The Dan Brown-like symbols on Colston’s plinth explained

The broken stone remnants of Edward Colston’s statue have already become a magnet for sightseers and photographers.

But visitors must be wondering about the animals and images which adorn the surviving pedestal and plinth.

In fact, on closer inspection, they have more symbolism than a Dan Brown novel.

Much of it points to the quasi-secret-society pomp of the groups which have funded and fostered Colston’s memory. But the significance of some of the images remains a mystery to this day.

The stone, by the way, is not marble. It is Hoptonwood stone, polished to look like marble.

This is what the symbols (probably) mean:

The flowers

The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol once stood showing the three mysterious flowers.

The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol once stood showing the three mysterious flowers. (Image: PA)

Let’s start with what is arguably the most mysterious of the markings.

Three large flowers sit alongside the main plinth plaque bearing Colston’s name and dates. In fact, they get about a third of the space.

They may or may not be chrysanthemums, which may or may not have been Colston’s favourite flower.

As Bristol history expert Eugene Byrne explains: “Like everything with Colston, so much legend and nonsense was layered onto him long after he died.

“The significance of the chrysanthemums is that they were “said” to have been his favourite flower, though I don’t know where that came from.

“The emblem was particularly picked up by Colston’s Girls’ School – which was established in 1891 long after he died, and whose naming was less to do with Colston’s endowment and more to do with pressure from the city fathers. The idea of educating girls at all would have appalled Colston.

“So the girls wore chrysanthemums when attending the Commemoration Day service at the Cathedral until a few years ago. Chrysanthemums were also a regular feature of the floral displays at the annual dinners for the various Colston societies and at church services on Colston Day.”

What’s your take on Edward Colston?

When protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest, it was an historic moment for Bristol, regardless of which side of the debate around his legacy you fall on. We want to know what you think of what happened and what you think should happen next – take our poll here and let us know.

However, as Eugene says, it’s not quite that simple: “That said, the chrysanthemum is from eastern Asia, completely the other direction to his commercial interests, and was not grown successfully in Europe until the later 18th century.

“In Colston’s time, they were rare and exotic, cultivated by some Dutch naturalists. He might never even have even heard of them.

“So I suspect, but can’t prove, that the reason why this plant was taken up as a Colston emblem was because it flowers in autumn and so was suitable for colourful displays around the time of his birthday on November 14, and nothing to do with Colston at all.”

Eugene is not even sure if they’re chrysanthemums: “They could represent chrysanthemums in bud, but they’re definitely not the flower in full bloom. If anything, they look more like poppies, though I know of no association between Colston and poppies.”

The dolphins which adorn the corners of the Colston statue plinth.

The dolphins which adorn the corners of the Colston statue plinth.

The dolphins

It’s hard not to notice the metal dolphins at the corners of the pedestal. The dolphin is significant in the Colston story and went on to inspire the name of a charitable society and a school in the city.

But the reality of that significance is beyond fanciful, as it relates to a story that Colston adopted the dolphin as his emblem after one saved one of his ships.

The unlikely legend – also portrayed in metal on one of the pedestal sides – is that a dolphin plugged a leak in a Colston ship by sticking its head through the hole and keeping it above water while the sailors repaired the damage.

The pictorial version shows the actual event with sailors looking on and, it has to be said, the dolphin looking more like a distressed catfish.

Whether or not the story – like the chrysanthemums – was a Victorian invention is not known. But it’s an interesting use of a popular animal to legitimise Colston’s story – particularly as the “cargo” of the ship that the dolphin sought to save could well have been African slaves.

The mythical sea beasts

The image of mythical sea beasts on the Colston statue plinth

The image of mythical sea beasts on the Colston statue plinth

The other two metal side reliefs continue in the attempt to aggrandise the statue’s subject. One shows mythical sea horses and tritons pulling an anchor – again emphasising the power and legitimacy of Colston’s trade.

The other shows Colston distributing alms to the rag-strewn but grateful Bristolian poor.

The attempt to emphasise his philanthropy is obvious. But perhaps this image also seeks to exaggerate Colston’s physical link to Bristol. The truth was that – after being born here – Colston spent the vast majority of his life in London, returning only briefly to run a business in his home city.

The statue’s “popularity”

Speaking of myths, despite Bristol’s apparent civic devotion to Colston, its citizens were less keen on the idea of a statue when it was first proposed in 1893.

The idea came from printer and member of the Colston Fraternal Society J. W. Arrowsmith, who established a fund-raising committee which, by 1894, had circulated 1,500 flyers to encourage donations.

The response was poor. The first appeal raised only £201 of the £800 required.

A second appeal increased that figure to £407.

Even after “citizens generally” were asked to chip in, there was not enough money to fund the monument. Despite that, a competition to find the sculptor – eventually won by John Cassidy, of Manchester – was launched.

Collections continued in 1895 when, after the success of the Industrial Exhibition of 1893, a Handicraft Exhibition was held in the city. The result was still underwhelming – despite 96,510 visitors attending, just £170 was raised for the statue.

Only after an anonymous donation of £150 (probably from Arrowsmith himself) was the monument eventually paid for – after it was unveiled.

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