Statues in Norwich, no matter how controversial, are a vital part of city’s history

The Thomas Browne statue on Haymarket, Norwich

The Thomas Browne statue on Haymarket, Norwich - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Paul Burall of The Norwich Society discusses the credentials of the current statues in Norwich – and wonders who else should stand on a plinth in the city

How we commemorate people who have made major contributions to society has suddenly become controversial. Early last month, the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into the river in Bristol. In Oxford, there have been calls to remove a statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Here in Norwich, James Watson Road is to be renamed and will instead commemorate Rosalind Franklin, whose work formed a crucial part in the discovery of DNA.

This follows the American scientist Watson reaffirming his obnoxious opinion that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people.

There have also been demands for the statue of Horatio Nelson in the Cathedral Close to be removed as he was a supporter of slavery, describing as “damnable” the “cursed doctrine” of the anti-slave trader William Wilberforce. Sensibly, the cathedral authorities have refused, pointing out that: “Like all human beings, Horatio Nelson was a flawed person. He did many things for which he is now honoured but also others which were much less admirable. All lives are complex, and his legacy should be understood as a whole.”

No one has yet demanded the removal of the somewhat-haughty statue of the 17th-century author and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne who looms over the Haymarket from his plinth, although his abhorrence of sex hardly fits in with modern thinking: he suggested that it would be better if humans procreated “like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar act of coition”.

As for the modern sculptures by the French couple Anne and Patrick Poirier that were added to the Haymarket by Norwich City Council in 2007, they remain unchallenged despite their meaning being so obscure that, when I asked 10 randomly-chosen people sitting on them what they meant, none had the faintest idea. The experts say that they “reflect Browne’s mind and his life dedicated to religion, philosophy and science”.

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There are Norfolk and Norwich people who deserve to be remembered but whose commemorations seem insignificant compared with their achievements. Robert Kett, who was hanged at Norwich Castle after leading the 1549 rebellion against the wealthy landowners who were enclosing land used by ordinary people to grow their food, is remembered merely with a small plaque at the Castle. The nurse Edith Cavell, who saved the lives of some 200 British and German soldiers while imprisoned by the Germans during the First World War before being executed as a spy, has a small bust mounted on a very high plinth in Tombland. And the leading anti-slavery campaigner Amelia Opie is remembered with a somewhat insignificant statue on a rooftop in the street named after her.

There is now a campaign to erect a well-deserved statue to celebrate the life and career of the iconic Norwich city centre forward Justin Fashanu who was the first – and so far only – black professional footballer to come out as gay.

There are other people who should be celebrated locally, including Anna Sewell, who wrote Black Beauty while living in Old Catton; the writer George Borrow; the author Philip Pullman; the comedian and author Stephen Fry; and, of course, the chef and joint majority owner of Norwich City Football Club, Delia Smith.

But putting statues of these people on a plinth is not, in this day and age, the best way to commemorate them. Around the world, there are some wonderful examples of popular ways of commemorating well-known local people, some of the most interesting having the famous person sitting on a bench with a space for other visitors to sit beside them and be photographed, so reinforcing the memories of the place for visitors. Earlier this year, a life-size bronze sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt chatting together was installed in London with space for visitors to sit between them.

My guess is that many nurses would like to be photographed next to Edith Cavell, as would Canaries fans next to Delia Smith.

There are also many inspiring examples of other kinds of statue from around the world, ranging from a life-size Buster Keaton complete with tripod-mounted cine camera in his home city of Muskegon in Canada to a bronze sewerman emerging from a manhole cover in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

And, of course, statues do not have to be of people: in Istanbul, there is a much-loved life-size statue of a popular street cat called Tombili and in the Durnstein and Wachau valley in Germany there is a giant insect statue.

Statues of historic celebrities with dubious records should be removed to museums or, as with Nelson, perhaps have plaque placed next to them explaining their record, warts and all. But that is no reason not to commemorate local celebrities with imaginative creations on our streets.

Paul Burall edits the Norwich Society magazine Aspects of Norwich