Parliaments, politics and people seminar: Dr Geoff Hicks on ‘Memorialising Britain’s politicians: the politics of Parliament Square’

Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper report, thanks to Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons

Parliament Square
Parliament Square

Geoff Hicks of the University of East Anglia gave a very engaging talk on ‘Memorialising Britain’s politicians: the politics of Parliament Square, c. 1867-1917’. With its focus on the statues of Victorian politicians erected in Parliament Square, his paper provided an excellent complement to last term’s paper from Tom Crewe on depictions of 19th century politicians in portraits, photographs and the press.

Hicks set the development of Parliament Square within the broader context of the urban improvements taking place in London. It was laid out by Edward Middleton Barry, the son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the new Palace of Westminster. Between 1867 and 1883 four memorials to former Prime Ministers were erected there, with statues of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850); Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865); Edward Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (1799-1869); and Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881). In addition, the statue of another former Prime Minister, George Canning (1770-1827), first put up in 1832, was relocated there. These statues amounted to a visual representation of the ‘great man’ theory of history popularised by Thomas Carlyle, a ‘display of statesmanship in bronze’, as Hicks put it.

Disraeli's statue covered with Primroses, 1893
Disraeli’s statue covered with Primroses, 1893

Discussing the reasons why these particular individuals were chosen for commemoration, Hicks considered the ways in which Parliament Square functioned as a ‘political space’, and looked at the pedagogic, political and imperial significance of these monuments. While statues such as that of Disraeli became sites of veneration – his statue was the focus for ceremonies by the Primrose League each April on the anniversary of his death – Hicks pointed out that not everyone regarded Parliament Square as a sacred space. However, politicians’ concerns about problems such as loitering or damage to the statues demonstrated the importance which parliamentarians accorded to this place.

Of particular interest was the discussion of why certain statesmen, notably William Gladstone and Lord Salisbury, were not chosen for this accolade, and why no statues were put up in the square between 1883 and 1920, when a statue of Abraham Lincoln was added. Lincoln’s statue was initially mooted in 1914, to mark a centenary of peace between Britain and America, and although the outbreak of the First World War temporarily halted plans, the creation of this memorial took on a new significance with America’s entry into the war in 1917.

Hicks emphasised the significance of the First World War as a turning-point in the history of commemorations in Parliament Square, with a diminishing desire to mark the lives of ‘great men’. He then considered briefly the statues added in the second half of the century. His analysis of the erection of the statue of the former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts (1870-1950) in 1956 shed interesting light on the relationship between Britain and the Commonwealth, while it was surprising to hear that there was resistance from all three parties to the erection of Winston Churchill’s statue, unveiled in 1973.

For further information on the statues in Parliament Square, the Hansard Society’s brief introduction can be found here.


Join us next Tuesday for our final seminar of the year, when Eliza Hartrich (Merton College, Oxford), will speak on ‘Influencing Parliament in fifteenth century England: some observations on “The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye”.’

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