by Stephen Montgomery
The Pigeons are gone – long live Mayor Livingstone. It is now possible to stand in the official centre of London without worrying about dry-cleaning and shampoo bills. The traffic congestion should be the next to go. The square is an attractive one but was a long time a-building. The original designer, Nash, did not live to see it. It was eventually laid our by A S Barry as part of his regeneration of the Charing Cross area. In addition to the famous column supporting Nelson’s familiar silhouette there is also the fine statue of Charles I forever gazing down Whitehall and the scene of his execution. And then there was the Woolly Mammoth….
Find Trafalgar Square on the Map
The above image of St martin in the Fields behind the fluttering wings of a hundred pigeons is one which the tourist standing in London’s Trafalgar Square will never again capture on his camera. The pigeons were banned in 2001 by the new London Mayor who is more concerned with the long-term survival of the buildings and monuments of this great metropolis than with that of the curious breed of the scraggy urban pigeon (rats-on-wings in mayors-peak). He is undoubtedly right in this as many a mother who has had to scrub a mass of possibly infected pigeon droppings from her darling’s hair will agree. We can now enjoy Trafalgar Square for what it is and meant to be. We now need to be rid of the terrible traffic congestion….
Like most everything else in London, this magnet for tourist and demonstrator alike began life as an idea that was long in gestation and even longer in realisation with lots of penny pinching and tightening of purse strings on the way. Before the 19th century the area was home to the Royal Mews and a brief overview of that incarnation has been given in our article on the The National Gallery. A major scheme for the redevelopment of the entire area around Charing Cross had been drawn up by the architect John Nash and accepted in the early 19th century. Nash did not live long enough to see the project come to life.
The Woolly Mammoth
Demolition of the Royal Mews began in 1830 and the new National Gallery was constructed between 1832 and 1838. Nash had been replaced by Sir Charles Barry and to overcome the natural slope of the underlying ancient Thames Terraces, he excavated and paved the central area in 1840. (During these excavations, the remains of woolly mammoth were and other prehistoric creatures were uncovered. The mammoth had been trapped and killed by hunters whose arrow-tips and spearheads were found with the skeleton.) On the north side of the excavated area Barry constructed an artificial terrace with broad shallow flights of steps on the east and west sides leading down into the main square.
At the foot of this north wall, in the central area, are set out in metal the standard Imperial Measures of length – the inch, the foot and the yard. The square is enclosed on the east and west sides by unobtrusive sloping walls. In each of these is set a drinking fountain, given in 1860 by the Metropolitan Drinking fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Each of these walls terminates in a cylindrical granite plinth which supports a bronze lamp.
The square is dominated by one of London’s landmarks – the Nelson Column. The Nelson Memorial Committee was established in 1838 with the purpose of raising money (by voluntary subscription) to construct a fitting monument to Lord Nelson and to commemorate his last and greatest victory at Trafalgar.
The ensuing competition was won by William Railton and it was agreed that his 145 foot column would be erected in the centre of the south side of Barry’s formal square. The monument was constructed between 1839 and 1842. The fluted column is of Devonshire granite and supports a bronze capital which was cast from old cannon from Woolwich Arsenal. The statue of Nelson by E H Baily was raised in 1843. It is 17 feet high and carved from Craiglieth stone (for some obscure reason – he had nothing to do with Scotland other than the wife he cheated and finally cast aside). The four bas reliefs at the foot of the column are of more interest (and visibility). They were cast from the cannon captured in Nelson’s victories at Cape St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and Traflagar and completed in 1849.
A majestic Landseer Lion
The four bronze lions were designed by Landseer and cast by Baron Marochetti. Each is a magnificent twenty feet long and twenty-two feet high. They were an integral part of Railton’s original design but were not placed in position until 1867 – twenty five years after the completion of the column. Their constant failure to make an appearance beceam one of London’s stock jokes.
The two granite fountains which now provide amusement for the drunken revellers at New Year’s Eve were not part of Barry’s original conception. They were added in 1845 and substantially remodelled in 1939 by Lutyens. After the Second World War, they were further adorned with mermen, mermaids and dolphins in bronze. Some interest can be aroused when it comes to the water supply for the fountains. In 1845 this was derived from two wells, one in front of the National Gallery and the other behind it. They were connected by a tunnel whose north was adorned by an engine house which pumped the water into the tanks beneath the fountains. The water supply eventually dried up and was replaced by a connection to the mains at the end of the 19th century. Since then, power jets have been inserted so that a fine mist is now sprayed over the bronze groups and therefore preserving the patina. Graceful plane trees give some shade to the west and east side of the square.
One of the two granite fountains in the square
A number of significant buildings surround the square. The entire north side is occupied by the The National Gallery providing an elegant backdrop. In the north-eastern corner stands the church of St Martin in the fields, rebuilt by James Gibbs in 1722-24. Nestling behind it can be seen the tower of the London Coliseum, Frank Matcham’s 1904 masterpiece and now home to English National Opera. Canada House to the west was originally built by Smirk for the Union Club and the Royal College of Physicians whilst Herbert Baker’s South Africa House occupies the east side. The fabric of these buildings has suffered grievously over the years from the acidic pigeon droppings. The prospect to the south is perhaps one of the best in London wit the grand sweep of Whitehall leading to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Admiralty arch dominates the west and Northumberland House the east. An equestrian statue of George IV stands on a plinth on the north-eastern corner of the square. The corresponding plinth in the north-western corner is empty and a subject of some controversy in modern times, between the two are bronze busts of Admirals Cunningham, Beatty and Jellicoe. The south has bronze statues of Generals Napier (west) and Havelock (east) flanking the Nelson Column.
The view down Whitehall, Charles I is on the right
On an island in the traffic congested is a splendid equestrian statue of Charles I which faces down Whitehall. It stands on the spot of the original Eleanor Cross which was pulled down by Puritans during the Commonwealth. A fanciful replica by A S Barry stands a short distance away in the forecourt of the Charing Cross Hotel and railway station. This is the official central point of London and that from which all distances on signposts up and down the country are measured and a small plaque in he pavement marks this. In the south-east corner of the square inside a lamp-post, is a telephone with a direct link to Scotland Yard – this is officially a police station, the smallest in Britain.
The square has been from its beginning a meeting place for political meetings and demonstrations. The chartists began their march from here in 1848 and it was the scene of serious rioting during an anti-Poll Tax rally in 1990. Every Christmas, an enormous spruce fir is erected in the square to mark the holiday. It is an annual gift from the people of Norway which was established at the end of the Second World war. The square is the natural focus of celebrations on New Year’s Eve where it is normally the scene of boisterous and good-humoured celebrations marred occasionally by excessive crowd restrictions and always by a hopelessly inadequate and curmudgeonly transport system.