Not long ago I was sitting on a park bench in the garden in the middle of Cavendish Square just north of Oxford Street, eating the takeaway dim sum that was my reward for a socially distanced walk from my home to the West End. I noticed an empty plinth in the middle of the garden, which had obviously once supported a statue, and I had a look at the inscription. I was astonished to read a dedication to the Duke of Cumberland, known to history as the Butcher of Culloden. It said:
This Equestrian Statue was erected by Lieutenant General William Strode In Gratitude for His Private Kindness In Honor To His Publick Virtue.
The fact that this statue had been put up yet was no longer there set me thinking about the ethics and politics of historical memory and what statements choices of memorial make about broader trends in society. I wanted to know the story.
A quick search found an illuminating article from UCL’s Survey of London, to which this piece is much indebted. Then, a couple of weeks later, the statue of Edward Colston was dethroned from its plinth in Bristol and thrown into the Floating Harbour, and the politics of statues was suddenly alive again. I wrote a short Twitter thread on the Cumberland statue in the context of Colston and was a bit surprised to find that so many people were interested.
Public virtue is not a quality much associated with the Duke of Cumberland. As commander of the government forces against the Jacobite rebels, he won a decisive victory at Culloden in 1746. He ordered that “no quarter” be given and his forces roamed the battlefield shooting and bayoneting the wounded. A vengeful campaign against Jacobite sympathisers followed, and the culture and way of life of the Highlands was ruthlessly suppressed.
London public opinion, in that fickle way it sometimes has, was initially euphoric at the crushing of what people saw as the thoroughly reactionary Stuart threat to progress, but then reacted with disgust at Cumberland’s atrocities. He was proposed for honorary membership of one of the Guilds of the City of London, and wits suggested that the Guild of Butchers would be the most appropriate for him.
Five years after his death in 1765 his friend Strode was in a position to commemorate him, and the statue duly appeared in Cavendish Square garden in 1770, pointing menacingly towards Scotland. According to writer John Stewart, in 1771 the Square was intended to have a pastoral ambience but the small huddle of sheep in the middle was more like a “butcher’s pen”.
The Cumberland statue was neither beautiful nor universally popular, and by 1868 it was looking distinctly shabby. The Duke of Portland, whose estate covered the Square, had it taken down to be recast, but it never reappeared and nobody is sure what happened to it – the metal was probably melted down and reused.
Attitudes had changed since the years just after the proscription of civilian Highland dress in 1747. The ban was lifted in 1782 and in the 1850s Queen Victoria had made tartan positively respectable. The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie had become a romance, rather than a threat. Scotland was a partner in the work of Empire, not a rebellious province (“that part of Great Britain called Scotland” in the words of the Proscription Act) to be crushed. And so it was that the brutal general disappeared from Cavendish Square.
Cumberland made a temporary return to the plinth in 2012, thanks to Korean artist Meekyoung Shin who created a replica of the statue in soap. Shin’s interest is in the impermanence and shifting meaning of statues and artistic statements. Her statue deteriorated a bit more slowly than expected, itself an accidental commentary on how these things last longer than intended. The remnants were removed in 2016 and the plinth is alone once more.
The empty plinth fired my curiosity much more than yet another mediocre equestrian statue of a Georgian bigwig would have done, and when I told the story on Twitter I was pleased to find I was not alone. Like a missing tooth that one’s tongue cannot resist exploring, an empty plinth is more historically interesting than most statuary because it tells two stories – one of the time in which it was put up, the other of the time in which it was removed.
The missing Cumberland statue tells us about a period in history when what we would now consider a war crime was regarded as worth celebrating as part of a story of progress. It tells us of the power that people like William Strode had over the public space – he could have a statue to his murderous old chum put up in a prominent place in London and there was not much anyone could do about it.
Its unpopularity and neglect tell us about how divisive Cumberland was, and how there have long been live ethical debates about British victories: many, even in the 18th century, considered Culloden to be an atrocity. But it also tells a story of how, by the mid-19th Century, Cumberland had become a figure the establishment would rather forget. It was now safe to sentimentalise Highland culture and erase the brutality of 1746 from the public memory.
As many who know Bristol better than I have commented, the Edward Colston statue was erected in 1895 long after he lived and was the project of a self-important civic establishment rather than something that united the city. In late Victorian England, Cumberland’s assault on the Scots was a matter of shame, while Colston – and London’s Robert Milligan – were acceptable figures because their slave-dealing was seen as less important than their contributions to civic life and industrial progress.
There have always been ebbs and flows in what is considered appropriate to be displayed in public spaces, and in who gets to decide. That is the stuff of history, not a guano-encrusted Ozymandias and its sneer of cold command crumbling away unnoticed in a park.
OnLondon.co.uk is committed to providing the best possible coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. It depends on donations from readers. Click here to donate or contact email@example.com. Thank you.