It’s easy to dislike the statue in front of the corn exchange (what is now The Assembly pub). The sculpture uses a lumpen style which provokes people to like or dislike it. The statue cannot be easily dismissed for its artistic merit – or lack of – per se, however. The sculptor, for example, clearly knew their Goya and their Manet.Advertisement
The scene that the statue depicts, however, is arguably wrong. The statue appears to show people pleading for mercy, cowering, begging to be allowed to live. We see an execution squad, as in the Goya and Manet paintings.
Plug Plot Riots
The statue commemorates the Plug Plot Riots in 1842, a key moment in British history – when the workers were beginning to stand up for themselves. The workers were striking; they were angry. Whilst the statue may, symbolically, be showing the people’s reactions to the deaths, it is clear that at no point during the event did the people cower or beg in front of an execution squad. More than that: they were doing the exact opposite of begging. The people were saying that they had had enough of being supplicant.
Here’s a newspaper account, written less than seven hours after the event:
“Immense bodies of stones were now thrown at the police and soldiers, many of the former being much hurt, and a party of the mob having gone up Fox-street, they then had the advantage of stoning the military from both sides. Under these circumstances, orders were given to fire, and immediately obeyed, and several of the mob fell. This did not appear to have much effect.”(1)
The artistic references are articulate but the resulting statue perhaps does not go far enough in referencing Goya. The Goya painting depicts the Madrid uprising against the Napoleonic forces who were invading Spain. The focal point of the painting is a figure bathed in light, with arms opens wide, a Jesus-like figure showing us the horrified but defiant spirit of Madrid and Spain as the country is being conquered. This is a very patriotic painting. We know which side Goya is on and it definitely isn’t France.
In the Preston statue, on the other hand, the central figure cowers in the most supplicant posture possible: crouching and covering his genitals.
The statue should show Prestonians demanding their rights, standing defiantly and proudly in the face of the authorities’ power. It should remind Prestonians that we fought for our rights and that we have power.
Conspiracy theorists might argue that, even today, the authorities don’t actually want a statue showing something like that.
(1) Dreadful Riot – Rioters Shot. From Preston Pilot 13 Aug 1842.
Image credit to Tony Worrall