Amid recent anti-racist protests and re-evaluations of figures from the past, questions have been raised over one particularly influential south Londoner, writes Kit Heren…
Thomas Guy is a name that perhaps few would know today, but his surname is familiar to many Londoners. He was a successful businessman and philanthropist who founded a large hospital for the poor of south London in the eighteenth century that remains in place as a large NHS hospital to this day.
Much of Guy’s money came from one investment: buying shares in the South Sea company, which had a monopoly on selling slaves to the Spanish colonies in South America. Guy acquired shares in the company in 1711. It began transporting slaves to South America in 1713. Researchers from the University of Southampton have estimated that the South Sea company took around 34,000 people to South America as slaves.
Guy sold his shares in 1720 for about £50,000, or nearly £400 million in today’s money.
After students and others raised concerns about the source of his fortune in June this year, the trust that runs Guy’s Hospital said it would remove its statues of him from public view, but said it would not change the hospital’s name.
Guy’s said in a statement: “We absolutely recognise the public hurt and anger that is generated by the symbolism of public statues of historical figures associated with the slave trade in some way.”
A later campaign sought to change the name of the neighbouring Guy’s campus of King’s College London. Campaign leader Ayesha Khan, a student at King’s, told the News: “It just really disgusted me that my institution that I’m really proud to be part of, that welcomes international students and staff from all over the world, is named after a man like that.
“I just don’t think it’s at all right for us to be associated with this man who made so much money off the slave trade.”
But is there a distinction to be drawn between Thomas Guy, who made money through investing in a company that traded slaves, and someone like Edward Colston, who was an active slave trader?
Professor Roger Jones, editor of the British Journal of General Practice, is more cautious about Guy’s legacy.
Prof Jones, who has been Professor of General Practice at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ School of Medicine, said: “Guy certainly wasn’t remotely involved in the active business of the slave trade. We don’t even know if he knew that the South Sea company was a slaving company. Of course you assume that he did.
“It was a government initiative to let the company offer shares, and Guy was literally one of hundreds of people who bought the shares.”
Prof Jones drew attention to Guy’s philanthropic work with the hospital.
“There is no doubt that Guy was altruistic,” he added. “He lived down the road from where the hospital is and he saw the poverty and disease and lack of facilities for the indigent poor, and his hospital was called ‘Mr Guy’s hospital for the incurables’ – it was for people who couldn’t get help anywhere else.”
Although Guy wasn’t as closely involved in the slave trade as an active slaver like Colston, some people have argued that we should remember his reportedly harsh attitude to domestic business alongside his reputation as a philanthropist.
Andy Brockman, historian and editor of the Pipeline, a heritage news website, called Guy “a noted miser and rogue employer” in a 2016 article.
Mr Brockman told the News: “Even for the time, his reputation in terms of the way he dealt with his employees and the way he did business – it wasn’t the shiniest… Certainly, given that Guy was controversial even in his own lifetime, I think we have to acknowledge that.”
It’s clear that there were at least two sides to Guy. His investments helped fund the enslavement of thousands of people and might have treated his workers poorly even by eighteenth century labour standards. He even denied access to almshouses he paid for in his home town of Tamworth to people from Tamworth in a fit of pique when he was rejected after he ran to be the town’s MP.
Conversely the lives of many of the poor people of Southwark may have been considerably improved by his hospital in his lifetime and certainly in the years since his death.
Mr Brockman compared Guy with the current debate about Winston Churchill, whose Parliament Square statue was boarded up in June after being graffitied in anti-racist protests.
Churchill is famous as Britain’s heroic, inspirational leader in the Second World War. Perhaps less well-known are his belief in a hierarchy of races, although his defenders have said this was a typical view among people of his generation, or his lack of action during the Bengal famine in 1943, when as many as three million people are believed to have died of starvation.
Mr Brockman went on: “I think the controversy about Churchill ‘s career and character shows how this kind of debate is very bad at dealing with the nuances in people’s biographies. The image of Churchill as a great war leader and national icon, is coming hard up against comments he made about race and his support for eugenics and some people find that very uncomfortable; although in my view they shouldn’t.
“More than one aspect can be “true” and the debate has to be one about acknowledging and accommodating those ‘truths’.”
“If you take the long view, our attitudes to major figures and how we memorialise them in our public spaces, have always been an evolving conversation which often mixes both artistic fashion, sentiment and contemporary political and social views,” Mr Brockman added.
Ms Khan’s petition to rename the campus has more than 15,000 signatures so far. But for campaigners, the broader goal is to raise awareness about Guy, and how he made his money.
Ms Khan added: “It is something that I hope can eventually be changed, but if not, I think it’s really great that so many more people have become aware of who he was. It’s important to learn about your history and try to understand where so much of our wealth comes from as a nation.”
King’s said in a statement: “We… will work with our partners at the trust and the charity to consider the right way forward.
“We are committed to playing our part in fighting racism and racial discrimination and recognise the strength of feeling shown by our own community of students and staff and across the city.”