Historic Statues Removed in Central London Over Slave Trade Links

The statues of two U.K. politicians who made their wealth from the slave trade will be removed from a historic building in central London after "months of valuable work" by anti-racism campaigners.

The City of London Corporation has announced it will remove statues of William Beckford and Sir John Cass from the Guildhall after a taskforce, set up by the corporation following Black Lives Matter protests, said they symbolize "a stain on our history." Catherine McGuinness, the corporation's policy chairwoman, called the move "an important milestone" in moving towards an "inclusive and diverse city".

The corporation, which looks after the Square Mile - London's financial district - said it was also considering the future of a number of other statues as well as road and building names with links to the slave trade. After discussions with its Tackling Racism Taskforce, the corporation's Policy and Resources Committee voted Thursday to remove the two statues.

It comes days after U.K. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said Britain should not try to edit its past, as new legal protections for historic statues came into force. Under the new legislation, statues will be removed only in "the most exceptional circumstances". If a council intends to grant permission to remove a statue and Historic England objects, Jenrick will be notified to make the final decision.

The City Corporation said the statues will be removed and it is considering commissioning a new memorial to the slave trade. Tackling Racism Taskforce co-chairwoman Caroline Addy said she is "really pleased" the committee voted for the "correct response to a sensitive issue". She said: "The slave trade is a stain on our history and putting those who profited from it literally on a pedestal is something that has no place in a modern, diverse city."

William Beckford was a two-time lord mayor of London in the late 1700s who accrued wealth from plantations in Jamaica and held African slaves. His statue will be rehomed and replaced with a new artwork.

Sir John Cass was a 17th and 18th-century merchant, Member of Parliament (MP) and philanthropist who also profited from the slave trade. His statue will be returned to its owner, the Sir John Cass Foundation. The two statues in Guildhall are the latest to be removed in the U.K. following widespread protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Last year, a statue of Edward Colston was dumped into Bristol Harbour after protesters pulled it from its plinth during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Later, a memorial to wartime prime minister Sir Winston Churchill was boarded up to protect it from demonstrations after it was vandalized with the words "is a racist". Campaigners say many of Britain's statues and memorials to former leaders glorify slave traders and symbolize the country's history of oppressive racism. Historians argue that to tear down statues is to ignore Britain's past. Even U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said removing statues of controversial figures is "to lie about our history".

Edward Colston statue toppled by BLM protesters
A statue of Edward Colston, one of Britain's wealthiest slave traders, was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, England, in 2020 Harry Pugsley/Getty

"We cannot now try to edit or censor our past," he said. "We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come." Johnson also said it was "absurd and shameful" that Churchill's statue should need protection, saying: "He sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and fully deserves his memorial."

Calls have been made to teach the U.K.'s colonial history in schools, with relatively little known by the general population about the country's role in slavery, compared to that of its U.S. counterparts. A consultation on statues and other landmarks in the City of London with links to slavery last year generated more than 1,500 responses.

Responding to the planned removal of the Cass and Beckford statues, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: "For hundreds of years, public statues and monuments have been erected across the country to celebrate individuals and great moments in British history. Any removal should require planning permission and local people given the chance to be properly consulted – that's why we are changing the law to protect historic monuments to ensure we don't repeat the errors of previous generations."