‘We didn’t want it named after a person’: how residents of Cecil Rhodes House feel about its new name

Sometime in the next few weeks, a team of council maintenance staff will be dispatched to a nine-storey block of flats behind St Pancras station in central London. They will unscrew the panels that bear the name Cecil Rhodes House, and affix newly made replacement signs, making it clear that the building should now be known as Park View House.

As the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford drags on into a fifth year, with 150 dons announcing this month that they refuse to teach at Oriel College because of its decision not to remove a statue of the former Cape Colony prime minister, Britain’s other Rhodes controversy has been dealt with relatively swiftly.

As a result of George Floyd’s murder and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last summer, Camden council created a working group to assess the appropriateness of the people honoured in the central London borough. Cecil Rhodes House, an art deco-style block completed in 1950, was at the top of the list for change. The cost of changing the brass plates on the lifts, steel door signs (with Cecil Rhodes’s name punched in braille), consultation meetings with residents and sending out letters is likely to be about £12,000. With the business of selecting a new name taking less than a year, the process appears to offer a model of good practice for councils grappling with how to handle unwanted tributes to Britain’s colonial past.

While the process has not been as fraught as the dispute in Oxford, a new piece of graffiti suggests that not every resident is happy with the decision to rename the flats. “Long Live Cecil Rhodes KBE!” appeared a couple of weeks ago in black pen on a lift mirror. But interviews at the foot of the building on a hot afternoon at school pickup time reveal no one who will admit to dissatisfaction. “I don’t know much about him,” Rahman Mohamed Luthfur, who has lived in the block for 15 years, says. “I don’t mind the new name. It’s all fine.”

Dervilla Carroll, the chair of the tenants’ and residents’ association, says that selecting a new name was “like walking through a minefield”. The bland estate-agent-friendly new name was selected in a ballot by tenants and represents a compromise solution that glosses over the fact the building overlooks a cemetery rather than a park. Some councillors are frustrated that a carefully drawn up shortlist of eminent Black and Asian figures with local connections, whom they hoped to honour instead of Rhodes, was rejected in favour of a name that sounds as if it may have been computer-generated for a modern development.

It would be wrong to say that a fierce culture war is being played out in the building’s corridors, but the road to renaming Cecil Rhodes House highlights the practical difficulties councils face as they take steps to stop honouring historical figures with tarnished records.

Camden council approached the process systematically. By last July, the cross-party committee already had a framework for assessing all the memorials, statues and placenames in the borough that might need consideration. “A growing consciousness of Britain’s colonial past has put landmarks and street names under the spotlight,” stated an internal council paper last July. “Cecil Rhodes is a historical character who for many represents the worst extents of the British empire. In a multicultural borough such as Camden and one with a growing population of African descent, it is important to consider the appropriateness of Rhodes’s name being commemorated on a council-owned building.”

Proposals to rename the building have been made periodically since the 1980s, when an attempt to substitute Robert Mugabe House for Cecil Rhodes House gained little traction, according to one councillor, Abdul Hai, who heads the commemoration, memorials and streets working group. Earlier attempts met with little interest from tenants, who mostly viewed the name as just neutral words and were disinclined to take on the administrative headache associated with changing their address.

Council officers called a meeting and made a presentation with slides to residents, explaining Rhodes’s racist legacy in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. The presentation highlighted quotes from Rhodes, stating that he had “one object, the furtherance of the British empire and the bringing of the whole world under British rule”. Rhodes further explained how he had passed legislation to remove Black people from their land in southern Africa, essentially removing their right to vote, and thus establishing a regime that became the model for apartheid. A Camden school was charged with giving lessons to pupils on Rhodes’s record.

Carroll, who has lived in the block for more than 30 years, says: “The initial reaction from residents was sort of hostile because they felt a new name was going to be imposed. A year ago, the majority of tenants weren’t aware of who Rhodes was. Some people from Black Lives Matter came into the estate and stuck notices on to the doors; I think there was a bit of annoyance about that. People felt: ‘This is where we live.’ There was a sense that people were interfering.” But after the meeting in the community centre, there was acceptance of the need to change.

