A group of students have called on their university to drop the name of former Prime Minister William Gladstone from its halls of residence due to his links to slavery.
The University of Liverpool students feel so strongly about the issue that they have started a petition for the university to replace the former Hawarden resident’s name on the Roscoe and Gladstone building, which is currently being demolished and redeveloped.
The students have suggested renaming the accommodation block after university alumni such as poet Carol Ann Duffy or newsreader Jon Snow.
The campaign was started by three students – Alisha Raithatha, Tinaye Mapako and Tor Smith – and more than 50 students have now backed the campaign on the Liverpool Guild of Students’ website.
The campaign page reads: “William Gladstone was a former UK Prime Minister, his politics were funded by his father Sir John Gladstone’s wealth which was built on the back of the Slave Trade.
“William Gladstone is known to have fought for reparations for slave traders like his father during the abolition of the trade, as well as not being in favour of the abolition.
“We believe that someone with this controversial background should not have a university hall named after them, especially in a city where we try hard not to forget the atrocities that took place on our docks.
“As former residents of the halls we were horrified to find out we had been living in a building named after such a figure for a whole year without even realising.
“William Roscoe was a leading abolitionist. There is evidence the two did not see eye to eye.
“Having their names side by side on a building to commemorate them also seems strange.”
Liverpool-born Gladstone, who was Prime Minister on four separate occasions during the 19th century, moved to Hawarden Castle in 1839 after he married Catherine Glynne and lived there until his death in 1898.
The house and estate are still a private residence and are still owned by the Gladstone family.
Tinaye Mapako, one of the students behind the campaign, says he is confident the university would agree to change the name of the Halls of Residence which is opposite Penny Lane – another Liverpool landmark named after a figure associated with the slave trade.
“One of my friends had recently visited the International Slavery Museum and we got on to the subject of Gladstone and why our halls were named after him,” says Tinaye.
“As we found out more about him we became aware of the controversies, although I think it is a bit simplistic to think of him as a good guy or a bad guy.
“What is clear is that his political career, particularly early on, was directly funded by his father and his statements in parliament all seem to favour slavery and he has some very uncomfortable racial attitudes.”
Gladstone’s father, Sir John Gladstone, acquired several large plantations in Jamaica and Guyana, worked by enslaved Africans and he battled to secure compensation from the British Government for “property losses” incurred as a result of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
In 1834, when slavery was abolished, Gladstone helped his father obtain £106,769 – the modern equivalent would be £83 million – in official reimbursement by the government for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations in the Caribbean.
Gladstone did denounce slavery soon after, saying: “I can see plainly enough the sad defects, the real illiberalism of my opinions on that subject.”
“If we had not said anything about this no one would have cared or thought to ask questions about who Gladstone was or examine his history,” says Tinaye.
“We hope that people will take this seriously and listen to us and it also gives the chance to inject some new energy into the building.
“Maybe there are some better names for the university to be affiliated with and there are certainly many more recent figures who would appeal to today’s students.”
Charlie Gladstone, great-great-grandson of the Victorian Prime Minister, rejects the accusation that his forefather was racist.
He says: “I have always been – and will always remain – very proud of my great ancestor, William Gladstone.
”He was against slavery and believed that its abolition was one of the main issues on which the working people of Britain were absolutely right.”
At Hawarden’s Gladstone Library, which was founded by the Victorian statesman, the man in charge of the national memorial to his life agrees Gladstone had never supported slavery.
“William Ewart Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone, certainly owned land in the West Indies and South America that used slave labour,” says Peter Francis, warden of Gladstone’s Library.
“Of course, much the same could be said of most successful British merchants in the early 19th century.
“It is an uncomfortable blemish on our national history and many of our 19th-century institutions.
“Gladstone’s first speech in the House of Commons was about compensation for slave owners.
“This was in Gladstone’s early Parliamentary career when he felt bound to defend his father’s position.
“He never defended or supported slavery itself. The negotiated compensation for which he argued almost certainly helped to end slavery in the British Empire a whole generation before the United States.
“In the Commons in 1850 he said the slave trade was ‘by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind in any Christian or pagan country’.
“Towards the end of his life he cited the abolition of slavery as one of the 10 great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.
“A great reformer, he was popularly known as ‘the people’s William’.
“Gladstone’s Library is the national memorial to William Gladstone and from 2019 we are instituting a scholarship that will support research into historic and contemporary slavery.”
Novelist Melissa Harrison, who was a Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library in 2014, questions the targeting of the four-time Prime Minister.
She says: “It’s absolutely right that Britain begins to reckon with its past – in fact, a healthy reassessment is long overdue.
“But Gladstone seems to me to be a somewhat odd target.
“Let’s just say I’m surprised by this development.”
Viv Williams, co-founder of the Flintshire War Memorials project, says it is impossible to change history.
“I’m uncomfortable about a lot of demands to destroy statues and change names to more politically correct ones. I rate Jon Snow highly but Gladstone was a man of his times,” she says.
“Perhaps the halls should include some information boards explaining Gladstone’s life – including his role in the slave trade.
“There’s something about eradicating history that puts me in mind of book burning by the Nazis. It’s a dangerous road.”