The Essex County Council Headquarters
The Heritage Trust
Nearly a year ago, a passer-by in Chelmsford, Essex, England happened to glance up at a couple of sculptured stones above the entrance to Essex County Council’s Headquarters. Standing there, and looking at the stones more carefully, he was astonished to see that they bore motifs of left- and right-facing swastikas (also known as the gammadion cross or cross cramponnée). Using a freedom of information request, lodged with Essex County Council, the (unnamed) passer-by wanted to know why the ‘potentially offensive and upsetting’ symbols were on the Essex County Council building. Good question.
According to its English Heritage listing, the building, bearing the swastikas, was built by J Stuart of Portland stone between 1929 and 1939. English Heritage describes the building as having an “imposing external architectural quality”. It is understood the swastikas were added between 1928 and before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The person requesting the information said the timing of the swastika symbols “…struck me as strange seeing as the Nazi party formed in 1933 and by March 1938 were beginning an invasion into Austria.”
Architect J Stuart must surely have know of the swastika’s use by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (formed in 1920 with Hitler as one of its chairmen) but it was to be nearly twenty years before the outbreak of the second World War in 1939 and the subsequent hatred the swastika motif was to generate. The motifs in Chelmsford may, therefore, have been incorporated into the facade of the building as purely innocent embellishments, if not recognition of the sacred and auspicious symbols they are afforded in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia entry here the motif “…appears as a decorative element in various cultures since at least the Neolithic…”
Swastika motif on the stone porch of St Mary’s Church, Great Canfield, Essex
The Heritage Trust
That is not quite the end of the story however as there is another example of the use of the swastika in Essex. On the stone porch of St Mary’s Church at Great Canfield there is a short frieze employing the swastika motif. To the left of the frieze is a face (possibly depicting Odin) with two birds (Huginn and Muninn?) at either side. St Mary’s is a classical Norman church built between 1100 and 1150 but may have been built on the site of an earlier church (hence the pagan motifs). During the war it would have been so easy (even understandable) for someone, like our Chelmsford passer-by, to demand the removal of the Great Canfield swastikas on the grounds that they were offensive. History is never that clear cut however; it is a tapestry added to over centuries, faded in places and with holes in others, and we should be ever wary of pulling it down when it seems to offend, or does not quite fit in, with our present perceptions of the world around us.