Saturday, August 13, 2011

Republican Borough of Greenwich

At a meeting at Woolwich Town Hall last month, Greenwich councillors formally agreed to change the name of the London Borough of Greenwich to the Royal Borough of Greenwich from 3 January 2012. The local museums (National Maritime Museum, the Queens House and the Royal Observatory) are to be rebranded as the Royal Museums, Greenwich, and the Queen herself will be visiting next year to re-open the restored Cutty Sark.

Thanks to Darryl at 453 you can listen to the speech made by Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts proposing the motion, in which he outlines the 'great Royal Heritage' of Greenwich and its 'history... defined by royal presence and patronage'. It is true that there is a deep historical connection between Greenwich and royalty, though this is somewhat overstated. The royal palace at Greenwich was a key location for the Tudors (Henry VIII etc.), but was only built in the 15th century when the royal park was enclosed (or stolen from the commons if you prefer). Less than 200 year later its time as a royal residence came to an end with the execution of King Charles I during the English Civil War, when a significant proportion of the population successfully fought against the absolute power of the monarchy. The royal palace was used a biscuit factory for a while, then pulled down after it fell into decay.

Of course there have been 'Royal' connections since such as the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich and the Royal Naval College in Greenwich itself, but their names simply reflect the convention of naming government institutions as 'royal' rather than any actual royal presence.

Republican Greenwich

It is equally arguable that Greenwich should be renamed as the Republican Borough of Greenwich. Let us recall the figure of 'Freeborn' John Lilburne, a prominent figure in the anti-Royalist camp in the Civil War and later jailed as a Leveller. He claimed to have been born in the Royal palace at Greenwich, where his father Richard was a courtier (though he grew up in the North East). What is not in doubt is that he died at Eltham in 1657.

Let us remember too the thousands who gathered on Blackheath and fought and died against the tyranny of Kings - the Peasants Revolt of 1381, Jack Cade's rebellion in 1450 and the Cornish rising of 1497, which ended with hundreds being slaughtered by King Henry VII's forces at Deptford Bridge.

Or John De Morgan, the Republican and radical who was jailed for his part in the campaign againt the enclosure of Plumstead Common in the 1870s - when workers from the Arsenal and others rioted against plans to extend the parade ground of the Woolwich barracks.

Royalty and Empire
In his speech, Chris Roberts referred to 'the great navigators, soldiers and sailors who... fought for the Empire' without the slightest acknowledgement that this history was not always so glowing. For the ancestors of many of the people living in Greenwich today, the experience of this royal/colonial adventure was conquest, plunder and slavery. And yes, South East London was deeply implicated in this, with slavers living in Blackheath, and slave ships heading out from Deptford.

To uncritically celebrate Greenwich's royal/colonial connections is to the deny the crimes and the complexity of the past, and also has implications for the present. It is no coincidence that the fiercest guardians of this royal pageant version of history are also extremely reactionary about present events. Take the royalist historian David Starkey (no please, take him). He is curating an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich next year on 'Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames'. His response to the recent riots? A rant on Newsnight that Enoch Powell was 'absolutely right' and that the problem is that 'the whites have become black.' I hope Greenwich Council won't be welcoming this racist to the borough in future.

Seriously though there is something very sad about an acceptance of Greenwich's status as a Royal theme park, resting on some imagined feudal heritage rather than looking to the future. Greenwich needs a new story as a place where history is being made now rather than simply conserved - maybe the 'Tinie Tempah Borough of Greenwich'?!


hilly said...

Greenwich borough was also home to the first Labour MP this side of the river, Will Crooks. His success was in part thanks to support from the hugely influential Royal Arsenal Cooperative in a way, even the local Labour movement has royal origins.

Anonymous said...

hilarious post! yep, monarchs were born here, lived here, astronomer royals worked here - but hey, the republican borough...yawn....

. said...

Yes monarchs lived in Greenwich 350 years ago and the last one got his head chopped off. I think it's time to get over it and look forwards. As for the Astronomers Royal, they weren't royals they just worked for them. Might as well have Royal New Cross as my postie works for the Royal Mail.