Trafalgar Square

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Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square, London 2 - Jun 2009.jpg
Trafalgar Square is located in City of Westminster
Trafalgar Square
Location within Central London
Former name(s) Charing Cross
Namesake Battle of Trafalgar
Maintained by Greater London Authority
Location City of Westminster, London, England
Postal code WC2
Coordinates 51°30′29″N 0°07′41″W / 51.508056°N 0.128056°W / 51.508056; -0.128056Coordinates: 51°30′29″N 0°07′41″W / 51.508056°N 0.128056°W / 51.508056; -0.128056
North Charing Cross Road
East The Strand
South Northumberland Avenue
West The Mall
Completion c. 1840
Designer Sir Charles Barry

Trafalgar Square (/ˌtrəˈfælɡər/ trə-FAL-gər) 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.

The name commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, a British naval victory of the Napoleonic Wars over France and Spain which took place on 21 October 1805 off the coast of Cape Trafalgar, Spain. The original name was to have been "King William the Fourth's Square", but George Ledwell Taylor suggested the name "Trafalgar Square".[1]

In the 1820s George IV engaged the 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.

Trafalgar Square is owned by the Queen in Right of the Crown and managed by the Greater London Authority, while Westminster City Council owns the roads around the square, including the pedestrianised area of the North Terrace.[2] It forms part of the Northbank business improvement district.[3]


The square consists of a large central area with roadways on three sides and a terrace to the north, in front of the National Gallery. The roads around the square form part of the A4, a major road running west of the City of London. The square was formerly surrounded by a one-way traffic system, but works completed in 2003 reduced the width of the roads and closed the northern side to traffic.[4]

Nelson's Column is in the centre of the square, flanked by fountains designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937[5] as replacements for two earlier fountains of Peterhead granite (now in Canada) and guarded by four monumental bronze lions sculpted by Sir Edwin Landseer.[6] The column is topped by a statue of Horatio Nelson, the vice admiral who commanded the British Fleet at Trafalgar.

On the north side of the square is the National Gallery and to its east St Martin-in-the-Fields Church.[6] The square adjoins the Mall entered through 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 Canada House.

The nearest London Underground stations are Charing Cross on the Northern and Bakerloo Lines which has an exit in the square. The two lines originally had separate stations, of which the Bakerloo line one was called Trafalgar Square; they were linked and renamed in 1979 as part of the construction of the Jubilee line, which was later rerouted to Westminster tube station in late 1999. Other nearby tube stations are Embankment connecting the District, Circle, Northern and Bakerloo lines, and Leicester Square on the Northern and Piccadilly lines.

London bus routes 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 23, 24, 29, 53, 87, 88, 91, 139, 159, 176, 453 run through Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square, 1908
A 360-degree view of Trafalgar Square just over a century later, in 2009


A painting by James Pollard showing the square before the erection of Nelson's Column

What is now Trafalgar Square has been a significant location in London since the 13th century. During Edward I's reign, the area was the site of the King's Mews, running north from the original Charing Cross, where the Strand from the City met Whitehall, coming north from Westminster.[7] From the reign of Richard II to Henry VII, the Mews was at the western end of the Strand. The name "Royal Mews" comes from the practice of keeping royal hawks here for moulting; "mew" is an old word for this. After a fire in 1534, the mews were rebuilt as stables, and remained in this location until George IV moved them to Buckingham Palace.[8]

Clearance and development[edit]

From 1732, the King's Mews were divided into the Great Mews and the smaller Green Mews to the north by the Crown Stables, a large block, built to the designs of William Kent. Its site is now occupied by the National Gallery.[9] In 1826 the Commissioners of H.M. Woods, Forests and Land Revenues instructed John Nash to draw up plans for clearing a large area south of Kent’s stable block, and as far east as St Martin’s Lane. His plans left open the whole area of what was to become Trafalgar Square, except for a block in the centre, which he reserved for a new building for the Royal Academy.[10] They also involved the demolition and redevelopment of an area of buildings between St Martin’s Lane and the Strand, and the construction of a road (now called Duncannon Street) across the churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields.[11] The Charing Cross Act was passed in 1826 and clearance of the ground started soon after.[10] Nash died soon after construction started, which impeded its progress. The initial working title for the new area was William IV Square, commemorating his ascension to the throne in 1830.[12] Around 1835, it was decided that the new square would be named after the Battle of Trafalgar, commemorating Horatio Nelson's victory against the French and Spanish Navies in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars.[7]

