Statues, statues everywhere!

Are you familiar with the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? If not, be prepared to see it everywhere in the next few weeks. Also known as the frequency illusion, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a form of cognitive bias whereby, on encountering something either for the first time, or the first time in a while, it suddenly appears everywhere – people talking about it, newspaper articles, on TV.

The subject of statues has been my Baader-Meinhof for the last few weeks. Statues, as well as being quite literally everywhere, are appearing prominently in the news for a variety of reasons: debates surrounding the statues of Confederate leaders in the United States, and whether these should be removed; controversial statues such as “Jesus the Homeless” prompting discussions around the epidemic of homelessness in Manchester; or even the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square and discussions around the paucity of female figures immortalised in bronze and stone. Like the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who, don’t blink, because you might find them becoming ever closer and more prominent.

My comrade got a statue in Parliament Square, and I got was a lousy rag doll (for now…)

Every time we walk through a city centre, or past any official, council or Government buildings, we see statues of those who earned some form of prominence in their lifetime (or even with their deaths). They vary in size and importance – some, like Den Lille Havfrue, Christ the Redeemer, Greyfriars Bobby, the Statue of Liberty, and even Manneken Pis, become massive tourist draws; whereas some act as little more than a pigeon’s favoured perch.

The city of Manchester has just under 30 public statues, in various Squares, parks and liminal spaces throughout the city. On my recent journeys through the city, I’ve sought many of them out, and have picked some of the more interesting and thought-provoking ones.

Queen Victoria, or Where all the women at?

Of all the statues in Manchester itself, how many of them depict historical female figures? The answer is a mere one: the statue of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly Square.

In contrast, Glasgow has four woman cast in bronze: Queen Victoria; Spanish Civil War revolutionary Dolores Ibárruri (perhaps better known as La Pasionaria); 19th century philanthropist and women’s education campaigner Isabella Elder; and most recently, Mary Barbour, organiser of the Glasgow Rent Strikes during the First World War. (There is some excellent coverage of the latter by both Anabel Marsh at the Glasgow Gallivanter and Kev at Walking Talking).

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One is not amused with the earlier attempt at a humourous caption…

Manchester is in the midst of rectifying this, and in 2015 held a public vote for who should be the next woman honoured by a statue. The competition was (perhaps unsurprisingly) won by the Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and her statue is due to be unveiled on International Women’s Day 2019.

However, the shortlist featured five other excellent and equally deserving women:

  • Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote unflinchingly about the poverty and suffering faced by working class Mancunian women, much to the chagrin of the wealthy mill and factory owners who sat in her husband’s church congregation.
  • Margaret Ashton, who became councillor for Withington in 1908 (a decade before women’s suffrage had been achieved) and helped establish clinics promoting maternal and child welfare with Dr Catherine Chisholm, the first female graduate of the University of Manchester medical school.
  • Jamaician-born nurse Louise Da-Cocodia, who campaigned against the racial discrimination, and former Deputy Lieutenant of Manchester, who threw herself into the thick of the Moss Side riots to transport the injured to hospital.
  • Jarrow March leader and former Labour Minister for Education Ellen Wilkinson, who also acted a junior member of Churchill’s coalition government.
  • 18th century businesswoman and author Elizabeth Raffald, who wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper, as well as book on midwifery in conjunction with Dr Charles White, founder of Manchester Royal Infirmary.

I might also have added Enriqueta Rylands to the list, as the patron and founder of the John Rylands library (a visit to which I wrote about in my World Book Day post). Her late husband has his name immortalised in her gift to the city, but at least she has two statues within the library itself (and a working automaton).

Abraham Lincoln… Wait, am I still in Manchester?

The statue of Queen Victoria makes sense, given her role as the then longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom, but one might wonder what on Earth a statue of an American president is doing tucked on Brazennose Street, just off Albert Square.

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The answer is perhaps more straightforward than you might envisage. During Lincoln’s presidency, the major industry of Manchester and surrounding Lancashire was that of cotton, an industry still tainted with the blood of slavery some 30 years after the UK’s 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act. Despite the city’s reliance on US slave labour to harvest the raw material for the industry, Manchester was a city with a proud socialist heart and tradition. Lancastrian cotton workers downed tools, refusing to handle the products of slave labour, and supported Lincoln’s northern states over the Confederate South as the American Civil War raged. The President acknowledged the suffering and unemployment this led to, and wrote a letter of thanks to the “men of Manchester”. (The city ultimately hired many of these out-of-work labourers to dig the so-called Serpentine Lake in Manchester’s Alexandra Park).

Friedrich Engels – honouring history, or re-appropriating propaganda?

From Peterloo and the Manchester Guardian, to the Suffragettes, Manchester has a rich history of socialism. Within the walls of Chetham’s library in the 1840s, two young Prussian scholars sat at a window desk, and did their research for a book which would span a huge political movement. The men were Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, and the book was The Communist Manifesto.

