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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 slave trade.

His father was John Gladstone, Tory MP and Chairman of the Liverpool West India Company, one of the largest slave traders in the British West Indies. For at least the first thirty years of his life, William was financially dependent on his father, who paid his allowance and contributed to his election expenses.

The opportunities and privilege in William Gladstone’s life were made possible through the slave trade, and so it should be no surprise that his maiden speech in the House of Commons was against the abolition of slavery. Yet at different points throughout his life, he seemed to express some conflict on his feelings about the matter and early on argued that he was in favour of a gradual emancipation.

Ultimately, as Roland Quinault writes, that while ‘Gladstone was genuinely concerned with the physical and religious welfare of the slaves, his main concern, as an MP, was to protect the financial interests of his father and other slave owners.'

When slavery was abolished, the British Government used 40% of its budget to begin to pay compensation to slave owners for their loss of “property.” John Gladstone was paid £106,769 which equates to around £12m in today's money. The slave workers received nothing and the British taxpayer was still paying for the bailout up until 2015.

Following the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, there is more discussion on the place of these statues. On the 10th June, University of Liverpool announced they will be renaming their Gladstone building and will work with students to decide on an ‘appropriate alternative name.'

On the 11th June, the Gladstone family released a statement to say they would not oppose the removal of his statues. They believe William would agree as his views progressed throughout his life (and particularly after his father’s death) to a ‘profound commitment to liberty,’ and quote him as saying, ‘I was brought up to hate and fear liberty. I came to love it.’

If these times have shown anything it's that people can make themselves heard and that is what was so impressive about the Matchgirls. A group with such little power, working class women and girls marching the streets, standing up, speaking up. To remove the Gladstone statue in Bow would be to remove part of the Matchgirls history. That constant image of blood on his hands has helped to ensure the history of suffering is never forgotten.

So many stories in our history have been marginalised, much like the people behind them, but nothing would be as it is today without all of us, not just a select few. There is an opportunity to learn more about the unsung heroes of Britain and enable our historic landmarks to move with the times. Most of these statues do not represent the medley of people who make up Britain; but then again, they never really did.

It would be wonderful and long overdue to finally celebrate, acknowledge and show thanks to the changemaking women, people of colour and working classes who fought to bring us to where we are today. It is time for them to be memorialised.

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Encouraging to read this piece by Nicola Rushton. Gladstone is a Bow landmark and should stay. This Gladstone statue, unlike others around the country, is yes part of the Matchgirls' history and is something, like the church, which they would have seen and known. Nicola's blog post helps us to understand Gladstone and how someone can change for the better which is what we hope for. He was a Christian and some great saints were once big sinners.

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