Animated picture using ten frames taken by Wordsworth Donisthorpe
Ten frames of Trafalgar Square shot by Wordsworth Donisthorpe in 1890

After the initial clearance, development of the square progressed slowly. The National Gallery was built on the north side between 1832 and 1838 to a design by William Wilkins,[10] and in 1837 the Treasury approved Wilkins' plan for the laying out of the square itself, but it was not put into effect.[13] In April 1840, following Wilkins' death, new plans by Charles Barry were accepted, and construction started within weeks.[14][10] For Barry, as for Wilkins, a major consideration was increasing the visual impact of the National Gallery, which had been widely criticised for its lack of grandeur. He dealt with the complex sloping site by excavating the main area of the square down to the level of the footway between Cockspur Street and the Strand,[15] and constructing a fifteen foot high balustraded terrace with a roadway on the north side, with steps at each end leading down to the main level.[14] Wilkins had proposed a similar solution, but with a central flight of steps.[13] Plinths were provided for sculpture and pedestals for lighting. All the stonework was of Aberdeen granite. The estimated budget, excluding paving and sculptures, was £11,000.[14] The earth removed was used to level Green Park.[15] The next year it was decided that two fountains should be included in the layout.[16] The square was originally paved with tarmacadam, which was replaced with stone in the 1920s.[17]

Nelson's Column[edit]

The lions at Nelson's Column were not finished until nearly 30 years after the square opened.

Nelson's Column had been planned independently of Barry’s work. In 1838 a Nelson Memorial Committee had approached the government, proposing that a monument to the victor of Trafalgar, funded by public subscription, should be erected in the square, which was provisionally agreed to. A competition was held and won by the architect William Railton, who designed a Corinthian column topped by a statue of Nelson, with an overall height of over 200 feet (61 m), guarded by four sculpted lions.[14] The design was approved, but received widespread objection from the public, so construction went ahead with the proviso that the overall height should be reduced to 170 feet (52 m), beginning in 1840.[18] The main construction of the column was completed, and the statue raised in November 1843.[19] However, the last of the bronze reliefs on the column's pedestals was not completed until May 1854, and the four lions, although part of the original design, were only added in 1867.[20] Landseer had asked for a dead lion to be brought to his studio from London Zoo, but took so long to complete sketches that it had begun to decompose so much that some parts were improvised. The final statues have paws that resemble cats more than lions.[21]

Barry was unhappy about Nelson's Column being placed in the square. In July 1840, when its foundations had already been laid, he told a parliamentary select committee that "it would in my opinion be desirable that the area should be wholly free from all insulated objects of art".[14]


The hoardings were removed and the square opened to the public on 1 May 1844, although the asphalt paving was still soft, and the fountains were not working. There was still a hoarding around the base of Nelson’s Column, which was to remain for some years, and some of its upper scaffolding remained in place.[22]

The square has become a social and political focus 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 SS developed secret plans to transfer Nelson's Column to Berlin[a] following an expected German invasion, as related by Norman Longmate in If Britain Had Fallen (1972).[23]

Discovery of interglacial deposits[edit]

Building work undertaken on the south side of the square in 1960 revealed a number of deposits from the last interglacial. Among the findings, dating from approximately 40,000 years ago, were the remains of cave lion, rhinoceros, straight-tusked elephant and hippopotamus.[24]


A major 18-month redevelopment of the square led by W.S. Atkins with Foster and Partners as sub-consultants was completed in 2003. The work involved closing the main eastbound road along the north side, diverting the traffic around the other three sides of the square, demolishing the central section of the northern retaining wall and inserting a wide set of steps leading up to a pedestrianised terrace in front of the National Gallery. The construction includes two lifts for disabled access, public toilets and a small café. Previously, access between the square and the gallery was by two crossings at the northeast and northwest corners.[25][26]

Statues and monuments[edit]

The plinths[edit]

Sir Henry Havelock's statue

Barry's scheme provided two plinths for sculptures on the north side of the square.[27] A bronze equestrian statue of George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey, originally intended for the top of the Marble Arch,[10] was installed on the eastern one in 1844, while the other remained empty until the late 20th century.[27] Two more statues on plinths were added during the 19th century; General Sir Charles James Napier by George Cannon Adams in the south-west corner of the square in 1855, and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock by William Behnes, in the south-east in 1861.[10] In 2000, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, expressed a desire to see the two generals replaced with statues of people "ordinary Londoners would know".[28]

Fourth plinth[edit]

