Open letter to University of Liverpool regarding Gladstone Hall

William Ewart Gladstone
I have written an open letter to Liverpool University (where I was once a student) in relation to its decision to rename Gladstone Hall.

I am not going to add further commentary, as I believe the letter speaks for itself. 

To whom it may concern,

I write in relation to the University’s decision, as reported in the Liverpool Echo and other media sources, to rename Gladstone Hall on the basis of William Ewart Gladstone’s “views on slavery” and “family connections to slaveholding”.

I note the quote attributed to a spokesperson for the University, which reads “we share in the shame our city feels because its prosperity was significantly based upon a slave economy".

Indeed, the University itself historically prospered from connections with individuals and benefactors whose personal wealth was based on the slave economy

While I defend the University’s right to rename its buildings as it sees fit, and indeed welcome regular reviews into the suitability of such names, it seems odd to me that Gladstone Hall should be the most obvious subject of such a debate. 

Several other features of the University’s campus are named after people with far more obvious personal links to slavery. Also, while William Gladstone certainly did indirectly materially benefit from his father’s enterprises, it would be a mistake to argue that he was pro-slavery or that his political legacy was somehow bound up in this issue. I accept that Gladstone’s maiden speech in 1833, in which he argued that slave owners should be compensated, highlights the complex political and moral currents in which he had to move, but I would imagine that Universities are well placed to appreciate such nuances

I think it’s also clear from the historical record that what William Gladstone believed in the 1830s was not what he believed at the end of his political career in the 1890s. I would hope that an institution such as a university would take considered approaches towards renaming its buildings, with particular care to focus on what individuals are best known for and their wider legacies. 

There is a risk this is all being done at the expense of nuance and intelligent reflection on the past. I do not believe this is a good look for a university. Moreover, I find the focus on the “sons of the father” rather than on broader legacies more than slightly hypocritical given the University’s own history in relation to this subject. 

I would also point out that other features of the University campus are named after individuals with unenviable connections to slavery

The first is Abercromby Square, named after General Sir Ralph Abercromby. Abercromby was involved in successfully putting down Fédon’s rebellion, essentially a slave revolt, in Grenada in 1796. He also has the dubious honour of having been the British Commander-in-Chief in Ireland during the Irish rebellion of 1798. That the Centre for the Study of International Slavery should be based here is more than ironic.

he Ashton Building, on Ashton Street, is named in honour of salt merchant John Ashton, who used his significant profits from salt and slavery to subsidise the construction of the Sankey Canal. 

Other buildings, such as the Harrison Hughes Laboratory, are named in honour if individuals who had vested commercial interests in British colonialism, which for some of us represents another evil that should no longer be positively commemorated. 

There may well be other examples

The University’s decision is ultimately its own but, if it is to rename Gladstone Hall for the reasons laid out in the Liverpool Echo report, I would suggest the University does so as part of a wider review into the names of its buildings. I would also hope that, when releasing statements to the media referencing the historical connections individuals have had to slavery, in the interests of providing relevant context the University publicly acknowledges its own complex relationship with the slave economy.

ours sincerely,

Andrew Page


Andrew said…
This statement from the Gladstone Library in Hawarden, North Wales, may also be of interest: