How racist golliwog doll display led to a police raid, boycotts and pub’s eventual closure

Police raided the White Hart Inn in Gray’s Essex in April to investigate an allegation of hate crime – a month later the landlords were cut off by suppliers and shut up shop, as Jane Dalton reports

Wednesday 10 May 2023 16:55 BST
15 dolls were seized in the Essex pub
15 dolls were seized in the Essex pub (Benice Ryley / SWNS)

It started with a racist caricature doll, and ended with the closure of a business after a police raid and the intervention of the home secretary.

The pub at the centre of a golliwog racism row has been forced to shut after Heineken and Carlsberg stopped supplying it with their lager, and vandals smashed windows and daubed paint on the door.

Essex Police officers last month seized 15 of the dolls from behind the bar at the White Hart Inn in Grays after an escalation in complaints first made in 2018.

The dolls now form evidence in an ongoing investigation by the force into an alleged hate crime.

Fifteen dolls were seized in the Essex pub
Fifteen dolls were seized in the Essex pub (Benice Ryley / SWNS)

At first, landlady Benice Ryley defiantly put her remaining dolls back on display, adding a sign on the pub that read: “We have golly dolls displayed inside on our shelves. If you feel offended please do not enter.”

But now Ms Ryley and her husband Chris have shut up shop, and the pub’s website and phone number are out of action.

The golliwog was originally a character in an 1895 book by Florence Upton, who was born in America to English parents. The character was a caricature of a minstrel doll she had played with as a child in New York.

The book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls, grew in popularity, and the image was widely reproduced after Upton created more books. Thousands of dolls were made, including by Steiff.

Officers removing the dolls from the pub
Officers removing the dolls from the pub (Benice Ryley / SWNS)

Jams company Robertson & Sons began using the doll as its trademark, and continued issuing metal “golly” brooches until 2001, long after the image had been widely recognised as racist and offensive.

Mr and Mrs Ryley’s enthusiasm for the dolls first hit the headlines in 2018, when they were contacted by their local council following a complaint about their bar display.

A late aunt had given the landlady some of the dolls at first, and customers donated others.

At the time they remained defiant and argued “it was about political correctness”, claiming they had only ever had two complaints about the figures.

CCTV shows police removing racist golliwog dolls

Fast forward five years to 2023 and a new complaint was made on 24 February, but this time the police became involved.

Four officers were sent by Essex Police to seize the dolls as part of a ‘hate crime’ investigation, in a raid that was captured on CCTV.

Writing on Facebook after the raid, Mr Ryley said people who thought the toys were offensive were “narrow-minded”.

“These people that call us racist have never ever been to our pub or even been in Essex,” the post said. “Keyboard warriors are the worse people you could wish for. Get a proper job and life.”

Suella Braverman waded into the row shortly after the raid, with reports she had scolded police for its approach to the complaint. Essex Police would go on to release a statement denying that the home secretary had contacted them about the matter.

A Facebook post on White Hart landlord Chris Ryley’s profile
A Facebook post on White Hart landlord Chris Ryley’s profile (Facebook)

The raid brought renewed attention to Mr Ryley’s Facebook profile, after he allegedly shared a number posts expressing racist and far-right views, including a comment where he apparently joked about Mississippi lynchings.

When previously asked about the Facebook posts by the Independent, the landlady said: “I don’t know anything about that, you’d have to ask my husband but I can assure you that my husband and I are not racist at all. At all.”

Essex Police have confirmed they are also looking into the posts.

The row would then start to affect the couple’s business.

Chris and Benice Ryley were previously reported for the dolls in 2018
Chris and Benice Ryley were previously reported for the dolls in 2018 (Benice Ryley / SWNS)

In the days following the raid, the Campaign for Real Ales (Camra) said it would not include the pub in its Good Beer Guide “while these discriminatory dolls continue to be on display”.

And two weeks after the police raid, the pub was vandalised with windows damaged and paint daubed on the door.

Mrs Ryley said she was angry and upset, and had been crying all week after having her windows smashed and “racist” scrawled on her walls.

This week came the last straw, when Carlsberg and Heineken said they would no longer supply the pub, with both beer companies issuing statements criticising the dolls’ display.

The White Hart Inn in Gray’s has now closed for business
The White Hart Inn in Gray’s has now closed for business (PA)

A Heineken UK spokesperson said: “After being made aware of the abhorrent display feature in the White Hart Inn, we advised the pub owners that we want nothing more to do with them.

“They go against everything we stand for. We believe pubs should be places of inclusivity and respect for all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.”

A Carlsberg spokesman said: “We believe pubs should be an enjoyable place for everyone, and we will take steps to seek removal of our beers from venues who do not share our values.”

Ms Ryley announced the closure of the pub at the start of May, after a decade behind the bar at the White Hart.

“I’ve had enough now,” she said in an interview with Thurrock NubNews. “Im angry, annoyed and upset, if the police had left it alone we wouldn’t have been in this situation and we would have plodded along. But the police have ruined it.”

Admiral Taverns, which owns the building, said it would seek to reopen the pub with new licensees.

An Essex Police spokesperson said the dolls were reported to them on 24 February but no one had been arrested. “At this stage our investigation is still ongoing,” they added.

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