In the 21st century, the empty plinth in the north-west corner of the square – which has become known as the "Fourth Plinth" – has been used to show a series of specially commissioned artworks. The scheme was initiated by the Royal Society of Arts and continued by a Fourth Plinth Commission, appointed by the Mayor of London. A 1:30 scale replica of HMS Victory in a giant glass bottle by Yinka Shonibare was installed on the plinth in May 2010.[29][30]

A new sculpture on the fourth plinth was unveiled on 5 March 2015, named "The Gift Horse" and designed by Hans Haacke. The sculpture is a model of a horse's skeleton with a live display of the London Stock Exchange.[31]

Other statues[edit]

There are three busts of admirals against the north wall of the square. Those of Lord Jellicoe by Sir Charles Wheeler and Lord Beatty by William MacMillan were installed in 1948 in conjunction with the square's two fountains, which also commemorate the two men.[32][33] A bust of the Second World War First Sea Lord Admiral Cunningham by Franta Belsky was unveiled alongside them on 2 April 1967.[34]

On the south side of the square, on the site of the original Charing Cross, is a bronze equestrian statue of Charles I by Hubert Le Sueur. It was cast in 1633, and placed in its present position in 1678.[35]

There are two statues on the lawn in front of the National Gallery: the statue of James II by Grinling Gibbons to the west of the portico, and George Washington, a replica of a work by Jean-Antoine Houdon, to the east.[36] The latter, was a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia installed in 1921.[37]

Two statues erected in the 19th century have since been removed. One, of Edward Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination, was set up in the south-west corner of the square in 1858, next to that of Napier. Sculpted by William Calder Marshall, it showed Jenner sitting in a chair in a relaxed pose, and was inaugurated at a ceremony presided over by Prince Albert. It was moved to Kensington Gardens in 1862.[38][39] The other, of General Charles George Gordon by Hamo Thornycroft, was erected on an 18-foot high pedestal between the two fountains in 1888. It was removed in 1943 and re-sited on the Victoria Embankment ten years later.[40]


Fountain at Trafalgar Square, 2014

In 1841, following suggestions from the local paving board, Barry agreed to the idea that two fountains should be installed, to counteract the effects of the reflected heat and glare from the proposed asphalt surface. The First Commissioner of Woods and Forests also welcomed the plan, not least because the fountains would reduce the open space available for public gatherings and thus reduce the risk of riotous assembly.[41] The fountains were fed from two wells, one in front of the National Gallery and one behind it, connected by a tunnel. The water was pumped by a steam engine, housed in a building behind the gallery.[10]

In the late 1930s it was decided to replace the pump and the centrepieces of the fountains. The new centrepieces, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, were intended as memorials to Lord Jellicoe and Lord Beatty, although the busts of the two admirals, initially planned to be placed in the surrounds of the fountains were eventually placed against the northern retaining wall when the project was completed after the Second World War.[42] The new fountains cost almost £50,000. The old ones were bought for presentation to the Canadian government, and are now in Ottawa and Regina.[43][44]

A further programme of restoration work was completed by May 2009. The existing pump system was replaced with a one capable of sending an 80-foot (24 m) jet of water into the air.[45] A new LED lighting system was also installed to reduce the cost of lighting maintenance. The new lighting was designed with the London 2012 Summer Olympics in mind, and for the first time could project many different combinations of colours on to the fountains.[43] The new lighting system has a much lower energy requirement and should reduce its carbon footprint by around 90%.[45]


Pigeons flocking to London's Trafalgar Square, 2006. As of 2008 the pigeons had largely disappeared.

The square was once famous for its feral pigeons, and feeding them was a popular activity. Pigeons began flocking to the square before construction had completed, and feed sellers became well known in the Victorian era.[46] The desirability of the birds' presence was contentious: their droppings disfigured stonework, and the flock, estimated at its peak to be 35,000, was considered a health hazard.[47] A stall seller, Bernie Rayner, infamously sold bird seed to tourists at inflated prices.[48]

In February 2001, the sale of bird seed in the square was stopped[47] and other measures introduced to discourage the pigeons, including the use of trained birds of prey.[49] Groups of supporters continued to feed the birds, but in 2003 the then-Mayor, Ken Livingstone, enacted bylaws to ban the feeding of pigeons in the square.[50][51] In September 2007 Westminster City Council passed further bylaws banning the feeding of birds on the square's pedestrianised North Terrace and other pavements in the area.[52] Nelson's column was repaired from years of damage owing to pigeon droppings at a cost of £140,000.[48]


New Year[edit]

