Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Brown Dog affair


I came across a post recently that described the Brown Dog Affair in London in the early twentieth century. I was surprised I hadn’t learned of it before. Even the drier Wikipedia account is fascinating. Here’s a synopsis of a short book about the episode:

At the centre of the Latchmere Recreation Ground in the south London borough of Battersea, not far from the Latchmere pub, there is a small hump on the tarmac pavement that cuts through to Battersea Park Road. Its contours are barely discernible from the general surrounds, but they are significant nonetheless, for they are all that remain of one of the most controversial statues ever erected in Britain.

The brown dog memorial was an unprepossessing bronze drinking fountain erected in memory of an anonymous London mongrel, but it became a national cause célèbre in Edwardian Britain and a focus for alternative politicians of the era. It spent most of its short life under a 24-hour police guard.

Unveiled in 1906 to commemorate a dog killed by animal experimenters at the University of London, it was loathed by the establishment not just for its bold-faced anti-vivisectionist inscription, but also for its capacity to act as a rallying point for political activists from a whole host of disparate movements. Suffragettes, trade unionists, socialists, marxists, liberals, leading figures in the temperance movement and all kinds of mavericks flocked to its defence. Many local people in Battersea adopted it as their own.

Members of the medical establishment in particular grew to hate this provocative bronze dog for the scorn it poured over their profession. When orthodox attempts to remove the memorial came to nothing, medical students and their supporters tried to smash the dog under the cover of darkness. Later they took violently to the streets in what became known as the ‘brown dog riots’. Newspapers gorged themselves on the controversy, there were endless public meetings to discuss the memorial’s legitimacy, and questions were asked in Parliament.

In the end, however, the brown dog’s fate rested not with national politicians but with the local council – which eventually pulled the monument down in the dead of night. The anti vivisectionists were enraged, but they could do nothing to save the memorial. Today, only the hump remains. Next to it, there is a sign on an iron fence. It reads ‘No Dogs’.
A major point here, and in the article I read, is the surprisingly diverse coalition of leftwing groups that rallied around this statue. It’s vitally important that we recover the history of interchange (including tensions and strains) amongst these people and movements, as Adam Hochschild did in his recent book. This is not to say that every cause or act of protest – including this one - has been unassailable; far from it. But at a time in which there are well-funded campaigns to drive wedges between social justice movements, remembering can be an act of resistance.

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