Red-handed: William Gladstone statue in Bow Churchyard. Photograph: Russell Parton
Red-handed: William Gladstone statue in Bow Churchyard. Photograph: Russell Parton

In Bow Churchyard there is a statue of William Gladstone. Blunt against the greening bronze, Gladstone’s hands are red. An inscription to the plinth dedicates the monument: “A gift to the east of London of Theodore H. Bryant.”

Bryant was a Bryant of Bryant & May matches, then in production just around the corner in seven acres of red brick architecture, towers, chimneys – a site repackaged in a 1980s urban renewal project into Bow Quarter’s 750 handsome flats.

About Gladstone’s reddened hands, East End urban legend has it that the factory matchgirls – many only children, all on starvation wages, unshod through winter, vulnerable to white phosphorous poisoning and still six years out from their landmark 1888 strike – each had a shilling docked from their pay to finance Bryant’s ‘gift’. At the unveiling, several girls smuggled stones in their pockets, cut their hands and bloodied the statue in protest. The red paint is a tribute.

Gladstone’s hands have over time gathered a heavier connotative load than the memory of stolen shillings and abused factory workers. The same vandalism has been reenacted on a number of occasions, and in the fractured, plural, liltingly continuous rhythm of cultural reinscription, the same reddened hands have been glossed with fresh significance. On a tour of ‘the radical East End’ this summer, my guide added a contemporary postscript to the tradition of the monument’s origin: ahead of the 2012 Olympic games, the bronze (among other things) was scrubbed clean. But the next morning, of course, Gladstone’s hands were newly scarlet.

I was to understand that this vandalism was no sneaky individual insubordination, but a communally articulated claim. “The East End”, the tour guide said, “wouldn’t let its story be rubbed out.”

It interested me that in his account, the red paint, and not the bronze statue, seemed to become a public artefact under threat. It raises the question: who were the vandals?

The word ‘vandalism’ was contrived by the Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire during the French Revolution, to curb an ascendant vigour for wrecking monuments and art. His neologism invoked the Vandals, a northern European tribe of the early centuries A.D. remembered as uncivilised, threatening, other. Grégoire, a revolutionary himself, was aware that the mobs tearing statues off plinths all over Paris were animated by rage towards the old order, and was afraid that this amounted to a celebration of ignorance.

So he constructed a framework of radical ideas about heritage and public property that positioned the obliteration of artworks as counter-revolutionary, external and threatening to the principles of liberty. Casting destructive revolutionaries as ‘vandals’ and, on other occasions, ‘barbarians’, framed them as senseless, brutish and, crucially, as outsiders. So branded, ‘vandals’ lost their legitimacy as revolutionaries, and their place in the debate about preservation. In short: ‘vandalism’ silenced the vandals.

It seems ridiculous to think of the Bow Churchyard vandals as senselessly destructive, or as outsiders, but these folkloric tales of Gladstone’s hands can at root be seen as a story of silencing and resistance.

I imagine that the statue, whether or not it was paid for with stolen shillings, felt less like a gift to the east of London than a symbolic incursion by the wealthy and powerful. A monument to the establishment (Gladstone was still Prime Minister when it was unveiled), the statue is engraved with the name of an exploitative factory boss, and demands gratitude on his behalf.

Monuments do make strident political claims on the spaces they inhabit. The bronze Gladstone in Bow Churchyard was an assertion of external control and a reminder to the East End’s poor of their own voicelessness. Blood smeared against granite, paint brushed onto metal – these are demonstrations of resistance, but arguably, they’re weak demonstrations of resistance, which illuminate impotence as clearly as they do injustice.

East London has been spoken about, and spoken for – typically by the more wealthy and geographically more westerly, established classes. In his book The Cultural Construction of London’s East End, Paul Newland writes about the area as an object habitually defined from an external viewpoint. “It has been depicted as a terra incognita”, he writes, “a space populated by faceless, voiceless, homogeneous figures.”

The image echoes the barbarian hordes that the Abbé Grégoire conjured with his ‘vandals’. These are pictures we use to distance and silence. But in Bow Churchyard, there has been an inversion. Facelessness has meant resistance to silencing too. It’s the anonymity of the vandals that has allowed the ownership of Gladstone’s red hands to become diffuse and communal, a public property in its own right.

Things have changed. Today, vandalising Victorian statues is not the only way for the East End to raise its political voice. What Gladstone’s hands articulate now – about space and about identity – has fissured and multiplied. The red is a nod of solidarity to the difficult past, it’s the blood of matchstick girls, which might communicate a twinklier, more subversive sense of local pride than the sort performed by West London’s army of gleaming bronzes. They are myth and folklore and graffiti – a toast to the refusal to be silenced.

Through nearly a century and a half of reiteration a piece of vandalism becomes an artefact of heritage. Gladstone in Bow Churchyard is a site of symbolic contestation. His red hands are as much a repository for cultural meaning as his greening bronze body. That is, Gladstone’s red hands are a monument upon a monument. And shouldn’t monuments respond to shifting context?

When the Soviet Union fell, communist statues were toppled from their pedestals. A number of them were collected in a Moscow sculpture park. They were settled in weird proximity, some chipped, many prone on the lawn. I’m sure the Abbé would have called it vandalism, though the statues tell a living story of conflict and contestation.

In 2012, 130 years after Bryant’s ‘gift’ is unveiled in Bow Churchyard, the Ministry of Defence announces plans to mount missiles on the water tower that punches skyward above seven acres of red brick architecture, just around the corner. Hundreds of East Londoners march to demonstrate against a ‘corporate Olympics’. Meanwhile somebody, allegedly, tries to erase the red from Gladstone’s hands.

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