Thursday, 13 June 2013

A Radical History Perspective on the Riesco Collection

As the campaign against the proposed sale of items from the Riesco Collection of Ming porcelain gathers pace, with over  330 people signing Oliver Lewis’s petition,   and a growing debate on Croydon Citizen, Cllr Sean Fitzsimons  indicated on Tuesday night at the Scrutiny and Strategic Overview Committee that if the decision to sell is approved it will be referred to the Committee. This came in the debate on the future work programme of the Committee last night, triggered by my suggestion that the Committee should consider the Cultural and Heritage Strategy in a more open enquiry approach encouraging community and voluntary groups to submit their views.

Cultural Vandalism

The proposed sale of items is an act of cultural vandalism.  It represents  the continual withdrawal of Croydon Council from broad based cultural activity. The claim by Cllr  Mead that the money will go into Fairfield Halls is disingenuous. There is no guarantee that a refurbished Halls complex will rejuvenate cultural activity there unless there is a fundamental change in the relationship between the management and the wide range of organisations and individuals involved in culture in the Borough, as highlighted by the South Croydon Community Association initiative (see below).

Betrayal of Donors

Selling off donations/gifts/bequests of people who have given things for public benefit is a betrayal  of their intentions. If  they had wanted to make money to donate to the Council they would have sold them.  Cllr Tim Godfrey is right that it would potentially cost Labour a lot of money if a judicial review is mounted, but then Labour should not have suggested it would do so over the Library tendering. In any case it is possible that a law firm would be prepared to undertake pro bono work on the issue.  The least Labour can do is to ensure that the will and donation documentation become public documents.

Valuing Nothing But Money

It is clear that the projected sale is part of  an obsession with needing money, of narrow thinking, of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. The Collection should not be seen as a collection of things which can be turned into money, but as a priceless asset that illuminates key areas of British history and heritage. Re-interpreted it could introduce Croydon pupils and residents  and visitors, to the complex story of the inter-relationship between Britain and China, especially through the East India Company which of course has a Croydon connection.

Part of OUR Heritage

The collection may not seem part of OUR HERITAGE but it is. Although the Ming dynasty collapsed in 1644 the porcelain industry it fostered continued. Chinese porcelain was very popular in  Britain and Europe, English potters were inspired by it, launching our own fine china industry. See section with reference to Wedgewood  at

The Importance of the China Trade

The trade with China was very important part of  the development of the British economy in the 18th and 19thC Centuries. See for example:

East India Company rule in India fostered the growing of opium which was then forced on the  Chinese and led to two Opium Wars against China, not to ban it but to ensure its continual sale there.  An excellent video of this story can be seen at

Lascar Seamen

The Company’s  fleet of ships led to the employment of Indian seamen (lascars) who have a long history of visiting and settling in Britain: see Southampton University research project at 

Slavery Connections

The Company also had its connections with the British slavery business. The University College London Legacies of British Slave-ownership Project Blog has the following posting  ‘Connections Between the East India Company and the Caribbean’ by Chris Jeppesen .

EIC Officials in Croydon

In 1774 Charles Samson, was here as a ‘Negro Servant’ to Robert Chatfield, who worked for the East India Company, becoming paymaster in 1802, serving as  Justice of the Peace, and a beneficiary of Thornton Heath Common land enclosure and is buried in St John the Baptist Church. George Smith, the elder (1765 – 1836) was a banker and director of the East India Company and MP living at Selsdon. He received compensation for slaves on St. Kitts. His son George Robert (1793–1869) became a partner in in the family bank of Smith Payne & Smith, which was heavily exposed to the failure of the West India merchant firm of Manning and Anderdon in 1831. He also became a MP and lived at Selsdon Park. There is a memorial to him in All Saints Church, Sanderstead

Heritage Lottery Bid
It should be possible to draw up a Heritage Lottery bid with the Council and other partners to undertake a project that would create an exhibition centring around the history of the Company, its presence in Croydon, with the Riesco Collection as a centre-piece.

This posting is also in my EDiary/News 40. Details of the Croydon Radical History Network are in Issue 39.  Both are available from me at 

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