Britain’s imperial landmarks: The empire on our doorsteps

The British empire changed the world. But, says Kwasi Kwarteng, it also changed Britain itself – and the evidence is all around us in the built environment of our great cities

The opening ceremony of London’s Tower Bridge on 30 June 1894. The bridge became a symbol of London’s importance as a global maritime hub (Photo by Francis Frith/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The traces of the British empire are all around us. In nearly every major city in Britain, there are statues, monuments and physical reminders of “an empire on which the sun never sets”.

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It would be difficult to overstate the impact that more than 400 years of empire had on Britain itself. For decades, historians have written about the effects of British rule on other parts of the world. In Asia and Africa and across the Americas, the British empire left lasting legacies that researchers have written about in thousands of books. In Britain itself, however, the imperial legacy is often misunderstood, and widely neglected. How the empire affected Britain is a subject that, until now, has seldom been addressed.

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A 19th-century depiction of HMS Erebus in the ice, by François Etienne Musin. What exactly happened to the ship and its crew remains a mystery. (Picture by Alamy)

Historians debate when the British empire actually began. My own view is that 1497 is a significant date, because it was the year that John Cabot sailed from Bristol on the Matthew on a voyage of discovery. Cabot, a Venetian merchant, sailed west, hoping to find a new route to Asia. His ambition was supported by Henry VII, who sponsored him and eventually gave him a pension of £20 a year, about four years’ pay for an annual labourer.

Of course, it was Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII, who said that the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals severed England from foreign legal jurisdiction, solemnly declaring that: “This realm of England is an empire.” By this declaration, the king wished to state as clearly as possible the independence of his realm from the jurisdiction of the pope, or anybody else. His use of the word “empire” was bold and ground-breaking, but the word itself changed its meaning drastically over the next few centuries.

Capital benefits

The British empire developed in ways that Henry VIII could never have imagined. The centre of that empire, of course, was London, a city that first reached a population of 1 million around 1800.

The physical traces of empire are conspicuous in the capital. You need only to go to Whitehall to see imperial architecture and design at its most confident.

Horse Guards, designed by William Kent in the 18th century, and George Gilbert Scott’s Foreign Office, both show a confidence and a sense of grandeur that, no doubt, imperialism fostered. The Classical buildings have a scale and imposing quality that, to the educated classes in the 19th century, would certainly have recalled the magnificence of imperial Rome.

The imperial connotations of the Foreign Office, and other government buildings, are symbolised by the statue of Robert Clive, ‘Clive of India’ by John Tweed, which was unveiled in Whitehall in 1912. Clive (who secured control of much of south Asia for the British East India Company) was a hugely divisive figure. He incurred the wrath of the House of Commons when he told them “I stand astonished at my own moderation” after being accused of plundering the equivalent of millions of pounds worth of Indian jewels. Despite this, Clive’s statue stands proudly in front of the Foreign Office as a testimony to British imperial greatness.

Across London, much of the imperial legacy comes from the 19th century. It was at this time that consciousness of the British empire was at its height. Even the capital’s road names in this period attest to a widespread imperial influence.

Chris Patten, the last governor of colonial Hong Kong, is pictured here receiving the Union Jack flag shortly before Hong Kong was returned to China, ending over a century of British rule. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

One example of this is the residential area of Wandsworth, between Battersea Park Road and Falcon Road, known as ‘Little India’. Roads there are named Afghan, Cabul, Candahar and Khyber, to commemorate the Second Afghan War from 1878-80. It is striking that these roads retain the 19th-century British spellings of the places they commemorate, rather than the modern spellings of Kabul and Kandahar, and the names also show how the development of London went hand in hand with the growth of empire.

Of museums, the Victoria and Albert, established as the South Kensington Museum in 1857, is perhaps the most representative of the imperial spirit. Many of the objects in the museum have a story to tell about Britain’s relationship with other countries.

The museum was renamed in 1899, only two years after Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. During the jubilee itself, London witnessed processions the like of which have never been seen again. The colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, had suggested that the diamond jubilee should be a celebration of the British empire. It was decided to display the full geographical expanse of the empire, and the procession included troops from each dominion, British colony and dependency, together with soldiers sent by Indian princes and chiefs who were subordinate to Queen Victoria in her capacity as Empress of India.

Queen Victoria herself laid the foundation stone of new buildings along Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road on 17 May 1899, a week before her 80th birthday. This would turn out to be her last public appearance. The queen died in January 1901, little more than a year and a half later.

Five years before the renaming of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tower Bridge opened. The growth of London meant that there was demand for another river crossing downstream of London Bridge. But there was a problem: the new bridge would potentially impede shipping making its way to what was the world’s busiest port. Tower Bridge’s designers solved that by splitting the central span into two, so that both sides could be raised to let river traffic pass. The result was a high point in late Victorian engineering, one that remains a powerful symbol of London’s role as a global maritime hub.