While the council saw the name change as an opportunity to pay tribute to new, worthier people, residents (76% of whom are from Black and Asian households) viewed this as undesirable. “From the outset we were adamant that we didn’t want it to be named after a person,” Carroll says. “There is history on this; 30 years ago, people were suggesting renaming it Mandela House or Mugabe House. We said we would rather it was neutral and not a person.” There was further irritation at a suggestion, expressed in a letter to the Camden New Journal from some councillors from other areas, that the building should be renamed George Floyd House. “People felt cynical about this, that it was political grandstanding,” says Carroll. “Residents felt he had no connection with the area. He’s American.”

Camden has pages of rules stipulating what is appropriate in choosing a new street name. Officials are instructed to “avoid aesthetically unsuitable names such as Gaswork Road, Tip House, Coalpit Lane” and “names capable of deliberate misinterpretation, such as Hoare Road, Typple Avenue, Swag House etc”. Some of the shortlisted names were rejected by the fire brigade because they sounded too similar to other local buildings and might cause confusion in an emergency.

Residents were presented with a shortlist of four possible new names, and in February 77% of residents took part in the vote. Among the possibilities were Inayat Court (after Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy in the second world war), Bill Richmond House (after the 18th-century British boxer who was born into slavery), and Fleetside Court (after the nearby subterranean River Fleet). But the overwhelming majority selected Park View House. “We’re really proud of the fact that our residents voted for a change,” Hai says.

The renamed block, which is in what used to be a rough part of Camden in the 1970s (with drug dealers on one side of the street and sex workers on the other, according to one resident), now feels calm and very green. The space outside is cool beneath a canopy of trees and smells of freshly cut grass; the clattering of plates being washed up is audible through windows flung open in the heat.

Eddie O’Neill, a school caretaker who has lived in the block for 40 years, is relieved neighbours rejected the idea of naming it after someone new. “We didn’t want to find ourselves having to rename it again 25 years down the line, when people changed their minds again,” he says. He is mostly glad to have the issue resolved. “What will be will be. I’m not a political person. I don’t really mind about it. It was just the name of the flats.”

Meanwhile, the council’s commemorations and memorials working group is undertaking a comprehensive survey of other potentially problematic street names and monuments. Officials have been going through all the borough’s street names and monuments, asking a series of questions. Did the individual commemorated, their family or associates “generate wealth from slavery, including modern slavery or the exploitation of peoples”? Did they participate in practices considered illegal in 2020? Did they promote ideologies that may be considered offensive? Did they commit “significant harm to individuals or communities that outweighs any contribution … afforded society”?

An internal council list shows an eclectic list of names, places and statues that might be considered problematic. Among them are Mahatma Gandhi, who, the documents note, is “seen as racist due to the 20 years he spent living in South Africa, fighting for rights for Indians, when he specifically excluded Africans from this fight”. Others on the list include Virginia Woolf, “whose writing has been criticised as racist and antisemitic” and Sigmund Freud, who has been seen as “anti-feminist”. Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate cemetery is cited, because “as Marx was the founder of communism, he is supposedly responsible for the death [and] suffering” of millions of people worldwide. The list also notes that the British Museum was “based on the collections of Hans Sloane, who went to Jamaica as a botanist and collector and married a wealthy heiress of sugar plantations. The income from slave labour made him vastly wealthy.”

Last June, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, set up a pan-London organisation called the commission for diversity in the public realm, which will, among other things, complete a review of controversial names to identify problematic legacies. Similar work is being done by Birmingham city council, which is looking at how to reinterpret objects in its collections, particularly those connected to the empire. Liverpool city council has identified 20 street names for consideration of whether plaques are needed to explain links to the slave trade. Manchester is also undertaking a review of statues, to understand the “history and context” of existing statues and to consider who is missing and should be celebrated.

