After more than a year-and-a-half of study and contemplation, the District Council that governs Stroud, Gloucestershire, England has voted to seek the removal of a controversial statue from its perch above a historic 18th-century clock. The statue is of a barely-dressed black child who is bonded to the house’s outer wall, and it has been labeled as racist by protestors who began calling for its removal during Black Lives Matter protests that took place in Stroud in 2020.
A Countdown for the Blackboy Clock?
The Blackboy Clock and its associated Blackboy statue are currently installed at Blackboy House, which was once a National School for Girls. The name for the house, clock, and statue assemblage is derived from the features of the statue, which show a small boy seemingly of African ancestry wearing nothing but a leaf skirt holding a club over a bell. The Blackboy statue is not a stationary feature of the clock, but instead moves forward at the start of each hour to strike the bell.
The child’s portrayal suggest he was likely a slave, a reasonable conclusion considering that the Blackboy Clock and statue were originally constructed in 1774 (slavery was only abolished in the British Empire in 1833). This particular clock was designed by an individual known as John Miles, and is of a type known as a Jacquemart or Jack clock. It was installed at its present location in 1844 and was freshly refurbished in 2004.
There are not that many of these clocks still in existence, and the Blackboy Clock is the only functioning example found anywhere in Gloucestershire. Should the statue be taken down the clock would still run, but its bell-ringing feature would be permanently disabled.
The decision by the Stroud District Council to seek removal of the “offensive” statue was motivated by a recent report from a public consultation (task force) the council appointed in 2020 to study the matter further.
The consultation has recommended that the Blackboy statue be relocated from its current spot to a local museum, where it could be put on display with an accompanying plaque that would explain its historical context. The consultation also recommended that Blackboy House and Blackboy Street in the nearby town of Dursley be renamed. Finally, it called for a change in cultural preservation strategy in the district that would “empower communities and individuals to celebrate and share their history, heritage, culture and identity [and] focus on increasing representation of Black, Asian and Ethnically diverse communities as well as those from a range of social and economic backgrounds.”
Most of the residents of Stroud feel the Blackboy statue should be removed from the building, which belongs to a private organization. (Brian Robert Marshall / Blackboy, Blackboy’s School building, Stroud / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Blackboy Statue: Attack on History, or Justified?
The debate over what—or what not—to do with the Blackboy statue is split along partisan lines.
“I oppose [the] removal of history and statues,” Conservative member of Parliament Siobhan Baillie, who represents the city of Stroud, said to the BBC . “To do so serves no purpose other than to allow some people to decide or be selective with history or decide what is most comfortable and causes no offence.”
The MP’s opinion was supported by Haydn Sutton, a Tory who serves on the Stroud Council.
“Why are we sweeping history under the carpet?” he asked rhetorically. “I’ve spoken to lots of people and they say it should stay.”
Polly Stratton of the group Stroud Against Racism referred to the statue as “traumatic for people of color ” and believes it should be taken down. However, she also clarified that her group has no interest in seeing the statue destroyed.
“We’re not trying to hide it or tear it down,” she said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “We want it on public display in a museum.”
The results of a recently released survey show that Ms. Stratton’s opinion is shared by most Stroud residents. In this poll of approximately 1,600 people, 79 percent expressed their belief that the statue should be removed from its current location, with 59 percent saying that it should be relocated to a museum. Only 22 percent of local residents said the statue should remain where it is now.
Ultimately, neither District Council resolutions nor public sentiment will be the deciding factor that determines the statue’s fate. Under a law passed just last year, local governments may be prohibited from moving, removing, or altering statues or other public attractions with historical value if the national heritage organization Historic England objects.
While nothing is official on that front, the organization has expressed reservations about the possibility of removing the Blackboy statue. They’ve said that taking it down could “harm both the significance of the listed building and character of the conservation area and would also seriously damage the integrity of the clock itself.”
Even if Historic England should decide not to take action, it is by no means clear that the Council vote would result in the relocation of the Blackboy statue. Blackboy House is privately-owned, and the Blackboy Trust that manages and maintains the clock and its associated statue is also a private organization. If the Trust decides the statue is going to stay, officials in Stroud would have to accept that choice and would have no way force them to change their minds.
Representatives of the Stroud District Council are currently in dialogue with the family responsible for overseeing the trust. But any negotiations that may be going on are being kept private at the moment and the Blackboy Clock Trust has not issued any statement that might reveal their future plans. Estimates are that it would cost about 42,000 dollars (39,940 euros) to safely remove the statue from its high perch and truck it off to a museum, and the Council would be covering that cost if their intent to take the statue down is ever implemented.
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Should Historic England and/or the Blackboy Clock Trust foil the Council’s plans, the possibility that members of the public might take things into their own hands is very real. In the summer of 2020 in Bristol, protestors inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement tore down a statue of 17th-century philanthropist and African slave trade investor named Edward Colston , which they later dumped it into the Bristol Harbor.
Not coincidentally, it was right after this incident that the Stroud District Council appointed the public consultation or task force to decide what to do with the controversial Blackboy statue. Black Lives Matter protestors in the area had already condemned the statue’s presence, and the Council clearly sought to act before the public took the law into its own hands in Stroud, just as they’d done in Bristol.
The Blackboy statue controversy is part of a larger movement that includes all groups working to remove racist symbols from the public landscape in the UK. This photo was taken at an anti-racism rally in Trafalgar Square, London, in March 2015. (Garry Knight / CC0)
When History and Racism Collide, What is to Be Done?
For now, the fate of the Blackboy statue is very much in limbo. Public and legislative sentiment for relocating it to a museum is strong, but actually getting it done could require a legal challenge to the law that is supposed to give Historic England the final say over such matters.
“As far as we know there has been no precedent set for this because the change in the law is so recent,” noted Stroud Labour councilor Natalie Bennett. “So it would probably be a test case.”
Regardless of the final fate of the Blackboy statue, the debate over what to do with allegedly racist monuments is one that will undoubtedly be repeated many times across the United Kingdom in the coming years as the old days of the British Empire are viewed through new eyes. Monuments and memorials celebrating historic figures who are connected to colonialism or slavery in some way can be found in many places, and those that have escaped scrutiny so far may not do so for much longer.
Top image: A closeup of the Blackboy statue in Stroud, England that may or may not be removed because it relates to English colonialism and racism. Source: Brian Robert Marshall / Blackboy, Blackboy’s School building, Stroud
By Nathan Falde