A Reverse on Buller: how a Council rescinded its decision for relocation of a statue

Oliver Anthony Articles

There is a strange irony in Exeter City Council’s recent reversal of their decision to relocate a statue of nineteenth-century military leader, General Sir Redvers Buller; the man who had already earned himself the nickname ‘Reverse Buller’ for his garish military tactics and organisational failings. On January 12th, 2021, it was initially determined that the statue would be relocated, following a council-led Equality Impact Review which assessed its “continued appropriateness” in the city, particularly given the monument’s prominent position in front of Exeter College. Yet, on February 9th, less than a month after Exeter’s Executive Councillors voted in favour of re-locating the statue, councillors unanimously voted to withdraw from any further proposals that sought to remove the Buller statue. Why then, has the statue of Redvers Buller been the focus of controversy in the city? And what are the reasons for Exeter City Council’s recent abandonment of attempts to relocate the statue, otherwise dubbed a ‘Reverse on Buller’? It is these questions that I look to answer herein.

The equestrian statue of General Sir Redvers Buller, situated on the junction of Hele Road and New North Road in Exeter, was erected and paid for by local residents in the military leader’s honour on 6 September 1905[1]. Sometimes interpreted as a deliberate political act, the fifteen-feet statue stands on a large plinth and is engraved with ‘He Saved Natal’ alongside a list of countries that Buller served in. The fact the statue elicited such strong support amongst Devonians is indicative of a regional pride in Buller’s actions, who was widely perceived as “one of the county’s greatest heroes”[2], particularly while on another front he was facing criticism and disrepute from political and military bodies alike[3].

In recent years, the statue of Redvers Buller has become divisive on three levels. First, as it valorises a form of aggressive colonialist-imperialist expansionism from which Buller is so inseparably intertwined, particularly given his role in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Second Boer War in 1899. It was during this War in South Africa that Buller led British soldiers against Dutch-speaking Boers in Transvaal and Orange State over control of gold mines, and where he also had acquaintance with the likes of Cecil Rhodes[4]. Second, his possible connection to, or support of, concentration camps in South Africa which were erected following victory in the war, and which subsequently led to the deaths of thousands of local Boers and Black Africans. And third, because of the disunion created today between those in support of the statue and those against, recently highlighted during the Black Lives Matter movement whereby the statue of Buller featured on crowd-sourced website ToppletheRacists.org, while on the flipside, Exeter City Council’s review of the statue was shunned by some as “ridiculous” and a form of “historical wokery”[5].

Figure 1: Extracts from The Express and Echo, a
newspaper for Exeter and surrounding area
(includes issues of February 4th and 11th, 2021)

Following heavy media-coverage of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, and after a banner was draped on the statue saying “Wanted for war crimes”[6], the true repercussions of protests directed at the statue of Buller were ultimately in their re-invigoration of council-led discussions.

To begin with, the Council’s Scrutiny Task and Finish Group was asked to investigate the appropriateness of the statue. The Group met on four occasions and took written and oral submissions from a range of stakeholders[7]. The result of this was made clear on January 12th, 2021, when Exeter’s Executive Council was presented with a ‘Review of the General Buller Statue’, carried out by Director Jon-Paul Hedge. The Review cited the statue as “the most conspicuous by way of location and controversy”[8] and concluded with the suggestion that there exist four strands of “significant strength of feeling” within Exeter’s communities. In no particular order, these favoured each of the following: removal of the statue all together, relocation as a form of cultural reference, redefinition it by way of narrative (such as adding a sign), and leaving it, instead focusing on education and inequality around the city.

Exeter’s Executive Councillors voted in favour of the Task Group’s findings, which ultimately opted for re-location as the best course of action, primarily due to the Army General’s connection to the British Empire[9]. Given that this vote was exclusive to Exeter’s Executive councillors, certain steps remained in place before a date and location could be set for its relocation, including seeking formal Listed Building consent to move the Grade II monument, a public consultation, and a final vote made by the city’s full council.

Figure 2: Snapshots from a petition on change.org that sought
to ‘Save Exeter’s Statue of Sir Redvers Buller’ (from
change.org, February 19th, 2021)

This initial decision received heavy criticism, with a petition on change.org seeking to appeal the decision receiving over 9,000 votes in just under a month, in part citing the £25,000 cost associated with its removal, but otherwise standing against the “erasure” of history (see Figure 3[10]). Elsewhere, more conservative views took to slamming the decision as a form of “historical wokery”, with the Daily Mail choosing to single out the verdict that, “[the statue] impacts anybody who does not define themselves in binary gender terms”[11].

