Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is a square in central London that commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), a British naval victory of the Napoleonic Wars. The original name was to have been "King William the Fourth's Square", but George Ledwell Taylor suggested the name "Trafalgar Square".

Arpingstone

Trafalgar Square and Canada House

The area had been the site of the King's Mews since the time of Edward I. In the 1820s the Prince Regent engaged the landscape architect John Nash to redevelop the area. Nash cleared the square as part of his Charing Cross Improvement Scheme. The present architecture of the square is due to Sir Charles Barry and was completed in 1845.

Overview

The square consists of a large central area surrounded by roadways on three sides, and stairs leading to the National Gallery on the other. The roads which cross the square form part of the busy A4 road, and prior to 2003, the square was surrounded by a one-way traffic system on all sides. Underpasses attached to Charing Cross underground station still allow pedestrians to avoid traffic. Recent works have reduced the width of the roads and closed the northern side of the square from traffic.

Nelson's Column is in the centre of the square, surrounded by fountains and four huge bronze lions sculpted by Sir Edwin Landseer; the metal used is said to have been recycled from the cannon of the French fleet. The column is topped by a statue of Lord Nelson, the admiral who commanded the British Fleet at Trafalgar.

On the north side of the square is the National Gallery and to its east the St Martin's-in-the-Fields church. The square adjoins The Mall via Admiralty Arch to the southwest. To the south is Whitehall, to the east The Strand and South Africa House, to the north Charing Cross Road and on the west side is Canada House.

At the corners of the square are four plinths; the two northern ones were intended to be used for equestrian statues, and thus are wider than the two southern. Three of them hold statues: George IV (northeast, 1840s), Henry Havelock (southeast, 1861, by William Behnes), and Sir Charles James Napier (southwest, 1855). Mayor of London Ken Livingstone controversially expressed a desire to see these replaced with statues of people more relevant to the 21st century.

In 1888 the statue of General Charles George Gordon was erected. In 1943 the statue was removed and re-sited on the Victoria Embankment in 1953.

The Square has become an enormously important symbolic social and political location for visitors and Londoners alike, developing over its history from "an esplanade peopled with figures of national heroes, into the country’s foremost place politique," as historian Rodney Mace has written. Its symbolic importance was demonstrated in 1940 when the Nazi S.S. developed secret plans to transfer the Nelson Column to Berlin following an expected German invasion, as related by Norman Longmate in If Britain Had Fallen (1972).

Pigeons

The square is a popular tourist spot in London, and used to be particularly famous for its pigeons (rock doves). Feeding the pigeons was a popular activity with Londoners and tourists. The National Portrait Gallery displays a 1948 photograph of Elizabeth Taylor posing there with bird seed so as to be mobbed by birds. The desirability of the birds' presence has long been contentious: their droppings look ugly on buildings and damage the stonework, and the flock, estimated at its peak to be 35,000, was considered to be a health hazard. In 1996, police arrested one man who was estimated to have trapped 1500 birds for sale to a middleman; it is assumed that the birds ended up in the human food chain.

In 2000 the sale of bird seed in the square was controversially terminated and other measures were introduced to discourage the pigeons, including the use of trained falcons. Supporters of the pigeons and some tourists continued to feed the birds, but in 2003 Ken Livingstone enacted by-laws to ban the feeding of pigeons within the square. There are now relatively few birds in Trafalgar Square, and it is used for festivals and hired out to film companies, in a way that was not feasible in the 1990s.

The Fourth Plinth

The fourth plinth on the northwest corner was intended to hold a statue of William IV, but remained empty due to insufficient funds. Later, agreement could not be reached over which monarch or military hero to place there.

In 1999, the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) conceived the idea of the Fourth Plinth Project, which sought to temporarily occupy the plinth with a succession of works commissioned from three contemporary artists. These were:

  • "Ecce Homo" by Mark Wallinger (1999)
  • "Regardless of History" by Bill Woodrow (2000)
  • "Monument" by Rachel Whiteread (2001)

Whiteread, already notable for her controversial Turner Prize-winning work "House" and the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, made a cast of the plinth in transparent resin, and placed the copy upside-down on top of the original. Following the exhibition project, some wish to see it continue in this role.

Various companies have used the plinth (often without permission) as a platform for publicity stunts, including a model of David Beckham by Madame Tussauds.

The Greater London Authority's Trafalgar Square fourth plinth committee is also considering a permanent statue -- the fourth plinth remains the subject of debate. On March 24, 2003 an appeal was launched by Wendy Woods, the widow of the anti-apartheid journalist Donald Woods, hoping to raise £400,000 to pay for a 9 ft high statue of Nelson Mandela by Ian Walters. The relevance of the location is that South Africa House, the South African high commission, scene of many anti-apartheid demonstrations, is also located on Trafalgar Square.

Redevelopment

In 2003 the redevelopment of the north side of the square was completed. The work involved demolishing part of the wall and building a wide set of stairs. This construction includes two lifts for disabled access, public toilets, and a small cafe. Plans for a large staircase had long been discussed, even in original plans for the square. The new stairs lead to a large terrace or piazza in front of the National Gallery, in what was previously a road. Previously access between the Square and the Gallery was via two busy crossings at the north east and north west corners of the square. The pedestrianisation plan was carried out in the face of protests from both road-users and pedestrians concerned that the diversion of traffic would lead to greater congestion elsewhere in London. However, this does not seem to have happened; the reduction in traffic due to the London Congestion Charge may be a factor.

Christmas Ceremony

There has been a Christmas ceremony every year since 1947. A Norwegian Spruce is given by Oslo as a token of gratitude for Britain's support during World War II.

Political demonstrations

The Square has historically been the venue for political demonstrations, attempts by the authorities to ban them, and riots of national importance. By the March of the year that Nelson's column was opened the authorities were already banning Chartist meetings in the square. The ban held until the 1880's when the emerging labour movement, particularly the Social Democratic Federation started to hold protests there. On "Black Monday", 6 February 1886, there was a major protest over unemployment which led to a riot in Pall Mall.

One of the first significant demonstrations in the modern era was called by the Committee of 100 (which included the philosopher Bertrand Russell), for peace and against war and nuclear weapons, on 19 September 1961. Throughout the 1980s there was a continuous anti-apartheid protest outside South Africa House. More recently the square has been the venue for the Poll Tax Riots (1990) and anti-war demonstrations opposing the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war.

The Square was also scene to a large vigil held shortly after the terrorist bombings in London on Thursday 7 July 2005.

VE Day celebrations

Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day or VE Day) was May 8, 1945, the date when the Allies during the Second World War formally celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

Trafalgar square was filled with British subjects wanting to hear the formal announcement by Sir Winston Churchill that the war was over: it was packed to bursting point. Trafalgar square was used as a place of celebration and people from all over the country came there. A diary extract told how a father took his 3 children and wife to Trafalgar square, and they all held on to a piece of washing line so they didn't get lost in the massive crowd.

On Sunday 8 April 2005 the BBC held a concert to celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE Day which was hosted by Eamonn Holmes and Natasha Kaplinsky. Many people who lived during the war attended, and many of the much younger generation, but most importantly many old veterans came and told the stories of their hardships during the six years of war.

Access

Nearest London Underground station:

  • Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo lines) - has an exit in the square.
  • Embankment (District, Circle lines)
  • Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly lines)

Further reading

  • Rodney Mace, Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976).

Comments

Someone told me that there were lamp posts named after the ships in Nelson's fleet.  Is this true?

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