Council failed to consider removing slaver’s statue despite ‘great concerns’, trial of Colston 4 hears

The monument brought Bristol ‘face to face with painful, shameful aspects’ of its past, the court heard.

Photo: Aphra Evans

Bristol City Council failed to consider removing Edward Colston’s statue despite officials being “acutely aware” of the “great concerns” raised about its display, the defence told Bristol Crown Court.

Jon Finch, the local authority’s head of culture and creative industry, was the first witness to take the stand on Tuesday as evidence got under way on the second day of the trial of the so-called Colston 4

Under cross-examination, Finch acknowledged that he was aware of campaigns and petitions for the monument to be removed. The statue remained in place until it was toppled during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on 7 June last year.

Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Jake Skuse, 33, and Sage Willoughby, 22, stand accused of criminal damage in relation to the event, which saw the statue pulled from its plinth and pushed into the harbour.

There were ‘great concerns’ about statue before toppling

Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, defending Graham, told Finch that he must have been “acutely aware” of the “great concerns” the community had about the statue. Despite this, she said, the authority did not act to have it removed.

Ní Ghrálaigh told the court that the local authority had a duty as a public body to “foster good relations” between different communities in the city, and to consider the impact the monument would have on them.

She asked Finch, the council’s head of culture: “Is it not your role to be aware of whether something is capable of undermining good relations between different groups?”

Finch confirmed that he was clear the council had a responsibility to promote “cohesion” between communities and encourage them to work together, rather than “drive them apart”.

When Ní Ghrálaigh asked if the statue did this, Finch said: “The statue clearly caused significant concerns in certain parts of the community”.

Under cross-examination by Tom Wainwright, defending Ponsford, Finch confirmed the statue was gifted to “the people of Bristol” in 1895 and “held in trust” by the council.

Finch said that the statue was maintained by the local authority and there had been no significant damage done to it before it was removed. He said the council did not give permission for anyone to alter, damage or remove the monument – nor throw it into the harbour – on 7 June last year.

He told the court a supporting plinth that was constructed to preserve the statue following its toppling cost the council £3,750. Finch also confirmed there had been £350 damage to railings and £2,400 damage to the pavement during the events. He confirmed the statue’s staff and one coat tail broke off during its removal.

The damaged and paint-daubed statue was recovered from the harbour and taken to the M Shed museum for display, where it remains alongside placards from the BLM protest. Finch said the exhibition will help generate a conversation in the city about the future of the statue.

He was asked by Raj Chada, defending Skuse, if he would be surprised if the monetary value of the statue had increased since the toppling and after it was put on display in the museum. Finch said this would be “hard to judge” but that it was “possible”. He added that the cultural significance of the monument had certainly shifted. 

Colston was a ‘source of great pain’

Simon Hickman, a principal inspector of historic buildings for Historic England, was also called to the witness stand. He manages a team of building and monument inspectors who cover the south west region.

Under cross-examination by Ní Ghrálaigh, Hickman said that Historic England’s role in the deciding future of monuments and buildings was an “advisory” one. The responsibility is ultimately with the local authority, he told the court.

Historic England offered Bristol City Council support with the “thought process” for the future of the statue, but said he could not say if the local authority had taken up such advice from the government body.

He confirmed that on 11 June last year Historic England recorded on its website that the statue was a “source of great pain” for many people. Some “99%” of the country’s monuments can be “celebrated”, he said, though England has a “complex history” and sometimes there are monuments that bring people “face to face with painful, shameful aspects of our past”. 

Hickman said he was aware of a decades-long campaign to have the statue removed. He said Historic England’s view was that the alteration or relocation of “listed” monuments may be allowed if it helps inform people about their origins. He said the statue could be restored by a conservator.

‘The whole ground shook’

PC Julie Hayward, a protest liaison officer for Avon and Somerset Police, was on duty for the BLM protest on 7 June last year. She said there was a non-visible style of community policing that was exercised that day.

The officer, in a statement read to the jury, said that shortly after midday she attended College Green. Stewards were in place, she said, and crowds began to form ahead of the planned demonstration. She described the atmosphere as “friendly”.

She said that shortly after 2pm, an estimated 10,000 people set off from College Green on the “agreed” route that the march would take. PC Hayward said that she and her colleagues were situated in the middle of the protest.

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The march came to a halt at the Colston statue and an estimated 3,000 people gathered around it, PC Hayward, who is also a police football officer, said. From where she was standing – near the war memorial – a man could be seen climbing the statue before ropes were slung around the monument.

The officer described how the “whole atmosphere” of the march changed, and how she began to hear chants of “Pull it down, pull it down”. A group of men had by this point climbed onto the monument, she said. The police commander was said to have been informed by this point and she was waiting for an update. 

She said she was shocked to see the statue fall “very quickly”, and said that when it was toppled “the whole ground shook”. She added: “There were bits of it [the statue] everywhere.”

Charges allege that the four defendants, together with “others unknown”, damaged the Colston statue and plinth of a value unknown without lawful excuse. The defendants all deny charges of criminal damage. 

Graham, of Colston Road, Bristol, Ponsford, of Otter Close, Bishopstoke, Hampshire, Skuse, of Farley Close, Bristol, and Willoughby, of Gloucester Road, Bristol, have been given unconditional bail.

The trial continues.

The Bristol Cable