First slavery garden features prickly plants to reflect William Gladstone’s ‘uncomfortable’ past

A bird's eye view of The Anchor, The Drum, The Ship, in Gladstone Park
A bird's eye view of The Anchor, The Drum, The Ship, in Gladstone Park

Britain’s first slavery garden will feature prickly plants to represent William Gladstone’s “uncomfortable” past.

Town hall chiefs in the north London borough of Brent commissioned the black British artist Harun Morrison to carve up Gladstone Park, with the plant species representing the slave trade. The name of the green space will not be changing.

The work, named The Anchor, The Drum, The Ship, will open to the public on October 14 in what was thought to be the four-time British prime minister’s favourite green space.

It marks the rejection of an activist approach, with Brent Council abandoning divisive plans to rename the park since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

Instead, the new slave garden contains three shapes, the Akan symbol for a double drum, a ship and an anchor to evoke themes of Black migration, with plant species native to Britain, Africa and the Mediterranean.

Antonia Couling, a Brent horticulturalist, who is working on the project said that in the ship, “many of the surrounding plants are also prickly, mirroring the emotions contested history can elicit – that something may seem pleasant enough from a distance, but uncomfortable when seen up close”.

Linett Kamala, the project producer and a trustee at Notting Hill Carnival, said that it was “a first in a groundbreaking approach” of “not telling people how to feel” but rather “collective renewal; just being able to gather and reflect on this horrific and shameful period of history”.

Gladstone Park - Londonstills.com / Alamy Stock Photo
Gladstone Park - Londonstills.com / Alamy Stock Photo

“The artist was very clear about this, and that’s why the plaque that will be there is not at all saying ‘this is an activist approach’ or whatever,” she told The Telegraph.

“It’s an extremely complex history that’s still being lived right now, British colonialism, there are many ongoing negatives of that and people are living with this history. We want to actually talk about this more.”

She stressed that former British colonies such as the Caribbean had received no compensation or apology and many black people still live with “slave surnames”.

Gladstone Park was considered for a name change when Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, formed the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm in 2020 to review statues, street names and landmarks after Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was torn down.

Gladstone pushed for slave owners like his father to be compensated following abolition, but went on to call slavery the “foulest crime” in history.

Brent Council enlisted schoolchildren to suggest new names with pupils as young as five supposedly recommending “Diane Abbott Park”, after the Labour MP, or “Diversity Fields”.

No plans to change name of park

However, in an apparent about-turn amid “indoctrination” claims from local Conservative councillors, a council spokesman confirmedon Friday that “there are currently no plans to change the name of Gladstone Park”.

Other species in the new slavery garden include Sedums and blue grass to represent the shoreline, the Gaura and the Centaurea or cornflower and the African Adinkra, such as the Geum "Totally Tangerine".

African plant species such as the Salvia Africana in the centre, Crocosmia and Gazania (or African Daisy) are also included, as well as the Verbena.

The Centaurea or cornflower will feature in the slavery garden - Imagebroker / Alamy Stock Photo
The Centaurea or cornflower will feature in the slavery garden - Imagebroker / Alamy Stock Photo

Ms Kamala, who runs Lin Kam Art which partnered with the council and the artist Harun Morrison, said that while Gladstone had “done some incredible work, this piece of his history has been hidden”.

She said the artists “thought very sensitively about what kind of plants to use” and had noticed “the horticultural profession does not reflect the community, it’s not diverse”, so the local community will help maintain the garden.

The garden differs from the race actions taken by other organisations since the BLM protests, including the University of Liverpool renaming its Gladstone hall of residence.

Muhammed Butt, the council’s leader, said the work, which will be formally unveiled on October 14 along with a history trail with information panels in November, “shines a light on some unexplored corners of our local history”.