Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
Living near Canary Wharf for 20 years, I have walked past the statue of Robert Milligan many times. Scottish born, he grew up on his family sugar plantation in Jamaica. He came to London aged 33, in 1779, where he established himself as a merchant and ship owner. Like many contemporary merchants he railed against the endemic pilfering which took place in the Pool of London where ships were moored. He gathered together a consortium of businessmen and between they acquired land on the Isle of Dogs. After passage of the West India Docks Act, the West India Docks were built between 1800-02, which reduced both pilfering and increased revenue for the government.
What is also well known is that Milligan was involved in slavery, indeed on his death over 500 slaves are recorded on his Jamaican plantation. By the time the docks were completed, abolition of the slave trade was imminent and in 1807, the Slave Trade Bill was passed by 283 to 16 votes in the House of Commons. This outlawed the transport of slaves throughout the empire and from 1808 the West African Squadron of the Royal Navy was established to halt slave ships.
After Milligan’s death in 1809 a statue was commissioned in his memory which stood at the North Gate of the Docks. In 1943, during the Blitz, the statue was moved to safety and was not seen until 1997 when it was placed on what is now West India Quay, close to the entrance of the Museum of the Docklands. In 2007 the museum opened a gallery called, London, Sugar and Slavery. During the opening period of this gallery, the statue was shrouded in black as a mark of his activities in slavery. This was the first time I took a particular interest in the statue.
Neither in 1997, when the statue was returned to the docks, nor at the opening of the exhibition was there any demonstrations. Local politicians, including present executive Mayor John Biggs and at least two councillors, were serving in local office between 1997 and 2007 and would have at least been invited to the events.
We now turn to the sad situation of the retrenchment of Safeway stores in the early years of this century and impacts on this current issue. One store which closed and the site sold for redevelopment was in Bow at the corner of Gladstone Place (as in William Ewart) and Cardigan Road (as in the Earl famed for leading the Charge of the Light Brigade). The extensive site became five buildings with a total of 208 residential units. The Greater London Authority approved the development in November 2010 in a letter which was copied to John Biggs as the local London Assembly member.
As always in these cases, progress was relatively slow and eventually this mixed development was completed, with the social element initially owned and managed by Old Ford Housing which is now Clarion. Lutfur Rahman was by this time entrenched as Mayor and Cllr Rabina Khan was his personally appointed Cabinet Member for housing. The name chosen for this development and approved by the Rahman administration was Robert Milligan House. It can be found today by simply Googling the name.
Nobody from any political party said or raised a thing.
Last week, in the aftermath of the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol, a former local Liberal Democrat candidate, Elaine Bagshaw, who had left Tower Hamlets politics to work for Jo Swinson, tweeted a picture of herself by the statue at West India Quay.
This created some interest and on Tuesday my colleague, Cllr Andrew Wood, organised a survey regarding the statue on a local facebook page with a number of options. He was almost instantly denounced by some as a racist sympathiser and a Labour councillor initiated “pull down the statue” petition which attracted signatures.
On Tuesday, Cllr Rabina Khan, who had just a few years previously, whilst Cabinet member for Housing, approved the name Robert Milligan House for a block of flats, wrote in the Independent about why the statue had to be removed. She has not so far called for the demolition of the homes.
During the day, The Canals and River Trust, who are the immediate landowners and the council became concerned at the possibility of direct action and arrangements were made to remove the statue, which is listed, on Tuesday evening.
This resulted in what became no more than a Labour Party political event. The Mayor and seventeen councillors, Labour activists, and even former potential parliamentary candidates were assembled for pictures. Facemasks were not worn and there was no social distancing. The council press office was out in force despite this being a partisan political event.
Until this week, no councillor or, as far as I can see, any Labour Party activist, had suggested the removal of the Milligan statue. Unlike Bristol where there has been a debate for decades over the Colston statue, there was silence in this part of east London. One senior Labour councillor even expressed surprise that there was a block of flats named after Milligan in the borough.
I believe that the Milligan statue should have been placed in the museum, but both sides of his life, the dock builder and the slave owner, should have been described. Instead we had public action for use in political campaigning.
From the age of 11 I attended a school named after one of the founders of the Clapham sect. We were taught about the leading figures of the abolitionist movement and every year attended a commemoration service in Holy Trinity Church Clapham where many of the Clapham Sect abolitionists worshipped. William Wilberforce, the great parliamentarian is remembered for his work for delivering abolition in Parliament. My school was named after Henry Thornton, banker, parliamentarian, and abolitionist. The school and its name is sadly long gone. Zachary Macaulay and Henry Venn both have streets named after them in Clapham. For what they achieved, for the ultimate good of humanity, and how they achieved it, statues are the least of what they deserved.
It is surely right that people understand what makes human life so complex. Richard Wagner and George Bernard Shaw were both virulent anti semites. The triumph over their anti-semitism is seeing their music and plays enhanced, interpreted, and performed by Jews and others whom they disliked, remembering both were legendary dislikers.
Any list of the greatest ever political figures in the UK will include Sir Robert Peel, William Gladstone, and Winston Churchill. All three were giants of their time, all left a legacy that is remembered today. The attacks on their records does nothing to enhance our country.
The Government, opposition, Mayor of London, and the media, should understand this current situation and ensure that we do not disintegrate into mob rule.