The Brown Dog Statues

Near the north-west corner of Battersea Park in London, to the left of what they call DSC04730the Old English Garden, a path winds through a sort of woodland. Some way along it, there’s a Portland-stone pedestal, with a sculpture of a terrier dog on it – a very good sculpture, I would say, in the naturalistic manner.

In one sense, this is a memorial to a memorial. The original Brown Dog statue, quite a lot more imposing in scale and style, was put up in a very public location nearby in 1906. It commemorated a particular dog that had been used in experiments or demonstrations over a period of some weeks in the Physiology Department of University College, London – also the 232 other dogs vivisected in the same place over the previous year. The present statue preserves the whole text of the original dedication, which is vehement in a way quite uncommon on monuments and ends with this question: “Men and women of England, how long shall these Things be?”

That’s not a simple future tense, you’ll notice, asking us to hazard a guess. The word “shall” here implies ‘must’ or ‘ought’, as in the famous phrase of defiance “They shall not pass” (i.e. we won’t allow them to). It asks how long these things are going to be permitted to happen. It’s a political verb, and this was a political statue. Accordingly it became the site of fierce political dispute, principally between the almost exclusively male medical establishment and an anti-vivisection coalition of South London working people, feminists, and humanitarians. Physical attacks on the statue were made by gangs of medical students, culminating in the ‘Brown Dog Riots’ late in 1907. A permanent police guard had to be mounted at the statue. Then in 1909 there was a change of political control in the local authority. The new Conservative administration had the monument removed and destroyed.

There was much more to the Brown Dog affair than these street disturbances. The lecture at which the dog had been re-vivisected (an offence under the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act) was attended by two female medical students who were keeping a diary of all that they saw. This diary was published in 1903 as The Shambles of Science. The chapter about the lecture was titled ‘Fun’, for the authors claimed that there was joking and laughter during the demonstration. The book led on to a libel action, where the courts came to the rescue of the UCL physiologist. More importantly, the controversy prompted a second Royal Commission on Vivisection, appointed in 1906, although not much came out of that. All these things have been very fully written about.[1]

Back to the present-day statue. This was put up in 1985, as one of the last progressivist actions the former Greater London Council was able to sponsor before Margaret Thatcher abolished it. The sculptor was Nicola Hicks. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a naturalistic work, a study in dog behaviour, whereas the former statue was more formal, monumental in fact, showing the dog high up and self-sufficiently heroic. It has been suggested that the change is for the worse, softening the message.[2] Certainly the modern statue is sequestered and unassertive, but it’s very eloquent in its own way. The dog’s tail curls a little way upward, its body is bent round self-deprecatingly, its head ducks forward to show submission: all these seem to be efforts to propitiate someone, but the dog’s wide and weary eyes suggest that it doesn’t expect to succeed. In fact its posture recalls all those reports of dogs remaining wretchedly biddable and anxious to please under the most ruthless treatment in the laboratory. As the notorious Professor Rutherford of Edinburgh told the 1875 Cardwell Commission, “It is wonderful what one may do to a sheepdog without the animal’s making any commotion.”

The modern inscription brings the story up to date for 1985. It records that 3,497,335 experiments had been performed on live animals in the previous year, and lists some of the “horrifyingly cruel” things that had been done to them. The previous monument, it says, “represented the revulsion of the people of London to vivisection”, and this new one “is dedicated to the continuing struggle to end these practices”.


[1] See particularly Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (Wisconsin 1985).

[2] In ‘An Exploration of the Sculptures of Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Brown Dog, Battersea, South London, England’, by Hilda Kean, in Society and Animals, Dec. 2003 (accessible online)