Editorial Feature

Defining Moments In The History of Trafalgar Square

Discover the what makes this London landmark what it is

Trafalgar Square in central London is a public square that has been a significant landmark since the 13th century. It is thought of as a meeting place between the east and west of the capital city, and as a result Trafalgar Square has played witness to numerous community gatherings, political demonstrations and public celebrations.

The site originally contained the King’s Mews, but after George IV moved the mews to Buckingham Palace, the area was redeveloped by John Nash. Progress slowed after Nash’s death and the square was eventually reopened in 1844. So read on to find out the ways in which Trafalgar Square became the landmark it is today and the events that have shaped its history.

Ariel view of Trafalgar Square, Westminster, London (From the collection of Historic England)

Nelson’s Column

After a letter was sent to The Times newspaper in 1837 suggesting a permanent commemoration to Admiral Horatio Nelson for his naval victories against the French during the Napoleonic Wars, the Nelson Memorial Committee was formed.

The committee approached the government and proposed a monument to the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar should be fittingly erected in the square. A competition was held and won by architect William Railton, who initially proposed a 218-foot-and-3-inches-high Corinthian column topped by a statue of Nelson and guarded by four sculpted lions. While the design was approved, it received widespread objections from the public. Nevertheless construction went ahead in 1840, though the height was eventually reduced to 145 feet 3 inches. The column was completed and the statue, which was carved by EH Baily from Craigleith stone, was raised in November 1843.

Nelson's Column during construction by William Henry Fox Talbot (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Nelson's Column at Trafalgar Square, London (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

The Four Lions

The four lions that surround Nelson’s Column arrived 25 years later in 1868. They were designed by Edwin Landseer and cast in bronze by Baron Marochetti in his Kensington studio in 1867. Rumor has it Landseer worked from real lion corpses obtained through London Zoo and casts of a lion statue in Turin.

Originally, Landseer had the lions on their hind legs, but Queen Victoria found it very shocking and did not like what she could see underneath, so demanded the animals be sat down. While he strove for accuracy, Landseer was not a natural sculptor and there are a couple of errors in the final lions: in their lying down pose, the designer has the lions’ backs as concave, not convex as they would be in real life. Also proportionally the paws of each lion is a little off, with Landseer having based them on cat paws rather than lion paws.

Most recently, the lions were the inspiration for Es Devlin’s latest project created in partnership with Google Arts & Culture as part of 2018’s London Design Festival. Please Feed The Lions invites members of the public to submit a word to a new fifth lion who has joined the pride and create a collective poem, and you can find out more here.

Street view of one of the four lions at Trafalgar Square, London

National Gallery

A significant part of Trafalgar Square since 1838, the National Gallery was designed by William Wilkins and took six years to build. Found on the north side of the square, only the gallery’s facade remains essentially unchanged from this time, as the building had been expanded throughout its history.

Though it houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900, Wilkins’ design was initially criticized for the lack of space it offered and this led to the establishment of the Tate Gallery for British art in 1897. However these concerns were overshadowed by the fact the gallery’s central London location gave people of all social classes the ability to experience art. According to the Parliamentary Commission of 1857: "The existence of the pictures is not the end purpose of the collection, but the means only to give the people an ennobling enjoyment".

View of National Gallery (From the collection of Historic England)

The Fourth Plinth

Originally, the fourth plinth on the northwest corner, was to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but it remained bare due to insufficient funds and for over 150 years the fate of the plinth was debated. In 1998 however, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) established the Fourth Plinth Project, which aimed to temporarily occupy the plinth with a succession of works commissioned and established by the Cass Sculpture Foundation. After a report was commissioned to garner opinions on what should ultimately be done with the space, a rolling program of temporary artworks was decided upon.

In 2003, the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London, which marked the beginning of Fourth Plinth Commission as it is now known. Antony Gormley, David Shrigley, and Elmgreen and Dragset are just a handful of the big-name artists that have been commissioned to create a work for the plinth.

Street view of the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, London from 2012

Bloody Sunday, November 1887

After a ban on political rallies in the square was removed during the 1880s, one of the most famous demonstrations-turned-riots that occurred was Bloody Sunday on 13 November 1887. The demo, organized by the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League, was to be a march against unemployment and coercion in Ireland, as well as the demand for the release of MP William O'Brien, who was arrested multiple times for his work as part of the Land League, an Irish political organization which sought to help poor tenant farmers.

