Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deptford Town Hall

Paul Hendrich, who died tragically this week, was passionate about Deptford Town Hall (a part of Goldsmiths College since 1998) and its relationship to the slave trade. The following is an extract from the draft of an article he wrote about it, the full version of which is due to be published in Anthropology Matters:

'Deptford Town Hall is “a memorable ensemble” in the Baroque style (English Heritage 2006). The souvenir brochure of the Town Hall’s 1905 opening boasts, “it will hardly be denied that in the whole of South London no more artistic and tasteful piece of architecture could be found” (Borough of Deptford 1905). It has an overhanging first floor supported by Doric columns. In the centre, above a cave-like entrance, is an oriel window in the first floor supported by atlantes, carved mermen or tritons. Four intricately carved statues of famous naval figures are set between the windows of the first floor. Each is complete with details of dress and a small wreath set below each shows variously their nautical tools, the accoutrements of faith and the spoils of war, piracy and trade. Sitting upon the main structure is an imposing attic pediment complete with a naval battle carved into it. A large four-sided clock turret further tops this. Sailing above the whole of this marvellous spectacle is a golden galleon serving as a weathervane.

The ship on top of Deptford Town Hall does not reveal its cargo. The four figures on the front of the Town Hall provide an answer. Sir Francis Drake is credited as the first captain to circumnavigate the world. However, it is remembered as only a footnote in most histories that in 1568 John Hawkins, accompanied by his young nephew and protégé Francis Drake and bankrolled by Elizabeth I, was able to ‘obtain’ between 400-500 West Africans and sell them in the West Indies . Such were the profits from this arrangement that they were soon repeated with Deptford and its renowned shipyards producing many of the vessels that were used in this commerce.

The second figure is not so well known outside of naval circles. Robert Blake was an Admiral who served under Cromwell, and this may be why, post-restoration, his achievements were not so well-reported in popular history books. In a series of naval battles in 1653 he defeated the Dutch Admiral Van Tromp to secure England’s monopoly over the Atlantic trade triangle between Europe, West Africa and the Americas. Blake was also the author of the Fighting Instructions, a textbook of naval tactics which were the blueprint for the English Navy’s supremacy during the age of sail. Cromwell went on to impose the plantation system on Jamaica, after ensuring its utility in Ireland.

The third figure, Horatio Nelson, is England’s most celebrated naval hero. He commanded the Victory at Trafalgar, seeing off Napoleon’s navy and losing his life in the process. There was much civic pride in Deptford for its association with Nelson. What is less well known is his extreme opposition to the abolition of the slave trade. In reference to William Wilberforce, chief amongst the abolitionists, he is alleged to have written from the Victory, that as long as he would speak and fight he would resist "the damnable doctrines of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies".

The Royal Naval Dockyards were closed in 1869 ending Deptford’s 356-year association as “the cradle of the navy”. With the building of Deptford Town Hall the planners tried to capture the celebrity associated with Deptford’s past glories. They were also keen to maintain a link with the present. The final figure on the front of the Town Hall is the admiral. There is nothing to pin on the composite but we can see that at the apex of Pax Britannica in the early part of the 20th Century, the British navy was crucial in the subjugation of numerous peoples and ensured that the atlas was largely pink and blue'.

In a Whitstable charity shop yesterday I came across a copy of Arthur Mee's 'London: Heart of the Empire and Wonder of the World, published in 1937 as the capital city volume of his 41 volume The King's England'. Mee's description of Deptford Town Hall, set out below, shows exactly the uncritical delight in Empire that Paul Hendrich wanted to criticise - no mention of slavery here:

'Near by is the beautiful town hall richly decorated with symbols of the river and the sea, and with an elaborate oriel over the door. The pediment has a stirring relief of an old naval battle, and above is a balustraded clock turret with a weathervane model of the Golden Hind. Francis Drake is among the fine statues of British admirals on the front of the building, standing with a globe and loot from a Spanish galleon. Next to him is Admiral Blake carrying his broad brimmed hat, the figure 1652 marking the year he met Van Tromp. Nelson's statue bears the date of Traflagar. The last statue shows a modern admiral, with sextant and binoculars'.

See also Written in Stone: Black British Writing and Goldsmiths College by Les Back.

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