Recently, a photo of the statue of Charles William Stewart or Lord Londonderry (1778–1854), in Durham city’s marketplace was posted in a local Facebook group. Someone commented that he “owned many of the coal mines in County Durham and spent lots of money to make them run better.” Astonishingly, it transpired that this particular piece of misinformation was taken from a website produced by the university for use in local schools. Not wishing to allow this go unchallenged, I responded by making a few factual observations and suggestions.
First of all, Londonderry was brutal even by the standards of his time. On the Tory benches in the House of Lords, he led the opposition to the Mines Act 1842, which among other things, prevented boys under the age of 10 years old from working underground. Thankfully, he failed, although he did manage to get the legislation watered down. Therefore, the often-heard claim that we cannot condemn historical figures because “people didn’t know any better at the time” simply does not apply. It is no exaggeration to describe Londonderry as a tyrant. In 1844, when miners went on strike, he evicted them and their families from their homes. He also issued his infamous ‘Seaham Letter’ which warned that any local traders who provided strikers with credit would be driven out of business. A few years later, he strongly opposed the 1850 Coal Mines Inspection Act which ensured that mines were subject to government safety inspections.
Unsurprisingly, given this record, Londonderry was not well liked by many colliers and their families in County Durham. It was his family who paid to have his imposing statue put up in the market square in 1861. So, like many of our public monuments, it was not put there by popular demand.
We are often told that these monuments are vital in order for us to remember the past. But given that none of this factual information is included on the statue, how can it be considered educational? What is more, why are we still celebrating someone who enriched themselves on the back of exploiting men, women, and children in County Durham? When someone is literally put on a pedestal it is difficult to argue that this represents some kind of neutral act of remembrance.
It would be far better to have a monument to a miner or a miners’ union leader such as Thomas Hepburn, who tried to put a stop to such brutalities. At the very least, some of this information should be included on the statue’s plinth so that the public can make an informed decision as to whether this statue should still take pride of place. Londonderry’s presence in Durham city’s centre demonstrates that in most cases, monuments of the ‘great and the good’ are not about genuinely educating people about history but celebrating our ‘betters’ and whitewashing history in the process.