At least 10,000 protesters marched in from several directions and around 30,000 other spectators surrounded Trafalgar Square. Approximately 2,000 police and 400 troops were deployed to halt the demonstration, which is when the violence began. Clashes between police and demonstrators escalated with many armed with iron bars, knives, pokers, and gas pipes. In the fighting, many rioters were injured by police truncheons and under the hooves of police horses. A report noted that 400 people were arrested, 75 were badly injured – including many police – and there were two deaths. The consensus from the police was that stronger truncheons were needed as so many broke in the riots. For activists though, Bloody Sunday would be remembered as a heavy-handed act of repression.

Trafalgar Square, Westminster, London by Roger Fenton (From the collection of Historic England)

Anti-War Demonstrations

Trafalgar Square has also played host to many anti-war marches; one of the first significant demonstrations of the modern era was held in the square on 19 September 1961 by the Committee of 100, a British anti-war group that used mass nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience to achieve their aims. The protesters rallied for peace, and against war and nuclear weapons.

The next significant demonstration was in March 1968, where a crowd of 10,000 people gathered to protest against US involvement in the Vietnam War before marching to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. In the early 2000s, many anti-war demonstrators gathered to oppose the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. Aside from demonstrations, every year the Royal British Legion holds a two-minute silence in the square on Armistice Day on 11 November in remembrance of those who died in war.

Crowds of protesters during a rally against the Vietnam War in Trafalgar Square by Ian Tyas (From the collection of Getty Images)

The Two Fountains

In 1841, it was decided that two fountains should be installed to counteract the effects of reflected heat and glare from the asphalt surface. It was also thought the fountains would reduce the risk of riotous assembly by reducing the amount of space, but as we already know, the fight for justice always finds a way.

The fountains were initially fed from two wells, one in front of the National Gallery and one behind it. The water was pumped to the fountains by a steam engine but in the late 1930s, it was decided to replace the pump and the centerpieces of the fountains. The new centerpieces, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, were memorials to Lord Jellicoe (a notable Royal Navy officer and Admiral of the Fleet) and Lord Beatty (who succeeded Jellicoe as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet). Recent additions include an LED lighting system that can project different combinations of colors on to the fountains that was installed to reduce the cost of lighting maintenance and to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Bust of Jellicoe in Trafalgar Square by William J Sumits (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Two British sailors and their girlfriends wading in the fountains at Trafalgar Square (From the collection of Imperial War Museums)

Pigeons

Like most public space, pigeons are relatively unwelcome guests of Trafalgar Square. However, back in the day actively feeding them was a popular activity, with pigeons setting up camp in the square before construction was completed and bird feed sellers becoming a common sight during the Victorian era. The pigeons divided opinion, but it was hard to ignore the fact their droppings disfigured the stone work and at a 35,000-strong flock, they were considered a health hazard.

In February 2001, the sale of bird seed in the square was stopped, though this didn’t stop visitors to the square. It wasn’t until 2003 that the then-mayor Ken Livingstone introduced bylaws to ban feeding them in the square. It’s not all doom and gloom though as Nelson’s column was finally repaired from years of damage from pigeon droppings at a fairly steep price of £140,000.

Children feeding the pigeons at Trafalgar Square by Edward Clark (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Suffragette Rallies

Trafalgar Square was the site of many suffrage rallies during the years of campaigning, including one in 1915 where Christabel Pankhurst addressed huge crowds about funding the war (which had begun just a year previously) and guards in uniform kept a watchful eye on the procession that followed.

Today, the square still retains significance as it has also been used as a meeting place by the Women's Liberation Movement and played host to the 100,000-strong Women's March in January 2017.

Emmeline Pankhurst at Trafalgar Square (From the collection of Museum of London)
National Union of Women's Suffrage Society Rally in Trafalgar Square by Christina Broom (From the collection of Museum of London)

The Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree

Every year since 1947, a Christmas tree has been donated to Trafalgar Square by the city of Oslo, Norway. It stands proud for 12 days before and after Christmas Day. The tree acts as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.

The tree is often decorated in a traditional Norwegian style and is adorned with 500 white lights. The big lighting ceremony takes place in the square on the first Thursday in December and thousands of people attend. A band, a choir, and the Lord Mayor of Westminster join in the merriment and the festivities set the tone for the holiday period.

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