To those unfamiliar, Deptford Town Hall would not seem like a typical university campus building. Situated in the middle of the fast and relentless New Cross Road, the town hall is different to the buildings that bookend it. It’s Baroque architecture, generous height and broad expanse give it an almost imposing quality. It cannot be ignored; commuter, student and local alike know Deptford Town Hall. Beauty and familiarity aside, however, and the building is perhaps an unremarkable one. It’s glory days as the civic centre of the former borough of Deptford are long since over, now condemned to stuffy academia and the occasional student protest. Yet if a passer-by paused briefly and craned their neck to look up, in between each of the second floor windows they’d spot four figures. Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, Robert Blake and a fourth unspecified statue: representatives of British colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade. Here lies the building’s surprising importance.
After the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and the resurgence of anti-racist protest, the statues of slave pioneers atop Deptford Town Hall no longer go unnoticed. Now, the building is covered in bursts of angry scarlet red paint; a clear message that the statues must fall. The distaste is palpable, and entirely justified. Drake, Nelson and Blake are problematic historical figures at best, and perpetrators of outright acts of evil at worst. Francis Drake, trusted naval officer of Queen Elizabeth I, made at least three royally sponsored trips to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them into slavery. It is estimated that he enslaved around 1,200 to 1,400 Africans between the years 1562 and 1567. Horatio Nelson, famed admiral of the Napoleonic Wars, fervently fought against the abolitionist movement and counted the Caribbean’s most prolific slave traders as his friends. He is quoted as once saying: ‘I have ever been and shall die a firm friend of our present colonial system’. Robert Blake, naval commander of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, fought the Dutch to secure a trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England – an essential element of the slave trade. The actions of each of these men actively contributed to the institutional racism that plagues our society today.
The creation of statues is to honour, commemorate and often glorify an historical figure or event. Built in 1905, the architectural features of Deptford Town Hall were included to represent the maritime history of the area. Deptford’s association with the sea can be traced back to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII founded a naval dockyard in 1513. The deep linkage between naval operations and the slave trade is inextricable, and so this explains the choice to eternalise Drake, Nelson and Blake as statues. Yet the aforementioned protest paint throwers are not the first to be outraged by the heritage of the building. Goldsmiths academics have been shouting about the need to decolonise Deptford Town Hall for years, such as Joan Amin-Addo, Les Black and the late Paul Hendrich. Most recently, Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action demanded the removal of the statues and the opening up of the town hall for public use during their 137 day occupation of the building last year.
So far, the concerns of staff and students regarding the statues on Deptford Town Hall have gone almost entirely ignored by university senior management. That was until the paint splatters appeared and toppling colonial statues became trendy and woke. The university promptly released a press statement sharing their plans to hold a ‘community consultation’ to decide the fate of the statues. This is vague, doubtful and performative. When the university can cash in on some social currency and further boost their public image, they’re prepared to do something that staff and students have been demanding for years. Senior management cannot be trusted to keep their promises; they haven’t been concerned about the racist nature of the statues previously so how can they be trusted to genuinely care now? Goldsmiths staff and students must unite with the local community to ensure the decolonisation of Deptford Town Hall. The statues must be taken down and the building reclaimed for public usage, in what could be one of the first small steps towards decolonising the university as a whole.