Cllr Barry Lewis is the Leader of Derbyshire County Council.
Over the weekend, two competing petitions have, disturbingly, come slamming to my attention, and Conservative signatories of both petitions have messaged me to either remove or save an early 19th century, Grade II* listed, Blacks Head figure on a rare type of pub sign in Ashbourne, one of Derbyshire’s most picturesque rural towns. Following on from the, now global, Black Lives Matter campaigns following the death of a black man, George Floyd, during an arrest in the US, a campaign to deface a seemingly innocuous 200-year-old pub sign in Derbyshire has quickly gained over 14,000 signatures (at the time of writing). Comments on the petition even suggest this should have been burned down before now. As the Leader of Derbyshire County Council, I’ve been asked by one side to take action (the side that wishes to remove it), and by the other, to sign a poorly worded petition to save it.
That I’m in this position at all is perplexing to me. It’s as if the world has taken leave of its senses. I’m assuming we’ve been drawn into a vortex of hysteria that has been spun out of Covid-19, the global lockdowns, and anxieties about the future, as much as it is to do with the global Black Lives Matters protests. I’ve spent most of my working life as an archaeologist trying to save cultural heritage, not just ours, but Aboriginal cultural heritage in Australia. I have the rare pleasure of being one of Britain’s few experts (though now much lapsed) in Sydney region Aboriginal rock-art. A people, and a corpus of art, that was impacted by British colonialism and the subsequent development of the city and the sometimes wanton vandalism and destruction of Aboriginal culture and art. So, I think I’m well-placed to give some thoughts on this issue.
The turbaned, smiling, black-painted head sits atop a rare type of “gallows” pub sign, emblazoned with the words “Green Man and Blacks Head Royal Hotel” that linked two Georgian coaching inns dating to the 1750s. The Blacks Head was formerly named the Blackamoors Head, which as an inn with a ballroom played a pivotal role in Georgian life in Ashbourne; a town that is steeped in Georgian splendour. A young Queen Victoria popped in to use the loo in the Blacks Head and so the “Royal Hotel” part was added.
The Blacks Head or Blackamoors head is a challenging symbol today, clearly culturally insensitive and racist – of that, no one is in doubt, but cultural heritage is there to challenge us sometimes, to make us uncomfortable. Any right thinking person when they see the Blacks Head sign should feel uncomfortable and be challenged. It is an artefact of a time and of attitudes we never want to go back to, but that does not mean we should tear this head down. And besides, it has a significant level of protection afforded by its Grade II* listed status. If we do, then where do we stop?
Do we erase all depictions of a white Christ from all our churches and Christian iconography? Do we deface or burn books that do the same? There was global outcry and condemnation when ISIS destroyed the ancient ruins of Palmyra and other sites across the ancient Mesopotamian world because it upset their religious and extremist ideological sensibilities. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan the world lamented. Shouldn’t we be equally outraged at this suggestion and petition? Because I am, and I think all right-thinking people, and people with a genuine intellectual interest in cultural heritage and its role in informing the future and altering perceptions, should be. After all, there is perhaps a more uncomfortable truth about Blackamoor art that needs challenging and that is that it is still being made in Europe, mainly in Italy, and being exported globally to adorn shelves in well-to-do houses around the world. Where is the campaign to end this art form and trade?
The terrible death of George Floyd is one issue that has rightly led to the arrest and charges being brought against those involved. I support the right for those feeling aggrieved by this appalling death to peacefully protest at the perceived injustice against black people, anywhere, for this is an issue that should matter to us all. Like so many other issues of injustice and unfair treatment of minority and other groups anywhere in the world. What I object to is the violence, the lack of care for potentially hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, who thanks to these close, mass gatherings are now at risk of a serious second wave of Covid-19.
None of this means though, that a simple but locally historically important pub sign should be defaced to satisfy the hysteria of a woke but vocal minority. This is the thin edge of a very dangerous wedge where it becomes okay to erase aspects of our heritage because it challenges us on some level. It should challenge us, and it should make us better informed to challenge racism into the future.
I for one will not be supporting any call to remove the Blacks Head – to do so is, in my view, simply cultural vandalism.