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The Red Hands of the Bow Gladstone Statue

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

The statue of four time Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, in Bow was called a ‘gift to the east of London’ - and who doesn’t love a gift they didn’t want and paid for themselves?


East Londoners have never been subtle about their feelings on the statue of William Gladstone. Looming darkly in front of Bow Church, it would just be another Victorian male statue which people usually ignore if it wasn’t for his extended right hand slashed in red, glowing like ember. It makes you take notice.


Much urban legend surrounds those red hands, nobody really knows who painted and repainted it over the years, but it is now said that nobody tries to clean it away anymore as his hands will always turn red again. What we do know is that it is there to symbolise the blood of the workers at the Bryant and May factory.



Erected six years before the Matchgirls strike, the Gladstone statue formed part of Annie Besant’s evidence of what was clearly a building list of grievances for the workers over many years. Factory co-owner, Theodore H. Bryant, allegedly paid for the statue by taking money from his workers’ already drastically low wages. In her initial article on the girls, ‘White Slavery in London,’ [1] Besant writes how the girls attended the unveiling of the statue with bricks and rocks:


‘They surrounded the statue - “we paid for it” they cried savagely - shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble paid for, in very truth, by their blood.’


That red hand may forever remember the girls but it should also be seen to remember the African men, women and children sold into slavery and owned by the Gladstone family.


In researching William Gladstone, I came across an archived BBC article where he is described as ‘the son of a prosperous merchant,' who was, ‘a passionate campaigner on a huge variety of issues.' Both of which are true except they fail to mention that he was in fact the son of a prosperous slave trader and one of the issues he campaigned against was the abolition of the s