The site of Trafalgar Square had been a significant landmark since the 13th century and originally contained the King's Mews. After George IV moved the mews to Buckingham Palace, the area was redeveloped by John Nash but progress was slow after his death and the square did not open until 1844. Nelson's Column at its centre is guarded by four lion statues. A number of commemorative statues and sculptures occupy the square but the Fourth Plinth, left empty since 1840, has been host to contemporary art since 1999.
The square has been used for community gatherings and political demonstrations including Bloody Sunday, the first Aldermaston March, anti-war protests and campaigns against climate change. A Christmas tree has been donated to the square by Norway since 1947 and is erected for twelve days before and after Christmas Day. The square is a centre of annual celebrations on New Year's Eve. It was well known for its feral pigeons until their removal in the early-21st century.
Trafalgar Square is owned by the Queen in Right of the Crown[a] 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. The square contains 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.
After 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 occupied by the National Gallery. 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 became Trafalgar Square, except for a block in the centre, which he reserved for a new building for the Royal Academy. The plans included the demolition and redevelopment 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. The Charing Cross Act was passed in 1826 and clearance started soon after. Nash died soon after construction started impeding its progress. The square was to be named for William IV commemorating his ascent to the throne in 1830. Around 1835, it was decided that the square would be named after the Battle of Trafalgar as suggested by architect George Ledwell Taylor, commemorating Nelson's victory over the French and Spanish in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars.
After the clearance, development progressed slowly. The National Gallery was built on the north side between 1832 and 1838 to a design by William Wilkins, and in 1837 the Treasury approved Wilkins' plan for the laying out of the square, but it was not put into effect. In April 1840, following Wilkins' death, new plans by Charles Barry were accepted, and construction started within weeks. 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 to the level of the footway between Cockspur Street and the Strand, and constructing a 15-foot (4.6 m) high balustraded terrace with a roadway on the north side, and steps at each end leading to the main level. Wilkins had proposed a similar solution with a central flight of steps. 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.
The earth removed was used to level Green Park. The next year it was decided that two fountains should be included in the layout. The square was originally surfaced with tarmacadam, which was replaced with stone in the 1920s.
The lions at Nelson's Column were not finished until nearly 30 years after the square opened.
Nelson's Column was 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. A competition was held and won by the architect William Railton, who designed a Corinthinan column topped by a statue of Nelson. The proposed height was 218 feet 3 inches (66.52 m), at the base it is guarded by four sculpted lions. The design was approved, but received widespread objections from the public. Construction went ahead beginning in 1840 but the height was reduced to 145 feet 3 inches (44.27 m). The column was completed and the statue raised in November 1843.
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. Landseer, the sculptor, had asked for a lion that had died at the London Zoo to be brought to his studio. He took so long to complete sketches that its corpse began to decompose and some parts had to be improvised. The statues have paws that resemble cats more than lions.
Barry was unhappy about Nelson's Column being placed in the square. In July 1840, when its foundations had 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". 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. A hoarding remained around the base of Nelson's Column for some years and some of its upper scaffolding remained in place.
The square has become a social and political focus for visitors and Londoners, 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 NaziSS developed secret plans to transfer Nelson's Column to Berlin[b] after an expected German invasion, as related by Norman Longmate in If Britain Had Fallen (1972).
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 eastbound road along the north side and diverting 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 to the pedestrianised terrace in front of the National Gallery. The construction includes two lifts for disabled access, public toilets and a café. Access between the square and the gallery had been by two crossings at the northeast and northwest corners.
In the 21st century, the empty plinth in the north-west corner of the square, the "Fourth Plinth", has been used to show specially commissioned artworks. The scheme was initiated by the Royal Society of Arts and continued by the Fourth Plinth Commission, appointed by the Mayor of London.
A new sculpture, The Gift Horse designed by Hans Haacke was installed on the fourth plinth on 5 March 2015. It is a model of a horse's skeleton with a live display of the London Stock Exchange.
In 1841, following suggestions from the local paving board, Barry agreed that two fountains should be installed to counteract the effects of reflected heat and glare from the asphalt surface. The First Commissioner of Woods and Forests welcomed the plan because the fountains reduced the open space available for public gatherings and reduced the risk of riotous assembly. The fountains were fed from two wells, one in front of the National Gallery and one behind it connected by a tunnel. Water was pumped to the fountains by a steam engine housed in a building behind the gallery.
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 memorials to Lord Jellicoe and Lord Beatty, although busts of the admirals, initially intended to be placed in the fountain surrounds were placed against the northern retaining wall when the project was completed after the Second World War. The fountains cost almost £50,000. The old ones were presented to the Canadian government and are now in Ottawa and Regina.
A programme of restoration was completed by May 2009. The pump system was replaced with one capable of sending an 80-foot (24 m) jet of water into the air. A LED lighting system that can project different combinations of colours on to the fountains was installed to reduce the cost of lighting maintenance and to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Pigeons flocking to London's Trafalgar Square, 2006. As of 2008 the pigeons had largely disappeared
The square was once famous for feral pigeons and feeding them was a popular activity. Pigeons began flocking to the square before construction was completed and feed sellers became well known in the Victorian era. The desirability of the birds' presence was contentious: their droppings disfigured the stonework and the flock, estimated at its peak to be 35,000, was considered a health hazard. A stall seller, Bernie Rayner, infamously sold bird seed to tourists at inflated prices.
