Do Leicester’s statues reflect our modern city?

By Laura May Bailey

On the 7th of June this year the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol culminated with the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue. The 1990s saw Colston’s role as a philanthropist begin to be overshadowed by his role in the Atlantic Slave Trade: he was an official in the Royal African Company and thus involved in the enslavement of around 84,000 African people and their transportation to the Americas.

The strength of feeling from Bristolians which resulted in this historic toppling shows that now is the time to examine more closely the statues of other major cities around the UK. It’s important to know which historical figures represent Leicester; we need to know who they are and if they fit with the values of our diverse and modern city.

John Henry Manners (Image by author)

Beginning with the first statue to be erected in the city in 1851 all the way up to 2018, here is an outline of Leicester’s statues.

1851 John Henry Manners was Lord Lieutenant to Leicester during the early 1800s. He was known as a local philanthropist, donating money to Leicester’s Royal Infirmary and acting as a trustee of the British museum.

1868 The Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower has four statues around it:

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, is perhaps the most controversial of Leicester’s statues. He is recognised by some as one of the founders of representative government and for his role in the Baron’s Revolt. However, in 1264 he was involved in the massacre of hundreds of Jewish people in London, and took an active role in expelling Jewish people from Leicester. These events happened over 750 years ago, and de Montfort was, unfortunately, not alone in his anti-Semitism. Time does not excuse the cruelty of these actions though and we should consider whether such an iconic monument of Leicester’s city, the clock tower, should celebrate such a man.

William Wyggeston was twice mayor and once Member of Parliament for Leicester. He set up an early charity hospital, or almshouse, for the poor in 1513.

Haymarket Clock Tower (Image by author)

Gabriel Newton worked as a wool comber, landlord, alderman and mayor of Leicester. He left his fortune to educate the poor of Leicester which resulted in the formation of a charity school at the Church of St. Mary de Castro.

Sir Thomas White founded St John’s College at Oxford University for pupils from the Merchant Taylor’s School. He also gave scholarships to the poorer students from Bristol Grammar School, among others. The Sir Thomas White Loan Company still exists, giving interest free loans to hopeful businesspeople in Leicester.

1871 Robert Hall was a famous Baptist preacher and clergyman who suffered from a range of mental and physical health problems. These didn’t stop him from studying at Kings College, Aberdeen, becoming a tutor and pastor in Bristol and inspiring people with his sermons.

1873 John Biggs was a radical reformist politician who inherited a successful hosiery company from his father. He represented Leicester as MP and Mayor.

1897 The Vaughan Porch of Leicester Cathedral hosts seven statues of holy figures, mostly bishops and theological scholars such as the Saxon Guthlac, Tudor John Wycliffe, and Victorian William Connor Magee.

1920 Cardinal (Thomas) Wolsey was a church officer for King Henry VIII between 1515 and 1529, and arguably ruled England under Henry’s delegation. When he failed to arrange the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon he was cast out of the inner circle and later accused of treason. He died in 1530 at Leicester on his way to be tried.

1922 The Statue of Liberty is a smaller reconstruction of the famous American landmark. It stood on the Liberty Shoe Factory from the 1920s until 2003 when the factory was destroyed. She now stands by the River Soar.

Richard III (Image by author)

1988 King Richard III’s body was famously discovered in a carpark in Leicester in 2012 and has since become especially associated with the city, as his body was moved to the cathedral. Due in part to Shakespeare’s play Richard III, his reputation has not been positively viewed through history, as he was accused of murdering the young princes who posed a threat to him maintaining the crown. Modern historical opinion no longer views him as such a villain, but the fate of the princes remains a mystery. For more information about his life and his burial in Leicester, I really recommend paying a visit to the Richard the III Visitor Centre near the cathedral.

Leicester Seamstress (Image by author)

1990 The Leicester Seamstress stands as a monument and memorial to the female contribution to the local hosiery industry. She is an anonymous, symbolic figure to commemorate the women who worked in small workshops or at home.

1994 Thomas Cook was one of the key figures in forming the travel industry and mass tourism as we know it today. During the 1840s and 1850s he took groups of people to local events, the Great Exhibition in London, and on a tour of Northern Europe. Now, unfortunately, he is better known for the travel company that bears his name and went bankrupt in 2019.

Sporting Success (Image by author)

1998 Sporting Success celebrates the success of Leicester’s cricket, football, and rugby teams in the late 1990s. Leicestershire County Cricket Club won the Britannic Assurance County Championship in 1996 (and 1998), Leicester City gained success in the Coca Cola Cup in 1996/7, and the Leicester Tigers also achieved victory in the Pilkington Cup of 1996/7.

The Clicker and The Clothier (Image by author)

2007 & 2010 The Clicker and The Clothier are two abstract statues to represent the history of Leicester’s workers. Sculpted by John Atkin, the Clicker represents the workers who made shoes, specifically those who skilfully cut the leather. The Clothier represents the contribution of the clothing industry workers.

2009 Mahatma Gandhi was a non-violent protestor for the rights of Indians in South Africa, and for the independence of India from the British empire. His form of peaceful disobedience (‘Satyagraha’) influenced other activists such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. From The Salt March in 1930 to his hopes for a unified India, his life and achievements cannot be adequately outlined here.

However, since the erection of his statue in 2009, there has been an undercurrent of protest due to the prejudiced and racist views he expressed. These concerned African people when living in South Africa, as well as his views on segregation of Indian and African people. In the wake of Colston’s toppling, there were protests, and a petition of over 6000 signatures, calling for the Gandhi statue to be removed too, but there have not yet been any moves to do this.

2011 The Pioneer was erected on the tenth anniversary of the Space Centre in Leicester. It depicts American astronaut Ed White who was the first American to walk in Space in 1965. He sadly died alongside Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee during testing for Apollo 1.

2012 Medieval Plough Team in Towers Park is a commemoration to the farmers and oxen who ploughed the parkland during medieval times. The ridges and furrows made by over 400 years of ploughing are still visible in the park today.

Alice Hawkins (Image by author)

2018 Alice Hawkins was the president of the Leicester Independent Women’s Boot and Shoe Trade Union while working at Equity Shoes in the city. She was a major figure in the Leicestershire branch of the suffrage society which campaigned tirelessly for women’s right to vote. Due to her more radical actions, such as chaining herself to railings, she went to prison five times until, like her fellow Suffragettes, she stopped protesting in 1914 to help the war effort.

From suffragettes, sports stars and kings to astronauts, politicians and priests, there is a great deal of diversity in the professions of Leicester’s statues. Looking at this list, it’s encouraging to see such representation of women and members of the working class who perhaps aren’t traditionally commemorated. The acknowledgment of female workers’ efforts, and workers of all backgrounds, is a testament to the fact that Leicester, like most British cities, would not exist in the same way without the sacrifice of the men, women and children who worked in terrible conditions during the industrial revolution.

However, there is one cross section of society, and of Leicester’s population, that is sorely missing from the city’s statues: people of colour. Leicester is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, with the 2011 census finding that almost 50% of the city was non-white, with people originating from over 50 countries. Despite this diversity, only one statue in the city actively represents someone non-white, and that is the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, himself accused of being racist towards African people.

While Leicester is certainly not alone with this lack of statue diversity, in a city known for such a variety of cultures we should do more to recognise this and permanently acknowledge and celebrate the existence and contributions of Leicester’s thriving Asian population.

Laura May Bailey is a master’s student of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. As well as having a passion for museums, she is also interested in traveling, history, and literature. You can find her on Instagram here: @laura_may_bee.

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