In 2017, a statue of Engels was transported from the Ukraine, where it had been torn down and severed some years before, and had lain abandoned. Now, like a reverse Ozymandias, both halves have been reunited, and it stands outside the HOME cinema, theatre and arts venue on Tony Wilson Place. Unlike the other statues discussed herein, Engels is made not from luxurious bronze, but the more practical concrete.

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Marxism is enjoying a renaissance in the decade following the global financial collapse. However, for those who lived under the Soviet regimes, communism is filled with bitter memories. Manchester is home to a large Ukrainian diaspora, for whom statues such as this one invoke the authoritarianism they and their ancestors fled from before the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

This raises some complex questions – should Marx and Engels be held accountable for the outcomes of the movement they founded, even though its atrocities were committed decades after their deaths? Is it right to re-appropriate the propaganda symbols of a repugnant regime and place them in such a public place?

The issue of what to do with public statues of controversial figures is a matter of intensive debate in the United States. Many prominent figures within the Confederacy had statues erected in their honour across the country, but discussions surrounding their removal is a course of controversy. Indeed, the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee In Charlottesville, Virginia, was implicated as a factor in the 2017 Charlottesville riots between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters which left a woman dead. Even one of Lee’s descendants, the Reverend Robert Lee IV, who supports the removal of his ancestor’s statues, was driven from his North Carolina church for his outspoken views on white supremacy and support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Descendants of other controversial figures in US history have also spoken out about this issue, with some stating their ancestors likenesses should be placed in museums so that their actions can be viewed with correct historical context.

The answers to what to do with a statue when the person depicted therein is shown to be on the wrong side of history are complex, and I profess no great understanding or solutions, but I do see the appeal in moving them to a museum, as opposed to remaining in a place of honour like a town square, when their actions were anything but.

Jesus the Homeless

This statue, unveiled in April 2018, is the latest addition to Manchester’s rich collection of public art. Whilst most of these other statues were erected to honour and celebrate the figures depicted, the intent behind this statue was to highlight the human tragedy of Manchester’s homelessness epidemic. At present, an estimated 1 in 150 Mancunians is without fixed abode, and for many, their only option is to sleep rough.

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St Ann’s Church, outside which the statue resides, runs numerous programs to aid the homeless, including opening the church up on cold winter evenings to provide shelter.

The statue is subtle – a man huddled under a blanket on a park bench, his identity only made clear by the stigmata on his feet. However, its message it overt: to highlight the very real plight of our fellow citizens, and to remember the words emblazoned on the bench: “Jesus said, I was hungry and you gave me food.”

Alan Turing – In Memoriam

On 23 June 2001, on what might have been his 89th birthday, the Alan Turing Memorial was unveiled in Sackville Street. To the statue’s left is his former employer, the University of Manchester, where Turing worked from 1948 until his untimely death in 1954. To the statue’s right is Canal Street, which forms the heart of Manchester’s so-called Gay Village. In a more liberal society, Turing might only have been known for his mathematical prowess, and his innovations in the early years of computer science. However, until 1967, homosexuality was a criminal act in the UK, and like 50,000 other men, Turing was charged with “gross indecency” and ostracized. He is believed to have committed suicide in 1954.

It was only in 2013 that Turing received a posthumous official pardon from the Government. In the interim period, his role as part of the Bletchley Park codebreakers had also been declassified.

Alan Turing Memorial

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manchester, over the last two decades, has aimed to re-dress the wrongs committed against Turing. In addition to his statue, there is a plaque marking the site of his former home; a road named Alan Turing Way, and the Alan Turing Building at the University of Manchester. But can a statue, plaque or an eponymous road ever truly act as an apology for the cruel way Turing’s life ended?

In Mary Beard’s Civilisations episode How Do We Look?, she discusses the memorial statue of a Greek maiden Phrasikleia, and how wonderfully alive she appears, holding a flower out to her spectators. It took a while to recall why this seemed so familiar to me – then I remembered Turing, holding an apple in his hand as he sits on his bronze bench, waiting for us to join him.


Statues are everywhere; how often do we pass them and pay them little heed? But if you find yourself noticing them more frequently in the coming weeks, remember the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

(All photos my own, apart from the Alan Turing Memorial, which I have credited to the original artist)

16 thoughts on “Statues, statues everywhere!

  1. Thanks for the mention. Interesting to know that we are way ahead of Manchester in our total of statues to women! Maybe, of course, statues have had their day and there are better ways to memorialise the past? As for the old, problematic statues, it seems a good idea to put them in museums with info about the context (if their size is suitable) and I’ve also seen suggested leaving them in place with new plaques explaining exactly why the person’s views are no longer acceptable. Continuing to seemingly revere racists etc should not be an option.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tremendous post. Thanks for the mention too.

    I try to get to the Alan Turing statue every time I am in Manchester.

    The idea of context plaques is a good one. Glasgow has some questionable history, as most cities do, including Manchester, and it should be out there for people to know about.

    I also like the phrase about Marxism being in a renaissance!

    Liked by 1 person

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