Case Study: Commemorative Plaque – All Souls College Library, Oxford
All Souls College Library, an historic 18th century building well known for its architectural beauty, was built with money bequeathed by a former Oxford University Fellow, Christopher Codrington (1668-1710). In recent years, protests have drawn attention to how Codrington’s wealth was largely derived from sugar plantations in the West Indies, which were worked by several hundred enslaved people. The College's response included installing a plaque at the entrance to the Library, commemorating the people enslaved on his plantations.
- Site and type of structure: Plaque outside All Souls College Library
- Location: All Souls College, Oxford
- Country: England
- Legal protection: The library is a Grade I listed building. Listed building consent was needed to install the plaque
Christopher Codrington (1668-1710) was a former Fellow at All Souls College who left a bequest of £10,000 to the College in his will to build a library and stock it with books. The building, completed in 1751, later became known as the Codrington Library. A marble statue of the figure, created by the celebrated sculptor Sir Henry Cheere, is located at the centre of the Library.
The building’s links to Codrington have faced growing criticism from students, staff and visitors to the College due to his involvement in transatlantic slavery. Historical evidence shows that Codrington’s wealth was derived largely from his family’s sugar plantations in Antigua and Barbados, worked by several hundred enslaved people of African descent.
The context for reinterpretation
All Souls College faced criticism for its association with Codrington in January 2016, after the connections between Oxford University and histories of slavery were raised by the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement. While this movement principally focused its attention on calling for the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue in Oriel College, campaigners increasingly drew attention to other elements of contested heritage at the University.
Events held by Rhodes Must Fall spread awareness of Codrington’s connections with transatlantic slavery in the West Indies. The campaign then gained further momentum after Michelle Codrington-Rogers – an Oxford teacher and a descendant of an enslaved person on one of Christopher Codrington’s plantations – joined the movement, calling for All Souls to re-examine its position on Codrington’s legacy. In March 2016, students and local residents held a demonstration outside the College, in which a statement by Codrington-Rogers was read out – prompting chants of "Codrington must fall".
Assessment of options
All Souls responded to the protests by hosting a symposium in October 2016, organised by two fellows of the College, which discussed Codrington’s connections with transatlantic slavery and how the College might respond to his controversial history. Michelle Codrington-Rogers was invited to speak, alongside local heritage stakeholders and a number of historians, who presented evidence linking the money which funded the library with the labour of enslaved people on Codrington’s plantations. As a result of these discussions, the Governing Body at the College decided that a plaque was needed to memorialise the workers enslaved on Codrington’s plantations.
What was done and who was involved?
Following the decision to install the commemorative plaque, draft wording was prepared internally at All Souls College. Michelle Codrington-Rogers was then consulted on the final text.
The Library is a Grade I listed building of exceptional architectural significance, first listed in 1954. The College liaised with Historic England and conservation officers at Oxford City Council to install a plaque in a manner sympathetic to the building’s character, produced from Yorkshire limestone of a similar colour to the colonnade on which the memorial was fixed. Listed building consent was granted in early 2018 and the plaque was installed later that year. It was seen as important that the plaque be located at an entrance to the Library, where it was visible to members of the public, as well as to users of the Library and College Fellows.
The plaque is positioned to the right of the current Library entrance, appositely sited on the actual building. When entering the Library from Radcliffe Square it is the first thing one sees, and the plaque can also, albeit discreetly, be seen from the public pavement when this door is open for the use of readers from outside the college.
There has been no formal feedback system to collate responses to the plaque from visitors or members of the College. However, written responses have been sent to the college and to Michelle Codrington-Rogers from descendants of enslaved people, living in the Caribbean, who felt that they were not engaged by the College in the process to decide the commemorative wording. While All Souls did engage with one local resident descended from an enslaved person on Codrington’s plantations, the views of one person were not felt by those submitting written responses to be a sufficient substitution for a formal consultation process.
Lessons and insights
The project highlights the importance of undertaking extensive community and stakeholder engagement when embarking on sensitive issues of memorialisation.
Stakeholders involved reflected that it was important to recognise that a diverse range of views and local community perspectives need to be taken into account – they are never homogenous. Effort should also be made to proactively, rather than reactively, reach out to relevant stakeholders at the earliest possible stage of a reinterpretation project – both locally and internationally where contested histories are situated in a global context, such as that of transatlantic slavery. Indeed, in projects undertaking memorialisation, this may require identifying direct descendants of people relevant to the heritage asset, where possible.
- Consulting historical experts and heritage stakeholders is crucial to providing an evidenced rationale for reinterpretation
- Public and/or community consultation processes should proactively engage with a diverse array of voices when responding to contested heritage. Particularly on sensitive issues of memorialisation, this may include engagement with people who are personally connected with the historical context, such as descendants, who should be invited to contribute.
- Institutions, such as colleges, should be aware that they might seem closed to those not from the same institutional community and be particularly aware of the need to reach out and consult
- Reinterpretation should be viewed as a process, to be revisited and developed based on public feedback