Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Lessons from debate on statues - Guy's & St Thomas' Foundation

Lessons from debate on statues

1 September 2021

Kieron Boyle reflects on what we are learning as we explore our heritage and its impact on health today.

Kieron Boyle


We have a new statues webpage. Read about the conservation work on statues of two of our benefactors, and our work to better understand and contextualise their histories.

Reflections from Keiron Boyle

Over the past year, there has been a lot of attention to historic statues in the public realm. These issues matter: they speak to who we celebrate and how history is told. They can also be polarising, with people who agree on lots of other matters finding it hard to accept each other’s views on these.

For us as a health foundation, these issues are also close to home. We own two statues of previous benefactors to our endowment — Sir Robert Clayton and Thomas Guy. They helped develop St Thomas’ and Guy’s hospitals, and both men were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Clayton was a principal member of the Royal African Company, a corporation that forcibly transported 44,000 Africans across the Atlantic during his period of association. Guy maintained a large financial stake in the South Sea Company, a corporation that transported 16,000 enslaved Africans during the years that he was an investor.

Findings of research

Today, we published the findings of research to inform the future of both statues. You can read them here. This work is part of wider efforts to understand our heritage and the impact of that legacy on health and healthcare today.

One of these pieces was an independent public consultation designed to engage with the full range of views on this issue, including local communities most likely to come into contact with the statues.  Views were expressed at all points along a spectrum. Following careful and balanced analysis, the consultation has recommended that we retain both statues in the public realm, provide fuller information explaining how both men made their wealth, and subject to planning permission, move one of the statues to a less prominent position. It has also suggested that we commission new artistic works to tell the rich story of those involved in the hospitals’ history.

For many people this will be a reasonable and balanced approach. For some it will go too far, and for others not far enough. We are grateful to the experts for their efforts to navigate this complex and polarising issue, and for leading a thoughtful consultation in line with best practice and advice from Historic England.

We intend to implement these recommendations over time. You can read our statement here.

The pace at which we can proceed will be dictated by planning legislation, political sentiment and the immediate need to prioritise the delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations on the site of the Thomas Guy statue.

The listed status of both statues means that most of these changes are subject to planning permission from elected public authorities.  We have received legal advice that indicates that an application for relocation in the current climate is unlikely to succeed.  Therefore, we are not initiating a relocation application and are starting instead by focusing our efforts on interpretation.

Our history is intertwined with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, and we continue to work in close partnership to support staff and patients. While we have consulted with the Trust throughout this process, decisions on what action to pursue with statues sit with us as an independent organisation and owners of the statues. No public donations to the NHS have or will be used for this work.

Context, connection and constancy

In many ways, we are just at the beginning of this journey. Yet even at this early stage, three themes on the debate about statues have become evident in the work, and perhaps relevant for others facing similar questions. These are the importance of context, connection and constancy.

First, it is striking just how abstract the debate on statues can become given how concrete they are. And while it might be easier to assert views that apply for all statues in all places and times, it is important to do the work on each — context matters. In this instance, hospitals need to be welcoming and inclusive places for everyone who uses them. The statues of Clayton and Guy represent both important philanthropic figures and unacceptable sources of wealth. They are located near or on the grounds of one of the country’s most diverse employers, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, in a part of London with the largest Black population in the UK. These are people who come into the most frequent contact with the statues. It is reasonable, therefore, to ask them whether these statues are best placed here or elsewhere.

Second, it is noticeable how much of the debate seems to be people talking past one another, or not talking to each other at all. For us, the public consultation showed the benefit of in-depth conversations among people with different starting points. In the finest of British traditions, some individuals changed their views — a reminder, perhaps, to connect before we correct. In this instance, the focus of action became not whether the statues should stay or go but the wider issue of how they were positioned and interpreted. Interestingly, the consultation came to the view that the prominence given to these statues is as important as their presence in the public realm. History didn’t need to be cleansed, but nor did it need to be sanitised.

Third, there is a clear risk that the debate on statues is taking up space that could be addressed to even more significant issues. That is not to say that statues aren’t meaningful symbols (they are), nor that we should prioritise the status quo (societies change and progress, and that is a good thing). Rather, we need to keep our greatest energies for the biggest challenges. For us as an organisation, that’s tackling the unfair and avoidable differences in health in our society — inequalities that too frequently track to people’s ethnicity and left unaddressed, are to everyone’s disadvantage.

Our legacy

As we look ahead, I am very proud of how the contemporary work of the Foundation and our partners contrasts to sources of wealth from hundreds of years ago. I am also aware that to recognise how far we have come, is to make clear just how far we have to go, both as an organisation and in wider society. A legacy isn’t just what we inherit but what we leave behind too. In London, one of the richest cities in the world, Black residents live up to nine years fewer in full health compared with white residents. It isn’t right that Black babies have over twice the risk of being stillborn and that Black mothers have four times the risk of death in childbirth. We can change this. The past always has a presence in the present — it’s our job to make it a more positive one.