After facing backlash against the decision to relocate the statue of Redvers Buller, the final nail in the coffin for the Council’s decision followed a statement by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who proclaimed that applications for the removal of statues were unlikely to be successful[12]. This proposition was made in reference to the UK Government’s recently revealed plans for a new law on cultural and historic heritage which seeks to ‘retain and explain’ as opposed to remove or relocate[13]. The repercussions of this are likely to have nationwide consequences but for the most part, its effect has been strongly felt in Exeter, where following a meeting on February 9th, Councillor Phil Bialyk of Exeter City Council released a statement which said: “In light of the comments by the Secretary of State, we will not be submitting a planning application to relocate the Buller state”[14].

And so, in a swift U-turn, the decision to relocate the statue of Redvers Buller has been completely rescinded. The Council in Exeter has reaffirmed its position on fulfilling the rest of the recommendations outlined in the Task Group’s findings. These include the creation of a working group to develop an anti-racism strategy for the council, as well an arts-based engagement programme project with residents in the city. The Council has also not dismissed erecting temporary information boards near the statue of Redvers Buller, nor the possibility of removing ‘He Saved Natal’ from the plinth on which Buller’s sits[15]. What these boards will say, and to what extent such actions address the statue’s divisive legacy is unclear, but one thing is certain, Redvers Buller has once again been at the receiving end of yet another heavily contested and politically replete reversal. Where Exeter’s decision-makers now turn in order to fulfil their obligations for equality and impact in the city will make for an interesting case to follow.

Main image ‘Statue of Redvers Buller’ taken by Ollie Anthony, January 29th, 2021.

[1] Donaldson, Peter. Remembering the South African War: Britain and the Memory of the Anglo-Boer War, from 1899 to the present (Liverpool: University Press, 2013), p.115.

[2] Hedge, Jon-Paul, ‘Review of the General Buller Statue’, Report to Executive, July 7th, 2020, https://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s74633/Report%20-%20General%20Buller%20Statue.pdf (PDF 19)

[3] Malvern, Jack. ‘General Sir Redvers Buller sees off his foes in Exeter statue battle’, The Times, February 03, 2021.

[4] Thomas, Roy. Two Generals: Buller and Botha in the Boer War. (Bloomington: Authorhouse), pp.33

[5] Mail Online. ‘Council is slammed for ‘ridiculous and historical wokery’ over plans to remove a statue of a British war hero – with official report claiming it ‘impacts anybody who does not define themselves in binary gender terms’, Daily Mail, January 11, 2021 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9135913/Council-slammed-historical-wokery-plans-remove-statue-British-war-hero.html (PDF15)

[6] Malvern, Jack. ‘General Sir Redvers Buller sees off his foes in Exeter statue battle’, The Times, February 03, 2021.

[7] Exeter City Council. ‘Councillors to discuss the future of Exeter’s Buller statue’, Exeter City Council, January 05, 2021.

[8] Hedge, Jon-Paul, ‘Review of the General Buller Statue’, Report to Executive, July 7th 2020, https://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s74633/Report%20-%20General%20Buller%20Statue.pdf (PDF 19)

[9] Crediton Courier, ‘Exeter councillors approve next step towards removal of statue of Crediton-born Buller’, Crediton Courier, January 13th, 2021, https://www.creditoncourier.co.uk/article.cfm?id=145042&headline=Exeter%20councillors%20approve%20next%20step%20towards%20removal%20of%20statue%20of%20Crediton-born%20Buller&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2021&action=validate/ (PDF 18)

[10] Change.org. ‘Save Exeter’s Statue of Sir Redvers Buller’, Change.org, February 1st, 2021, https://www.change.org/p/exeter-city-council-save-exeter-s-statue-of-sir-redvers-buller

[11] Mail Online. ‘Council is slammed for ‘ridiculous and historical wokery’ over plans to remove a statue of a British war hero – with official report claiming it ‘impacts anybody who does not define themselves in binary gender terms’, Daily Mail, January 11, 2021 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9135913/Council-slammed-historical-wokery-plans-remove-statue-British-war-hero.html (PDF15)

[12] Clark, Daniel. ‘Statue to stay but signs will be put near it and wording may change’, The Express and Echo¸ February 11th, 2021.

[13] Clark, Daniel. ‘Statue will stay as council would be unlikely to get permission to move it’, The Express and Echo, February 4th, 2021.

[14] Clark, Daniel. ‘Statue to stay but signs will be put near it and wording may change’, The Express and Echo¸ February 11th, 2021.

[15] Ibid.