Trafalgar Square during the 2009–2010 New Year Celebrations

For many years, revellers celebrating the start of a New Year have gathered in the square, despite a lack of civic celebrations being arranged. The lack of official events in the square was partly because the authorities were concerned that actively encouraging more partygoers would cause overcrowding. Since 2003, a firework display centred on London Eye and the South Bank of the Thames has been provided as an alternative. Since 2014, New Year celebrations in the square have been organised by the Greater London Authority in conjunction with the charity Unicef, who began ticketing the event to control crowd numbers.[53]


The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree on 23 December 2006

There has been a Christmas ceremony at Trafalgar Square every year since 1947. A Norway spruce (or sometimes a fir) is given by Norway's capital Oslo and presented as London's Christmas tree, as a token of gratitude for Britain's support during World War II. (Besides the general war support, Norway's Prince Olav, as well as the country's government, lived in exile in London throughout the war.) As part of the tradition, the Lord Mayor of Westminster visits Oslo in the late autumn to take part in the felling of the tree, and the Mayor of Oslo then comes to London to light the tree at the Christmas ceremony.[54]

The Christmas tree is decorated with lights, which are switched on at a seasonal ceremony.[55] The ceremony is usually being held 12 days before 25 December. The festivity is open to the public and attracts a large number of people.[56] It is usually accompanied with several nights of Christmas carol singing programme, series of performances and events.[57] 2012 was the 65th time that London was presented with a Christmas tree from Oslo.[58] Performances during the ceremony included Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth alongside the St. Martin-in-the-Fields choir and the Regend Hall Band of the Salvation Army.[59] According to the Norwegian foresters, only the best tree is presented from their forest for the people of London. Fondly described by the woodsmen who care for it as 'the queen of the forest', it can reach up to 80 feet in height and is between 50 and 100 years old. The giant Christmas tree is taken down on the 12th night of Christmas for recycling.[60]

Political demonstrations[edit]

A demonstration in Trafalgar Square

Since its construction, Trafalgar Square has been a venue for political demonstrations.[26] The 1839 fountains were added on their current scale to reduce the possibility of crowds gathering in the square as they were not in the original plans.[citation needed] The great Chartist rally in 1848, campaign for social reform of the working class, began in Trafalgar Square.[26] A general ban on political rallies remained in effect until the 1880s, when the emerging Labour movement, particularly the Social Democratic Federation, began holding protests there.[citation needed] On "Black Monday" (8 February 1886), protesters rallied against unemployment; this led to a riot in Pall Mall. A larger riot (called "Bloody Sunday") occurred in the square on 13 November 1887.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's first Aldermaston March, protesting against the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), began on Trafalgar Square in 1958.[26] One of the first significant demonstrations of the modern era was held in the square on 19 September 1961 by the Committee of 100, which included the philosopher Bertrand Russell. The protesters rallied for peace and against war and nuclear weapons. In March 1968, a crowd of some 10,000 demonstrated at the square against US involvement in the Vietnam War, before marching to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.[61]

Protesting against harassment of photographers under anti-terrorism law, 23 January 2010

Throughout the 1980s, a continuous anti-apartheid protest was held outside South Africa House. In 1990, the Poll Tax Riots began by a demonstration at Trafalgar Square, which was attended by 200,000 people and ultimately caused rioting in the local area.[26] More recently, there have been anti-war demonstrations opposing the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War.[62]

The square was also scene to a large vigil held shortly after the terrorist bombings in London on Thursday, 7 July 2005.[63]

In December 2009, participants from the Camp for Climate Action occupied the square for the two weeks in which the UN Conference on Climate Change took place in Copenhagen.[64] It was billed as a UK base for direct action on climate change during the conference, and saw various actions and protests stem from the occupation.[65][66][67]

On 26 March 2011, the square was occupied by protesters using the square to protest against the UK Budget and its proposed budget cuts. During the night however, the situation turned violent as the escalation by riot police and protesters damaged portions of the square.[68]


On 21 June 2002, 12,000 people gathered in the square to watch the England national football team's World Cup quarter-final against Brazil on giant video screens which had been erected specially for the occasion.[69]

In the early 21st century, Trafalgar Square has become the location to the climax for sporting victory parades. It was used by the England national rugby union team on 9 December 2003 to celebrate their victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and then on 13 September 2005 for the England national cricket team's victory in the Ashes.

On 6 July 2005 Trafalgar Square was a gathering place for the announcement on London's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, Located also on Trafalgar Square is its Official Countdown Clock unveiled on 14 March 2011.