Liverpool makes its mark

While whole books could be written about the physical transformation of London that took place as a direct consequence of imperial ventures and growing global commerce, it was not only in the British capital that empire and trade had such a profound impact.

Liverpool, with its extensive maritime connections as well as its legacy of the slave trade, has been deeply affected by the imperial past. In fact, more than any other city in Britain, Liverpool can be said to be at the heart of global trade and empire.

The city’s spectacular Town Hall, built from 1749 and designed by John Wood the Elder, has a frieze around the outside which includes camels, crocodiles, elephants and African faces to illustrate the trading routes that provided much of Liverpool’s wealth.

Liverpool was granted a borough charter by King John in 1207, but for 500 years it was little more than a grid of about six streets, with a castle and a church. It only took off in the 18th century with an enormous increase in trade and growth in the area.

In Karl Marx’s formulation, “Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade”. Many of its most respectable and affluent citizens were involved in the trade. The most famous of these people, in terms of their impact on national politics, were almost certainly members of the Gladstone family. Yet Prime Minister William Gladstone himself was an ambivalent imperialist, even though the city he grew up in was, during the 19th century, at the very centre of British imperial might.

London’s Classical buildings have a scale and imposing quality that would have recalled imperial Rome

Liverpool’s Customs House, where trade in and out of the city was recorded, was a magnificent neoclassical building with solid Ionic pillars built in 1839. Sadly the Customs House was bombed during the Liverpool Blitz in 1941 and, despite protests, the council refused to rebuild it after the war. The building was demolished in 1948, and is now the site of the Liverpool One shopping centre. The Customs House is a fine example of an imperial relic that has been destroyed in the course of a turbulent 20th century. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides.”

Thriving Bristol

Like Liverpool, Bristol’s pre-eminence in British trade rested on its commercial ties across the world. Unlike Liverpool however, Bristol was a thriving city in the Middle Ages. What is now known as Bristol Harbour was the original port from which John Cabot sailed in 1497. Today, the harbour is a busy modern development with bars and shops.

It was through Bristol that merchants first brought freeze-dried cod from Iceland for consumption in England, and by the mid-16th century the city imported a wide variety of goods, including cloth, dried fruits and wine. The Bristol merchant William de la Founte (died 1495) is also thought to be one of the first of all English slave traders.

Medieval Bristol was a thriving port. It’s from here that John Cabot sailed in 1497, hoping to find a new route to Asia

Another wealthy merchant from Bristol was Edward Colston. Although Colston lived in London for many years, he has always been closely associated with Bristol, and a significant proportion of his wealth came either directly, or indirectly, from the slave trade. Colston donated considerable sums to good causes in Bristol. He founded two almshouses and a school, and donated generously to other schools, churches and hospitals. A number of the city’s schools and streets are named after him. However, Colston is now a controversial figure in Bristol, and it’s recently been announced that the Colston Hall – one of the city’s leading concert venues – will reopen with a new name following a refurbishment.

Scottish power

Of course, in the British Isles, it is not only in England that the traces of an imperial past can be found. Following the union with England in 1707, Glasgow became a centre for international trade to and from the Americas, especially in sugar, tobacco, cotton and manufactured goods. Wealthy Glasgow traders then invested their profits in a variety of domestic ventures, including banking.

The city also became a hub for merchants and shipping. This involved people like William Kidston, who established William Kidston and Sons – with offices and warehouses in Queen Street, one of the major thoroughfares in Glasgow – and was involved in wholesale china manufacturing, shipping and general trade. By the 1820s the businesses were flourishing and the potteries in Glasgow were extensive, with a large export trade to South America and the East Indies.

Following work in the 18th century to deepen the river Clyde on its course through Glasgow, and the advent of steam-powered ships in the early 19th century, the city flourished as a ship-building centre. Some of the biggest ships in the world at that time were built in nearby Clydebank, including RMS Lusitania, at one time the largest ever passenger liner, RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth.

The wealth accrued by Glasgow found its ultimate expression in the creation of the Glasgow City Chambers. A powerfully built neoclassical construction of the type common in the Victorian era, the site is now home to Glasgow City Council. The chambers were originally opened by Queen Victoria in 1888, the year after her golden jubilee. The queen herself is depicted on the front of the building, surrounded by figures representing Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales and the colonies of the empire.

It is not surprising that Queen Victoria features so prominently in buildings and monuments. Her reign gave birth to ‘jingoism’ and a real sense of national pride in British imperial accomplishments. It was in the 1890s, after all, that Cecil Rhodes is reputed to have said to Lord Grey: “You are an Englishman, and have subsequently drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life.”

The story of urban Britain over the past few centuries is largely a tale of economic progress and population growth. It is impossible to understand these developments without appreciating the legacy of the British empire. Britain, it has been argued, has been defined by its global role. People in Britain often talk of a “global Britain” which, as an island nation, has had a markedly different history from many other countries. The empire may no longer exist, but its legacy is all-pervasive in the built environment of our great cities.

Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP and a historian. He is author of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2011).

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This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine