“Contested heritage”: further considerations in Re Dorchester St Peter

In addition to developments relating to “contested heritage”* within the Church of England, there have been a number of consistory court judgments in which this has received judicial consideration. On this blog, we have had guest posts by Trevor Cooper and Simon Hunter which reviewed the Church’s guidance on “contested heritage” and explored “the inherent contests of heritage, and on Rustat” respectively.

The judgment in Re Dorchester St Peter, Holy Trinity and All Saints [2022] ECC Sal 4 was the culmination of initiatives within the parish concerning a monument to John Gordon in St Peter’s church, [9] to [17]. Arlow Ch clarified at [9] that:

“Many will assume that this petition is a response to the Black Lives Matter movement which gave rise to global anti-racism protests after the murder of George Floyd…it is clear from the evidence before me that this church community has been considering and working towards some resolution of these issues for much longer.”

In July 2021, the Vicar and Churchwardens petitioned for a faculty to move the memorial to John Gordon from a prominent position inside the church to the County Museum immediately next door and erect a replacement memorial in the church [12]. John Gordon was a plantation overseer (and later owner) in Jamaica who, it said on his monument, repulsed a rebellion of “a large body of negroes” in Jamaica in 1760 [5]. The petitioners argued that, in the current social climate, the wording of the original memorial might offend some visitors to the church and that its continued presence would be harmful to the church’s mission and message.

Although the memorial had been on the north wall of the church for almost 250 years, its ownership did not rest with the church; however, the consent of its owner was not a necessary prerequisite to the grant of a faculty, s 66(1) Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, where they could not be found “after reasonable efforts to find him or her have been made”. The Court noted “it has been established that there is no direct descendant of John Gordon, but, despite substantial efforts, it has proved impossible to identify a current heir at law. By now the class of relevant descendants is likely to be enormous” [7].

Important in the consideration of the petition was the necessary process of consultation and advice. This drew support from some, but objections from others [18] to [26]; extracts from these are summarized here. Arlow Ch outlined the applicable law [27] to [30], the special architectural and historic interest of the church building [31] to [33], the special significance of the memorial [34] to [35], and the historical context – John Gordon and Tacky’s Revolt [36] to [40].

In applying the Duffield guidelines, Arlow Ch considered whether the proposals would result in harm to the special significance of the building, and how serious would that harm be [41] to [44]. Agreeing with the CBC’s assessment of “moderate harm”, she said:

“[44]. The harm to the significance of the memorial itself would be greater (than to the building). I am very mindful of the fact that that significance comes principally from its value as a rare, possibly unique, record in stone of a significant event in history. In some respects, its presence in the church of St Peter is an accident of history, in that it is only there because John Gordon happened to die in Dorchester on his way passing through the town, but it has nevertheless been in the building in this location for almost 250 years and records the burial of John Gordon’s remains nearby. Although the memorial will remain intact and well curated, its removal from the physical context in which it has remained since its erection would be harmful to its significance. That significance will also be harmed by its likely removal from permanent public display (whilst remaining publicly accessible)”.

Arlow Ch concluded that the public benefit to be derived from the removal of the memorial, subject to its replacement with a memorial omitting details which might cause offence, would outweigh the harm caused. The obvious recent comparison is with the judgment in Re The Rustat Memorial, Jesus College Cambridge, [2022] ECC Ely 2; however, Arlow Ch regarded the memorial as “quite different” from the memorial to Tobias Rustat:

“… On its face, [the Gordon memorial] celebrates in language of acclamation the violent quelling of a rebellion by enslaved people against a status which is now universally acknowledged as morally repugnant and contrary to Christian doctrine. That status was imposed upon them largely because of their race. Its continued presence in the building implies the continued support, or at least toleration and acceptance, of discrimination and oppression. Such a position could be said to be uncomfortable in any public building, but presents a particularly striking discord with the purpose of this building as a house of God. It is entirely inconsistent with the message of the universality of God’s love which this church community seeks to share. The fourth Mark of Mission of the Anglican Communion is of particular relevance: To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation” [47].

Furthermore, Gordon’s involvement in the slave trade had been much more direct and substantial than Rustat’s: at the time of his death, Gordon had personally owned more than 400 slaves [51]. Arlow Ch concluded that “even with careful and sensitive contextualization of its history”, the tone and content of the memorial were so at odds with the Mission Action Plan for the church that leaving it in situ “would not adequately address the needs of the petitioners to proclaim afresh the Gospel in this generation” [65]. She concluded that the public benefit from the proposals would outweigh the harm caused by them [69] and granted a faculty subject to several conditions intended to ensure that any harm to the significance of the memorial and of the church would be minimised [70].


In the first of its biannual Racial Justice Reports issued on 28 June 2022, the Archbishops’ Commission on Racial Justice noted on page 24:

“We are aware of one other case involving a monument which has given cause for concern where [judgment] is still pending at the time of writing. We make no comment on that save to say that its outcome is unlikely, given the facts known to us, to change our view of what needs to be done as a matter of urgency in the aftermath of the Rustat case”.

It was clear at the time that this referred to the John Gordon memorial at St Peter, Holy Trinity and All Saints in Dorchester. However, whilst the St Peter judgment makes frequent reference to Rustat§, and for which links to the slave trade were a significant issue, the courts took other factors into consideration in their respective determinations relating to the retention or removal of the monuments: the link between the person and the church/college chapel, their role as a benefactor, the significance of the potential removal in relation to the memorial itself and on the building, the language used on the memorial.

A further case, Re St Mary Barnes [2021] ECC Swk 10, considered a monument commemorating the Hoare family of Barn Elms and their links with the slave trade. This was not cited by either court but provides an example at the opposite end of the spectrum of involvement with slavery. In that case, Petchey Ch considered that none of the family members to be commemorated had links to the slave trade – only a member of the family two generations earlier than the oldest of them.

In view of the recent initiatives concerning links between memorials and the slave trade in Bristol, the London Borough of Lambeth and elsewhere, it seems likely that other examples will be found in which the consistory courts will be tasked with determining the future of other statues and monuments. Whilst to date there has been no involvement of the Arches Court, the judgments in Re St Mary Barnes, Re The Rustat Memorial, Jesus College Cambridge, and Re Dorchester St Peter, Holy Trinity and All Saints address a wide spectrum of circumstances which might guide future determinations.

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer 

“The term contested heritage is a somewhat euphemistic expression applied to memorials and other structures associated with individuals from the past whose conduct is considered abhorrent and inimical to contemporary values and, of particular relevance in faculty cases, to Christian theology and standards of behaviour. Most commonly, the issue arises from property memorialising slave traders or erected on the profits of slave trading.”

Hill Ch in Re St Margaret, Rottingdean (No 2) [2021] ECC Chi 1 at [20].

§ At [14], [35, 36], [47], [50 to 52].

Cite this article as David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer, “’Contested heritage’: further considerations in Re Dorchester St Peter”, in Law & Religion UK, 5 September 2022: https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/09/06/contested-heritage-further-considerations-in-re-dorchester-st-peter/.

10 thoughts on ““Contested heritage”: further considerations in Re Dorchester St Peter

  1. The Archbishop of Canterbury has opined that he cannot understand why people should be bothered about old stone monuments – why cannot they all just be taken down, he has pleaded in exasperation.

  2. Whilst totally accepting the abhorrent inhumanity in the treatment of slaves, was such treatment universal?

    I note Arlow Ch states, “On 14th April, Tacky and other leaders of the rebellion were killed when the rebel force was surrounded. The remaining slaves had little choice but to surrender. They sent a delegation to John Gordon (in whom they apparently were able to place some trust) and offered to do so if they could leave the island rather than being put to death. John Gordon negotiated with that delegation and then with the authorities of the island. Those negotiations resulted in the surrender of the remaining rebel forces and the deportation of most (though not all) of their number from the island of Jamaica. It is of note that deportation would not have resulted in the grant of freedom to those who were removed from Jamaica, but rather the continuation of their status as slaves elsewhere.”[40].

    Questions are left unanswered. Why was John Gordon trusted? How did John Gordon treat the slaves he owned?

    One recalls the many biblical references to slavery without it appears any condemnation of the practice. Paul’s letter to Philemon appears to accept the practice but with a background of encouraging mutual respect and fair treatment between humans.

    In this country it was not until the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788 that there was a law against the use of young children under the age of eight as chimney sweeps. The treatment of child labour generally in the 18th and 19th centuries was horrendous before the actions of Lord Shaftesbury and others. When the RSPCA had been founded 1841, it is an indictment on our forebears that it was not until 1883 that the first local Society for the Protection of Children was formed: forerunner of the NSPCC.
    Should we be removing all memorials to those who prospered as a result of employing children?

    • I would argue that the wrong was in the fact of the enslavement itself, irrespective of how well or harshly the slaves were treated. I would also argue that the fact that the New Testament includes references to slavery without condemning it suggests that in some respects our moral perceptions have become more acute since New Testament times.

      • Thank you, Frank, for your reply. To my mind you raise more challenging questions – albeit rhetorical. As Christians what is the basis for our moral perceptions? Do we ignore memorials to people, as well as those involved with slavery, whose conduct did not meet our current moral perceptions?

        • I think the key is “as Christians”. That’s not really where I’m coming from.

          Friends are bidden to “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” [Quaker faith & practice 1.02]. And, of course, as weak human beings we constantly fail to do that.

          However, I don’t think you can ever answer “that of God in every one” by enslaving a person, even if slavery isn’t condemned in the New Testament and those enslaved are treated “well”.

    • Thank you, Christopher Whitmey, for drawing attention to the relevant dicta of Arlow Ch.

      I am reminded of certain words of the character Mark Anthony in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.” So now let it be with John Gordon. That Gordon exhibited (it was said) “BRAVERY” and “HUMANITY” (emphasis on plaque), allowing him to become instrumental in godly work of procuring the restoration of peace sooner (albeit not social justice), at less cost to the defeated and the victors alike in what had become a war of sorts that had broken out, suggests that he was blessed, in his capacity as a peacemaker in a sordid piece of history, rather than praised wrongly that he championed the perpetuation of slavery as an activist on the wrong side of history at a time when saints were striving to end the slave trade and slavery.

      The bible doesn’t encourage the prioritisation of campaigning for reform amongst the friends of God, but enslavement is regarded as an evil in the New Testament, but the apostle Paul singles out slave-traders explicitly as one example of baddies whose evil lifestyles show them not to be friends of God even if they profess to be.

      If the consensus amongst the congregation that uses that building for worship in the presence day is that the plaque is more likely to harm their Christian witness than to advance it in modern times, it is all for the best that it be moved to a secular museum rather than left on the wall of the church building. But the whole truth, not all of which we know, is likely to be more nuanced and interesting than the simplified goodies v baddies narrative that our hindsight allows us to construct centuries later.

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