On Friday, I had an investigation published in The Guardian, detailing a four-year behind-the-scenes battle over whether to list a plaque to a white supremacist as a heritage asset. Listing the plaque – which is on the outside of a building owned by Oriel College, Oxford – would have made it almost impossible to be removed.
You can read the article here; meanwhile, here are the raw documents, all obtained through FOIs, that made this article possible:
Oriel’s treasurer – one of the most senior members of the college’s governing body – lobbied in February 2016 for the plaque to be added to the heritage list.
Only weeks earlier, the college had emailed Oxford City Council asking to take it down, describing it as a “political tribute” to a man with “racist views”.
The Council replied to Oriel’s letter shortly after, saying that the college was free to take down the plaque at any time.
Historic England – the body that advises the government – was quickly thrown into chaos. Key members of the body, such as then-Director of Listing Roger Bowdler, believed the plaque should be listed. But they didn’t want a political controversy. At one stage, Bowdler wrote that he planned to take the advice of a colleague who “wisely wishes to accompany it with some pro-African listings”.
Historic England drafted advice that the plaque should be listed in 2016, but never submitted it. They ultimately submitted advice to the government in 2018 advising that the plaque not be listed – noting that “our handling has been the subject of recent FOI and media enquiries”. At this point, I had already submitted several FOIs to Historic England.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport only took a final decision on the case in February of this year – over four years since the listing application was submitted.
Meanwhile, returning to Oriel, current provost Neil Mendoza backed the listing of the plaque while in a previous job as a Commissioner of Historic England, according to a contemporaneous memorandum by Historic England’s Director of Listing. (Oriel disputes that this is Mendoza’s current position, but does not dispute the accuracy of the memorandum. It should also be noted that this was not an official minute of the meeting; this is because “the discussion wasn’t minuted“.)
Historic England released a statement in response to my article, which can be read here.
Read more on the plaque here.
For more information on the Rhodes Must Fall protests in Oxford – and the South African protests which inspired them – check out the timeline that I did for The Poor Print here.
The header image was obtained from Historic England via Environmental Information Regulations and is therefore now in the public domain.