Much of Dan Guthrie’s life has been haunted by a disturbing mechanised figure resembling a tethered black slave boy, which is supposed to strike a bell hourly in the centre of Stroud. He first passed the automaton, which is known in clockmaking circles as a jacquemart, on his way to primary school in the 2000s and then secondary school – and now on his daily journey into work in the Cotswold town.
“My eyes lock on to the Blackboy clock every time I turn the corner on to Castle Street,” he explains from his home in Stroud. “The boy has huge red lips and is wearing a golden leaf skirt – and he is weirdly enslaved to the clock mechanism when it’s working. It is an offensive racist relic from the transatlantic slave trade, and the fact that it is still up in Stroud is a mystery to me.”
Guthrie, a 21-year-old local artist, has been researching the history of the clock, and plucked up the courage to complain to Stroud district council after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol last year. He is now sitting on a panel made up of local councillors, historians and community representatives overseeing a council-run consultation, which could see the 240-year-old figure moved to a museum in the town.
A study commissioned by the council found that the statue was made by an otherwise unremarkable watchmaker, John Miles, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. While it is impossible to know why Miles chose to make a model of a black boy, the report concludes that the figure is undoubtedly associated with slavery and colonialism.
But the debate about the clock’s future has become increasingly fraught since the town’s Conservative MP, Siobhan Baillie, criticised local anti-racists campaigning to have the divisive figure relocated. Baillie said “a certain minority of people with loud voices have an unquenchable desire to be constantly finding things to be outraged at” in a statement published in the local press and on her website last month.
Baillie then followed up her attack in her weekly column in the Stroud News and Journal (SNJ), where she suggested Stroud Against Racism was “whipping up a lot of online hate”, and thanked “local people” accused of making racist comments for “not being intimidated”. She also demanded that “cancel culture must be resisted and challenged whenever its tentacles attempt to grab our communities and bully them into silence”.
Members of Stroud Against Racism, which was set up during the wave of international protests that followed the murder of George Floyd last year, claim they have been subject to abuse online since Baillie’s high-profile comments. Nabeela Akhtar, who volunteers for the group, says she has received up to 20 racist and abusive messages on social media. “This MP is creating a toxic atmosphere by peddling this false narrative that we want to silence people and erase history,” she says. “Lots of the comments echo her language and then get abusive. I’ve been told ‘people like you shouldn’t have a say’ and ‘you should go back to where you came from’.”
Below a SNJ report of Baillie’s remarks, there are many public comments, including “I’m getting tired of black lives this and black lives that…”, and suggestions that only those “born and bred in Stroud” should be expressing views on the Blackboy clock.
The founder of the group, Polly Stratton, a Stroud-based English teacher, says Baillie has poisoned the debate about the clock, which has been moved twice during its history and was last restored in 2004. “We didn’t look for this fight – all we are doing is raising awareness about a racist caricature that is having a traumatic effect on many people of colour in Stroud. Their views should be heard, not shouted down by someone with a public platform,” she says. “We’re not trying to hide it or tear it down. We want it on public display in a museum.”
Baillie rejects the criticism of her interventions. “Any suggestion that I am trying to whip up a culture war is absolute rubbish,” she told the Observer. She said she believes the best way to understand history is to leave all statues in place and commission others to reflect the country’s journey towards equality. She suggested that adding factual information to the clock would be a compromise.
Baillie – who has spoken in parliament about the distress caused by anonymous racist and misogynistic social media trolls – has also worked with the Kick it Out charity, which campaigns against racism in football. But it firmly disagrees with her stance. “Whether it’s on the football pitch, online or in our town centres, we have to fight racism wherever we find it,” says Tony Burnett, the CEO of Kick it Out. “With that in mind, I would remind Ms Baillie that her work with Kick It Out on online anonymity does not give her a free pass to undermine anti-racist groups.”
The tone of the debate has revealed a different side to Stroud, which is known for its progressive and green views. Guthrie, whose family moved to the town in the Windrush migration after the second world war, says some are still in denial about undercurrents of racism in rural communities. “It has shown that some people can empathise with what it’s like to grow up black in an almost completely white town and other people struggle with that,” he says. “The statue is a physical manifestation of all the microaggressions I’ve experienced – from teachers using the n-word to blacked-up Morris dancers to the looks I sometimes get visiting parks.”
He believes the consultation panel can deliver meaningful recommendations. They have received more than 900 responses, and hope for more before it ends next month. “Of course, a consultation about one statue is not going to end racism but it’s the start of a wider conversation,” he says. “This needs to happen in places like Stroud as much as London and Bristol.”