Trafalgar Square is a public space and tourist attraction in central London, built around the area formerly known as Charing Cross. It is situated in the City of Westminster. At its centre is Nelson’s Column, which is guarded by four lion statues at its base. There are a number of commemorative statues and sculptures in the square, while one plinth, left empty since it was built in 1840, The Fourth Plinth, has been host to contemporary art since 1999. The square is also used for political demonstrations and community gatherings, such as the celebration of New Year’s Eve.
14th to 17th century: Most of the area now occupied by Trafalgar Square was the courtyard of the Great Mews stabling, which served Whitehall Palace.
1812: The architect John Nash began to develop ‘a new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place’. He wanted it to be a cultural space open to the public.
1830: The site was officially named Trafalgar Square.
1832: Work began on the National Gallery.
1838: Sir Charles Barry presented a plan to develop Trafalgar Square. This included the Nelson memorial statue and two fountains.
1843: Nelson’s Column, designed by William Railton, was erected
1845: The fountains were built.
1867: Sir Edwin Landseer designed the bronze lions placed on guard at the base of Nelson’s Column.
1876: The Imperial Measures were set into the north terrace wall (read more about this below).
William Railton designed the column and statue to honour Admiral Nelson, after his victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The granite statue was sculpted by E. H. Baily. It is five metres high and stands on a bronze platform made from old guns from the Woolwich Arsenal Foundry.
The four bronze panels at the base of the column depict some of Nelson’s battles. The lions, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, are said to protect Nelson’s Column.
Restoration of Nelson’s Column
Nelson’s Column is Grade 1 listed. It is inspected every two years to assess its condition. Recent inspections found that the column was in sound condition, but recommended conservation work to preserve it for future generations.
This work includes repairs to the stonework, cleaning areas of corrosion, protecting the bronze with wax, general cleaning to remove pigeon guano, and pigeon-proofing minor areas.
The restoration team was able to repair damage to the statue using Craigleith sandstone, the original material used to make it. When the Craigleith quarry in Scotland closed sixty years ago it made getting hold of the stone almost impossible, so previous restorers patched Nelson up using a mixture of mortar and cement.
However, some Craigleith stone was found during a restoration of Donaldson’s School for the Deaf (an A-listed building in Edinburgh). It was donated to Nelson’s Column restoration by Scottish company Watson Stonecraft.
The fountains were added in 1845. The mermaids, dolphins and tritons (the male figures with tails like fish) were installed later. The fountains operate on most days.
There are four plinths for statues in the square. Bronze statues stand on three of them: General Sir Charles James Napier in the southwest, Major General Sir Henry Havelock in the southeast and King George IV in the northeast.
The Fourth Plinth
The Fourth Plinth in the northwest of the square, was empty for many years. It is now managed by a Commissioning Group Panel of specialist advisors. This group guides and monitors the commissions for the plinth. The content presents world-class contemporary artworks in the public realm.
In 1876 the Imperial Measures were set into the north terrace wall. Surveyors can still check ‘Perches’, ‘Chains’ and other archaic measures against feet and yards. When the central staircase was added, the measures were relocated, and you can now find information about them outside the café on the square.
Probably the smallest police box ever built can be found on the southeast corner of the square. There was originally a lamp, built in 1826. In 1926, Scotland Yard installed a telephone line and light which the police could use to call for assistance. It is now used for storage.
Trafalgar Square, Westminster, London WC2N 5DN