In 2007, it hosted the opening ceremonies of the Tour de France.

Other uses[edit]

This painting (c. 1865) by Henry Pether[70] is southwards across Trafalgar Square, with the towers of the Houses of Parliament on the skyline

As an archetypal London location, Trafalgar Square featured prominently in film and television productions during the Swinging London era of the late 1960s, including The Avengers, Casino Royale, Doctor Who, The Ipcress File and Man in a Suitcase. It was also used as a filming location for several sketches and a cartoon backdrop in the BBC comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Trafalgar Square temporarily grassed over in May 2007

In May 2007, the square was grassed over with 2,000 square metres of turf for two days as part of a campaign by London authorities to promote "green spaces" in the city.[71]

Every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October), the Sea Cadet Corps holds a parade in honour of Admiral Lord Nelson and the British victory over the combined fleets of Spain and France at Trafalgar. The Areas of the Sea Cadet Corps are represented by seven 24-cadet platoons. The National Sea Cadet Band also parades, as does a guard and colour party.

On 7 July 2011, due to building works in Leicester Square, the world premiere of the final film in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, was held in Trafalgar Square, with a ¾ mile red-carpet linking the two squares. Fans camped in Trafalgar Square for up to three days before the premiere. It was the first premiere ever to be held in Trafalgar Square.

Since 2006 there have been annual celebrations of Canada Day (1 July), initiated by the Canadian community in the United Kingdom, endorsed by the Canadian High Commission, sponsored by Canadian companies, and organised by a private promotions company. The event features Canadian performers, Canadian food kiosks and a street hockey tournament, among other activities.[72]

In recent years, the Royal British Legion has held a Silence in the Square event on Armistice Day, 11 November, in remembrance of those who have died in war. The event includes music and poetry readings, culminating in a bugler playing the Last Post and a two-minute silence at 11 am.[73]

Other Trafalgar Squares[edit]

A Trafalgar Square in Stepney is recorded in Lockie's Topography of London, published in 1810.[74] National Heroes Square in Bridgetown, Barbados, was originally named Trafalgar Square in 1813, before its better-known British namesake; it too had a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Its name was changed on 28 April 1999.

Trafalgar Square in Scarborough, North Yorkshire gives its name to the Trafalgar Square End at the town's North Marine Road cricket ground.

There is a small yard in the Derbyshire town of Long Eaton (part of the Nottingham conurbation) named Trafalgar Square. It resembles little more than a gravelled access track between terraces.

There is also a Trafalgar Square in Barre, Massachusetts. The suburb of Waterloo in the city of Lower Hutt, New Zealand, features a Trafalgar Square opposite the Waterloo Interchange Railway Station, a major metropolitan hub.[75]

There is a life scale replica of the square in Bahria Town, Lahore, Pakistan. The square is a well known tourist attraction in Bahria town Lahore and serves as a centre for the residents of nearby community.[76][77]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Hitler had specifically requested that all of Rembrandt's paintings in the National Gallery be seized as part of the move, as he particularly admired the artist's work.[23]


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Further reading[edit]



  • Hargreaves, Roger (2005), Trafalgar Square: Through the Camera, London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, ISBN 1-85514-345-3 
  • Holt, Gavin (1934), Trafalgar Square, London: Hodder & Stoughton 
  • Hood, Jean (2005), Trafalgar Square: A Visual History of London’s Landmark through Time, London: Batsford, ISBN 0-7134-8967-7 
  • Longmate, Norman (2012). If Britain Had Fallen: The Real Nazi Occupation Plans (reprinted / illustrated ed.). Frontline Books. ISBN 978-1-848-32647-7. 
  • Mace, Rodney (1976). Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire. London: Lawrence and Wishart. ISBN 0-85315-368-X.  Second edition published as Mace, Rodney (2005). Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire (2nd ed.). London: Lawrence and Wishart. ISBN 1-905007-11-6. 
  • Moore, Tim (2003). Do Not Pass Go. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-099-43386-6. 
  • Weinreb, Ben; Hibbert, Christopher; Keay, Julia; Keay, John (2008). The London Encyclopedia. Pan MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4050-4924-5. 
  • Stone to Build London: Portland's Legacy, Gill Hackman, Folly Books, Monkton Farleigh, 2014, ISBN 978-0-9564405-9-4. Book includes details of the Portland stone buildings around Trafalgar Square, including St Martin in the Fields, the National Gallery and Admiralty Arch.

External links[edit]