In Camden, councillors have decided that, in the longer term, they will consult historians about how to capture the mixed record of those whom previous generations have honoured, and fix QR codes to statues and buildings enabling people to read nuanced biographical descriptions of the person commemorated. Work is under way, although funding for the project has yet to be found.

But swift action was taken on renaming Beckford primary school, in view of the fact that William Beckford, an 18th-century MP and lord mayor of London, made a fortune from enslaved people working on his Jamaican sugar plantations. Councillors wanted to call the school Gilroy primary school (in honour of Beryl Gilroy, one of Britain’s first Black headteachers, who ran the school between 1968 and 1982 and whose moving 1976 autobiography, Black Teacher, is reprinted by Faber next month). Parents, however, voted overwhelmingly for the much more neutral West Hampstead primary school.

There is perhaps a lesson here for local politicians: residents tend to be more interested in finding a name that exudes affluence than in honouring forgotten heroes. “It was embarrassing,” says one councillor who was involved in the process, and asked not to be named. “Teachers voted overwhelmingly in favour of Gilroy. However, parents voted overwhelmingly against it. It was the same with Cecil Rhodes House. We realised that people are voting with their pockets. Park View House sounds very lovely, very posh; it’s a bit ridiculous because [the park in question] is actually a graveyard, but it sounds nice. My view is it was market-driven; naming it after some random person you’ve never heard of probably wouldn’t do much for your property value.”

Attempts to get a nearby council block named after a woman were also rejected by residents, the councillor says. “We tried to go for an all-woman shortlist on a recent redevelopment project. We’ve never had any of our blocks named after a woman, but residents said: ‘Why should these names be forced down our throats?’ The names were rejected.”

Gio Spinella, the only Conservative councillor on the monuments working group, said he had been supportive and was not interested in providing a “red-faced war on woke” opposition. “Some residents asked us: ‘Don’t you have more important things to do?’ My only caveat was that renaming a school or an estate won’t in itself address the wider issue of diversity and representation. Gesture politics has its place, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for substance,” he says.

There have been occasional flashes of tension over the past few weeks. A Black tenant in her 20s, who asks not to be named, says she had recently been accosted outside the building by a neighbour she didn’t know. “One white woman was quite angry the other day. She came up to me and said: ‘Your people are making us change the name. You’re causing all this stress for us.’ I said: ‘Sorry, darling, who are “my people”?’ My mother’s mixed race. My grandfather’s white.” She said she had in any case felt ambivalent about the decision to rename the block. “It’s a name. You can’t rewrite history by changing a name. You have to learn from history, and try to change things for the better.”

The closest to an expression of dissent comes from a white woman in her 50s, who also won’t give a name. She screws up her face in irritation. “You can’t say what you want to say because you will be perceived as being offensive or prejudiced,” she says. “These flats have been here since the war. I just think it’s stupid.”

Despite Camden’s attempts at educating tenants about Rhodes’s white supremacist beliefs, few residents are very knowledgable about him, although several point to the Rhodes family tomb visible in the St Pancras graveyard across the road. Most say they had known nothing about him previously, and had since been told he was a racist.

Few tenants say they had been embarrassed by the name because, despite the controversy, Cecil Rhodes is not widely recognised. Delivery companies often struggled with it, spelling it “Sissel Road”; residents hope the new name will be easier to spell. One resident says it is only people with Australian or New Zealand accents, apparently better-educated about Rhodes’s colonial role, who ever comment on him as an individual. Nicole Laures, 18, who has been living in the flats for 14 years, and has just finished her A-levels, says she is “100% in favour” of the change. “I wanted it changed once I found out he was racist,” she says.

Once the Land Registry renaming process is complete, residents will have to get to grips with all that the change will mean for them. They will have to contact their banks, doctors and schools to inform them of their new address; any administrative cost will be met by the council. While Oxford still wrestles with how to deal with Rhodes’s legacy (with Antony Gormley proposing last month that his statue should be turned to the wall in shame), most here are relieved that the renaming question will soon be dealt with.

“I think, once the process is finished, we’ll have a party to mark it, and move on,” Carroll says.

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