Patrick West

Holland Park must not fall

Holland Park must not fall
(Photo: iStock)
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The latest victim in this summer's mania could be the name of one of London's best-known and wealthiest areas: Holland Park, in the west of the capital.

A monument in the park itself, of the 19th-century politician Henry Vassall-Fox, the third Baron Holland, was splattered with red paint on Wednesday. After, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea suggested that the park, underground station and entire district could end up being renamed.

The park and neighbourhood was named after Henry Fox, the first Baron Holland. His descendent, the third Baron, technically owned slaves and dozens of plantations in Jamaica through his wife's estate. Hence this weeks' desecration, with a cardboard sign left perched in the bronze statue's arms reading 'I owned 401 slaves.'

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea now says that the statue could be placed under review as part of a 'conversation about the figures we see in our public realm'. A spokesman said: 'In London we must oppose racism in all its forms and we fully support everyone's right to protest peacefully. The Mayor of London has launched his London-wide public realm review and we expect this to consider station names, statues and street names.'

But not for the first time among the iconoclasts and policy makers, there is a large degree of historical ignorance afoot. While Henry Vassall-Fox was indeed a plantation owner through marriage, he consistently and actively opposed slavery. As a statesman in the Lords from 1796 until his death in 1840 he helped to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself in most of the colonies as part of the 1807 and 1833 governments (Vassall-Fox was Lord Privy Seal from 1806 to 1807, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster between 1830 and 1834).

The Foxes were one the most prominent Whigs of their time, and Henry was a nephew of the great Whig orator Charles Henry Fox. From an early age he imbibed his uncle's progressive politics. In 1791, Henry travelled to continental Europe, meeting Talleyrand and Lafayette in Paris, and he became a great sympathiser for French reformers and a lifelong supporter of better Anglo-French relations.

He was not merely a progressive politician – he was sometimes considered a radical. During a debate on the union with Ireland in 1800, he moved for the reconsideration of the two acts barring Roman Catholics from sitting in parliament, which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, was 'the first time Catholic emancipation had been raised.'

He became known for his many protests he entered in the House of Lords. One protest made in 1801, on a bill for suppressing rebellion in Ireland, was considered so subversive that the Lords ordered it to be struck from the record. He continued to speak for Catholic emancipation until this was realised in 1829 and he also supported bills to remove the civil disabilities of Jews. And while he did receive financial reward under the 1837 Slave Compensation Act, he had campaigned for abolition in the full knowledge that he would lose income from his plantations.

A primary school in Notting Hill Gate was named after his sister, Caroline. I attended Fox Primary School in the 1980s and grew up and lived in the Holland Park area, one road parallel to Holland Park Avenue. Back then, as is the case today, the neighbourhood was known for its affluence. But it's worth remembering that 'Holland Park' was also associated with the inner-city, left-wing politics of that era, owing to the enormous, progressive comprehensive school that bore its name.

Holland Park School, now a top-rated posh academy, was a very different prospect in the 1980s. Its intake was predominantly working-class teenagers from what were then the rough-and-ready areas of Ladbroke Grove and Shepherd's Bush. To associate 'Holland Park' entirely with slavery is to ignore the area's post-war experiment in comprehensive education and the progressive politics of the Fox dynasty.

Yes, Henry Vassall-Fox did technically own slaves, but he was far from a villain. He was a radical progressive of his time, and even today his politics would be considered liberal. In conclusion? 'Holland Park' must stay.