diamond geezer

 Friday, April 21, 2023

Gladstone Park is the finest park in the London borough of Brent - 90 scenic acres spread across the southern slopes of Dollis Hill. It boasts crisscrossing avenues of plane trees, a freshly-planted orchard, ample space for sport and a lovingly-tended walled garden. At its summit is the 'stabilised ruin' of Dollis Hill House, now just a brick footprint but once home to the Earl of Aberdeen who regularly invited William Gladstone to stay as a holiday guest. When the estate was sold to the borough of Willesden in 1899 they agreed to name their new park Gladstone Park in honour of the Prime Minister who'd died the previous year. If only they'd called it something else today's post might have been avoided.

The summit of Gladstone Park is the best part with its reedy pond, bowling green and views across much of west London. I'd not been for some time so was pleased to see three new flowerbeds had appeared on a patch of lawn, each bursting with densely-planted brightly-coloured spring flowers. Well that's nice, I thought, and then turned my attention to the information boards that had also appeared all along the path around the summit pond. The first I reached was titled "The Early Black Presence in Brent" and cited the first recorded baptism of a black child at Willesden in 1723, plus the fact that pioneering Crimean nurse Mary Seacole was buried (just outside the borough) in Kensal Green Cemetery. Well that's interesting, I thought, but what has this got to do with a hilltop in a park? Such are the dangers of wandering into the middle of a narrative without realising how it started.

These 13 information boards form the "Untold Stories history trail" which was installed last November following Black History Month. The last few boards "celebrate the impact made by people in Brent's Black communities", including Marcus Garvey, Zadie Smith, Lenny Henry, Bob Marley and Janet Kay. Lenny lived in Wembley as a teenager and Bob once stayed in Neasden, if you were wondering. The middle few "amplify the presence of historical Black figures from the borough", which the section I'd first encountered. And the majority "present factual history of the park's links to the transatlantic slave trade", because that's what's spurred all this on. Mr Gladstone, it turns out, has a disputed history.

Gladstone began trading in cotton and sugar from the West Indies in 1803, eventually owning multiple plantation estates on which over 2500 Africans were enslaved. When abolition was proposed in 1806 he argued strongly against, and when it was finally abolished in 1833 he received the largest compensation payment of any trader. On the positive side he used his payout to help fund canals, railways, schools and churches, and very much on the downside he continued to use Indian labour on his plantations under conditions barely different from slavery. All rock solid evidence for the prosecution except that this tainted biography belongs to John Gladstone, a Liverpool merchant, not his son William who became Prime Minister.

William Gladstone was born two years after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in the British Parliament. That said he got elected to the House of Commons in 1832 just before the actual vote on the ultimate Slavery Abolition Act. That said he didn't vote against abolition because the bill passed unopposed in the wake of William Wilberforce's death the week before. That said he did use his maiden speech to campaign strongly for substantial compensation for enslavers, helping to deliver his father a whopping payout. That said he did later abandon his original viewpoint and campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery worldwide. That said he did believe slaves should undergo some form of "civilisation" process before emancipation. That said at the end of his life he cited slavery as the "foulest crime" in British history. So it's a complicated legacy, but it ended well.

In 2020 the Black Lives Matter campaign shone a spotlight on oppressive history worldwide, and in Britain on our uncomfortable responsibility for enslaving generations of Africans transported to the New World. Many councils and public bodies turned their focus to memorials and institutions with a slave trade connection (and many others dismissed such attention as unnecessary revisionism). In Brent the council noted disquiet in some quarters regarding the legacy of the name 'Gladstone Park' and approved a report suggesting it might be renamed to avoid offence. That hasn't happened since, indeed they've now said it won't, the council's response thus far having been to install the Untold Stories history trail at the heart of the park. It's nowhere near enough say some, it's quite enough say others.

And they also added those flowerbeds. What you can't see from the path is that they're in three very particular shapes, indeed some aren't especially obvious even if you walk over and stand alongside. The long thin bed is in the shape of a ship and this is meant to represent migration. The anchor (which yes, is obvious) represents the shores of Britain and has been aligned to point towards the west coast of Africa. And the third lumpy shape resembling a razorblade in fact represents a double drum, a symbol of action and goodwill used by the medieval peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The complete work is called The Anchor, The Drum, The Ship, designed by Brent-based artist Harun Morrison and horticulturalist Antonia Couling, and is intended as innovative way of interacting with contested history.

Wend up to the top of Gladstone Park and although you might miss the significance of the flowerbeds you can't now miss the Untold Stories history trail. It quite draws the eye as you walk round the pond, where previously you might just have cooed at the waterfowl, snapped sylvan photos of their antics or admired the distant rooftops of Willesden. Something about its inclusion feels forced, as if it's been introduced to counterbalance an argument rather than address a location. This after all is a park named after a champion of other human rights who loved this spot, and by the time he stayed here had shifted his views on slavery to oppose those of his father. But it never hurts to be reminded that Britain's wealth and prestige relied for centuries on plunder and oppression, and we wouldn't be the country we are today had we not persistently exploited others.

You can help make up your own mind by downloading all 13 panels from the Untold Stories history trail here, but how much more evocative to read them in situ at the top of what's still called Gladstone Park.

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