'Irrelevant' Edward Colston was a slave trader, statue damage trial told

ITV News Credit: L-R: Jake Skuse, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby

Jurors in the case of four people accused of toppling a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol have been told the fact he was a slave trader is "wholly irrelevant".

The bronze memorial to the 17th century slave merchant was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on June 7 last year, before being dumped in Bristol Harbour.

It was later recovered by Bristol City Council.

Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Jake Skuse, 33, and Sage Willoughby, 22, are all accused of criminal damage. They all deny any wrongdoing and are on trial at Bristol Crown Court.

As the four defendants arrived at the court this morning (December 13), more than 100 people had gathered outside in support of them.

Charges allege the four defendants - together with "others unknown" - caused damage to the statue and plinth, of a value unknown, without lawful excuse.

Graham, Ponsford and Willoughby are accused of passing ropes to each other before pulling the statue down, while Skuse is accused of orchestrating it being rolled towards the harbour.

Prosecutor William Hughes QC said around 10,000 people had been at the BLM march, and police described it as "friendly, engaging and very much a community event with an emphasis on coming together to make a change".

He said a small group peeled off the march and congregated around the statue after the majority of the crowd had passed by.

"It was pulled down by members of the small group who include the first three defendants - Ms Graham, Mr Ponsford and Mr Willoughby," Mr Hughes said.

L-R: Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby Credit: PA

"After it was toppled it was daubed with paint, spat on and struck with implements, and thereafterwards it was rolled through the city centre and thrown in the harbour at Pero's Bridge.

"The felled statue was rolled a considerable distance - approximately 520 metres - where it was pushed into the harbour."

Mr Hughes said the plinth the statue stood on, the paving slabs at the base, and the railings at the bridge were also damaged.

He said the four defendants had been part of a "criminal enterprise with others" to topple the statue.

"It was not part of the peaceful Black Lives Matter march, it was unlawful activity criminal activity to which these four defendants were each joined," he said.

Mr Hughes said the statue had been put up in 1895 - 170 years after Colston's death.

The Colston statue's plinth remains empty Credit: PA.

"The prosecution accept Edward Colston was, and remains, a divisive figure among the community of Bristol and beyond.

"It is common ground that he was a slaver and much of his fortune was built on the slave trade, and in later life he was something of a philanthropist.

"This prosecution is not about the justification of the vilification of him."

Mr Hughes said it is the prosecution's case that who Colston was is "wholly irrelevant" to the issues jurors will have to decide in the case.

He continued: "But for the defence this position is quite the contrary, the position is that it is relevant and this is something you will have to decide in due course."

The jury heard an estimated £3,750 of damage was done to the statue - including losing its staff and a coat tail - but the council has decided not to restore it.

A further £350 of damage was done to the railings of Pero's Bridge, the court was told.

There were cheers from the packed public gallery when the moment the statue was felled was played to the court. The Recorder of Bristol Judge Peter Blair QC - who is presiding over the trial - warned any repeat could see people ordered to leave.

The jury was shown footage of Graham, Ponsford and Willoughby allegedly passing ropes to one another to place around the statue's neck.

People said to be the first three defendants can be seen high-fiving each other before putting the ropes in a rucksack and leaving the scene about four minutes after the statue fell.

Referring to the ropes, Mr Hughes said: "You may think that is suggestive of pre-planning the statue toppling."

Skuse is accused of passing more ropes around the neck and feet of the statue "to assist in its removal from the scene", the prosecutor said.

A person wearing a mask and believed to be Jake Skuse (right) arrives at Bristol Crown Court. Credit: PA

Concluding his opening address, Mr Hughes said; "We accept that Edward Colston was a divisive figure, however we say what Edward Colston may or may not have done, good or bad, are not on trial and are not an issue for you - these four defendants are.

"You have taken an oath to try the case on the evidence, to do so dispassionately, without any preconceived notions, without prejudice and with an open mind."

Prospective jurors were asked if they or a close relative were employed by Bristol City Council, heritage body Historic England or the Crown Prosecution Service.

They were further asked whether they or a close relative were local councillors, or were employed by Avon and Somerset Police or another force.

The jurors were also asked to declare if they were present when the statue was torn down, when it was rolled towards and dropped in the harbour or during attempts to retrieve it from the water.

Graham, of Colston Road in Bristol, Ponsford, of Otter Close in Bishopstoke, Hampshire, Skuse, of Farley Close in Bristol, and Willoughby, of Gloucester Road in Bristol, are on unconditional bail.