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Church memorial to slave-owner moved to museum

22 May 2023

Diocese of Salisbury

A conservator Lynne Humphries with the removed memorial

A conservator Lynne Humphries with the removed memorial

A MEMORIAL to a slave-owner that displays offensive language has been removed from St Peter’s, Dorchester, to be housed on loan in the museum next door.

A faculty permitting its removal and relocation to Dorset County Museum was granted last year by the consistory court of the diocese of Salisbury (News, 9 September 2022). The memorial commemorates Dr John Gordon, who died in 1774, aged 46. From 1759, Gordon had been an overseer of plantations in Jamaica, and, by 1773, he owned estates producing sugar, rum, coffee, and other products, and livestock. He owned 416 slaves. He had no previous connection with Dorchester, and died there, apparently, during a journey from London to Falmouth on his way back to Jamaica.

His memorial was large and prominent in St Peter’s, and was characteristic of the neo-classical wall monuments of the mid- to late-18th century. The central cause of concern was the wording of the memorial. It stated that Gordon was “signally instrumental In quelling a dangerous Rebellion” in Jamaica in 1760. It referred to “a large Body of NEGROES Whom his BRAVERY had repulsed”. It referred also to the rebels’ “Finally Yeilding [sic] to their Confidence in his HUMANITY”. Those three words in capitals were the only words of the memorial inscribed in that way.

After conducting research and contacting John Gordon’s descendants, the Vicar and churchwardens applied to Salisbury diocese for its removal and for a replacement plaque to be installed.

Granting the faculty, the Chancellor, the Worshipful Ruth Arlow, said that the memorial “celebrated in language of acclamation the violent quelling of a rebellion by enslaved people against a status that is now universally acknowledged as morally repugnant and contrary to Christian doctrine”.

One of the churchwardens, Val Potter, who has managed the removal on behalf of the church, said on Friday that it had been a “long process” and that “concern over the wording of the monument began some years ago”.

This was about the time the Church of England released its guidance on handling contested heritage (News, 14 May 2021), she said. “We had useful conversations with them [the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England] as they viewed this as more explicit and extreme than other church monuments, agreeing that some monuments do contradict the message and mission of our churches to be welcoming to all, valuing all as equally loved by God.

“It is good to see this important historic monument in the museum, a more appropriate place to retain it than a Church offering unconditional welcome. We are grateful to everyone who has given their help and carefully considered contributions to the process.”

The removal was carried out by the conservators Humphries & Jones. One of its partners, Emma Norris, said that the work was unlike anything they had carried out before. “Normally . . . it’s a case of removing a monument to address issues and then reinstating the monument in the same location,” she said.

“When you remove a monument without it being returned to its original position, that isn’t something that would naturally sit with your idea of conservation, as it’s normally minimal intervention. But the fact that the arguments had been put forward for it being relocated to a museum, where it can be reinterpreted and more explanation can be given to the history, that seems an appropriate stance in this situation.”

A simple replacement plaque to Gordon, which will carry only the details of his life and death, is now being designed by a local stonemasons, Grassby Memorials, to fit in the same space in the church.

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