In February 2001, the sale of bird seed in the square was stopped and other measures were introduced to discourage the pigeons including the use of birds of prey. Supporters continued to feed the birds but in 2003 the mayor, Ken Livingstone, enacted bylaws to ban feeding them in the square. In September 2007 Westminster City Council passed further bylaws banning feeding birds on the pedestrianised North Terrace and other pavements in the area. Nelson's column was repaired from years of damage from pigeon droppings at a cost of £140,000.
For many years, revellers celebrating the New Year have gathered in the square despite a lack of celebrations being arranged. The lack of official events was partly because the authorities were concerned that encouraging more partygoers would cause overcrowding. Since 2003, a firework display centred on the London Eye and South Bank of the Thames has been provided as an alternative. Since 2014, New Year celebrations have been organised by the Greater London Authority in conjunction with the charity Unicef, who began ticketing the event to control crowd numbers.
A Christmas ceremony has been held in the square every year since 1947. A Norway spruce (or sometimes a fir) is presented by Norway's capital city, Oslo as London's Christmas tree, a token of gratitude for Britain's support during World War II. (Besides war-time support, Norway's Prince Olav and the country's government lived in exile in London throughout the war.)
The Christmas tree is decorated with lights that are switched on at a seasonal ceremony. It is usually held twelve days before Christmas Day. The festivity is open to the public and attracts a large number of people. The switch-on is usually followed by several nights of Christmas carol singing and other performances and events. On the twelfth night of Christmas, the tree is taken down for recycling. Westminster City Council threatened to abandon the event to save £5,000 in 1980 but the decision was reversed.
The tree is selected by the Head Forester from Oslo's municipal forest and shipped, across the North Sea to the Port of Felixstowe, then by road to Trafalgar Square. The first tree was 48 feet (15 m) tall, but more recently has been around 75 feet (23 m). In 1987, protesters chained themselves to the tree. In 1990, a man sawed into the tree with a chainsaw a few hours before a New Year's Eve party was scheduled to take place. He was arrested and the tree was repaired by tree surgeons who removed gouged sections from the trunk while the tree was suspended from a crane.
Since its construction, Trafalgar Square has been a venue for political demonstrations. The great Chartist rally in 1848, a campaign for social reform by the working class began in the square. A ban on political rallies remained in effect until the 1880s, when the emerging Labour movement, particularly the Social Democratic Federation, began holding protests. On 8 February 1886) (also known as "Black Monday"), protesters rallied against unemployment leading to a riot in Pall Mall. A larger riot ("Bloody Sunday") occurred in the square on 13 November 1887.
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 attended by 200,000 people and ultimately caused rioting in the surrounding area. More recently, there have been anti-war demonstrations opposing the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. A large vigil was held shortly after the terrorist bombings in London on Thursday, 7 July 2005.
In December 2009, participants from the Camp for Climate Action occupied the square for the two weeks during which the UN Conference on Climate Change took place in Copenhagen. It was billed as a UK base for direct action on climate change and saw various actions and protests stem from the occupation.
In March 2011, the square was occupied by a crowd protesting against the UK Budget and proposed budget cuts. During the night the situation turned violent as the escalation by riot police and protesters damaged portions of the square. In November 2015 a vigil against the terrorist attacks in Paris was held. Crowds sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and held banners in support of the city and country.
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 Royal British Legion holds a Silence in the Square event on Armistice Day, 11 November, in remembrance of those who 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.
On 6 July 2005 Trafalgar Square hosted the announcement of London's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. A countdown clock was erected in March 2011, although engineering and weather-related faults caused it to stop a day later. In 2007, it hosted the opening ceremonies of the Tour de France and was part of the course for subsequent races.
In 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 0.75-mile (1.21 km) red-carpet linking the squares. Fans camped in Trafalgar Square for up to three days before the premiere, despite torrential rain. It was the first premiere ever to be held there.
National Heroes Square in Bridgetown, Barbados, was named Trafalgar Square in 1813, before its better-known British namesake. It was renamed in 1999 to commemorate national heroes of Barbados. There is a life scale replica of the square in Bahria Town, Lahore, Pakistan where it is a tourist attraction and centre for local residents.
^"Queen in Right of the Crown" is legal fiction denoting the land is privately owned by the Queen and it is legally possible, though unlikely, to be sold to another individual. The Crown Jewels are under similar ownership.
^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.
^ abcdefgG. H. Gater (1940). F. R. Hiorns, ed. "Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery". Survey of London (Institute of Historical Research). 20: St Martin-in-the-Fields, pt III: Trafalgar Square & Neighbourhood: 15–18. Archived from the original on 6 April 2014. Retrieved 1 March 2012.
Hood, Jean (2005). Trafalgar Square: A Visual History of London's Landmark through Time. London: Batsford. ISBN0-7134-8967-7.
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.