2019. Read a statement from GARA (PDF).

History of Deptford Town Hall

Deptford Town Hall was built in 1905 as the municipal centre for the then-Metropolitan Borough of Deptford, which merged administratively with Lewisham in the 1960s. The building was acquired by Goldsmiths in 1998 and is Grade II listed, meaning it is has certain protections under law. It is used for teaching, hosting public events including concerts and lectures and administration. 

The four statues in niches on the front of Deptford Town Hall are Sir Francis Drake, Robert Blake, Lord Horatio Nelson, and a representative naval figure from the early 20th century. The figures depict the naval history of Britain with Deptford’s “nautical associations” providing the inspiration for the statues, according to Historic England.

Context of the statues

The historical figures portrayed in the four statues either have links to Britain’s role in slavery or the colonial system which supported slavery.

Britain’s involvement in slavery is not considered a source of national pride by modern values and it is the abolition of slavery that is often centred in the national conversation, as opposed to the harm it caused.

Student and staff groups at Goldsmiths believe that there should be a focus on the ongoing legacy of slavery and its impact on contemporary life – with concerns raised that the Deptford Town Hall statues glorify imperial dominance and play an active role in perpetuating racism today.

Over the past 12 months, a national debate has emerged about how best to reconcile the symbolism of some statues of historical figures with an increasingly diverse British identity.

Some have argued that retaining such statues serves as a reminder of a past that merits enquiry and challenge, with further work around interpretation and possibly re-contextualisation required, while others believe such statues should be removed from their prominent positions.

How the consultation will guide next steps over the statues

As an institution, Goldsmiths currently does not have a policy position on the future of the statues. This position is to be considered by Goldsmiths’ Council, the decison-making body of the university. 

The focus of this consultation is to gather public opinion in order to present the widest range of views possible to Goldsmiths’ Council and help inform their decision-making over the Goldsmiths' position on the future of the statues.

As the former Town Hall is a Grade II listed building, any changes that affect the significance of the building, including the removal of the statues and possibly also their reinterpretation, would require planning permission and listed building consent from Lewisham Council.

Goldsmiths’ Council would first be responsible for approving proposals to seek to remove the statues or make any other changes which require planning consent.

Were a planning and listed building consent application to be submitted following Goldsmiths’ Council approval, Lewisham Council’s planning department would then consult with statutory consultees, including the Victorian Society and Historic England, the Government’s adviser on the historic environment. Historic England has a statutory advisory role in the case of some listed building applications, including for works affecting statues, monuments, memorials and plaques, regardless of the grade of the building.

Historic England’s general position on contested heritage is that the best way to approach statues and sites which have become contested is not to remove them but to provide thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation, which keeps the structure’s physical context but can add new layers of meaning, allowing us all to develop a deeper understanding of our often difficult past. Historic England has set out its approach to contested heritage, including a checklist for local authorities.

As part of the application process, Lewisham’s planning department would carry out a legal planning consultation followed by a report to elected Councillors who make up one of Lewisham Council’s planning committees. The Committee would then make a decision on whether to approve the planning application or not.

Applications for listed building consent can be “called in” by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. In his Written Ministerial Statement of 18 January 2021, the Secretary of State reiterated the importance of protecting the nation’s heritage, and noted a readiness to call in applications should this be necessary to ensure that decisions reflect the Government’s planning policy.

Sharing the consultation results

The consultation results will be shared with Goldsmiths’ Council alongside other information to help support discussions on this issue. The consultation results will also be published on the Goldsmiths website. explore.gold/statues will link to them.

Why you should you take part

It is really important that every voice is heard in Goldsmiths' consultation, whether you’re a student, colleague, local resident or member of the wider community. Deptford Town Hall, while owned by Goldsmiths, has a role in our community and it is crucial that as many people as possible share their views.

As our consultation has been designed to be anonymous we will not ask you to provide any information that would identify you as part of your response.