Skating through my social media pages this week, I came across a contributor slating today’s super rich for not emulating their public-spirited Victorian antecedents. Instead of frittering their fortunes on yachts and Caribbean islands, the writer suggested, they might choose to fund museums and galleries. Presumably the writer had in mind institutions like the Tate Galleries and Canterbury’s own Beaney House of Art and Knowledge.
Though superficially attractive – the rich are always an easy target – comparisons between Victorian and modern times are pretty meaningless. Back then the role of the state, nationally and locally, was miniscule. Today, public works like schools, galleries and museums are largely funded by taxation. In other words, rather than relying on the self-publicising generosity of a fortunate few, we all contribute to essential facilities – a much healthier way of doing things.
In 21st-century Britain, the gap between the haves and have-nots is uncomfortably (and perhaps reprehensively) wide. But in Victorian times, when the wages of over half the population were barely above subsistence level, the divide was of Grand Canyon proportions. The modern link between poverty and obesity would have been incomprehensible to a 19th-century fat cat. Small wonder they salved their consciences and cemented a place for themselves in history by forking out for public works.
But enough of those smug Victorians. Today’s benefactors may not trumpet their generosity, but there are many more of them and they give as open-handedly as ever. Do you know that Britain is the world’s second largest charity donor? It’s not all for donkey sanctuaries and cats’ homes, either. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of pounds were raised by voluntary contribution to pay for the striking statues of Bertha and Ethelred on Lady Wootton’s Green and for the Chaucer statue at the end of Best Lane.
Moreover, as I write, donations are pouring in for the A Is For Aphra Statue campaign that will provide the city with a fitting memorial to one of its most deserving – and hitherto least known – citizens. Harbledown-born Aphra Behn was a 17th-century spy, pioneer abolitionist, and our first female professional writer.
Aphra’s dad spent a night in the Westgate Towers when they served as the city gaol. We all know the Westgate: it’s as familiar a local landmark as the Cathedral itself. But have you been inside recently? Probably not. When you next do, look around at how it has been transformed in recent years and erase any lingering doubts you have about unfavourable comparisons between modern and Victorian benefactors.
Funded first by Charles Lambie (to the tune of £1 million) then by Stephen Allen’s team (investment unknown but certain to be hefty), over the past ten years the Towers and the adjacent buildings in Pound Lane have been given a total make-over. The complex, including museum, heritage-themed escape rooms, event spaces, bar, and restaurant is perhaps now the city’s most complete tourist attraction. Yes, the immensely popular (and sometimes rather lively at weekends!) One Pound Lane is a profit-making business, but it cannot possibly bring in the fortune that has been spent on rescuing this incomparable monument. And now the Westgate renovation is complete, Stephen is working on a Canterbury’s Tales of England project that will reimagine the entire city as a heritage destination.
So, when you find yourself standing before the Beaney and wondering wistfully where all the benefactors have gone, turn left towards the Westgate. They’re still there, as open-handed as ever. They just don’t make such a song and dance about it as the Victorians.
Stewart Ross is Chair of the Canterbury Commemoration Society