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Trafalgar Square – A brief history

The origins of the square

Trafalgar Square

From the 14th to the late 17th century, much of the area occupied by Trafalgar Square was the courtyard of the Great Mews stabling, which served Whitehall Palace.

In the early 18th century, the mews area was cleared. In 1812 the architect John Nash set about developing ‘a new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place … forming an open square in the Kings Mews opposite Charing Cross’. He wanted the space to be a cultural space, open to the public. In 1830, it was officially named Trafalgar Square.

The square evolves

Throughout the 1800s, there were some major changes. Work began on the National Gallery in 1832, based on designs by architect William Wilkins. Later, in 1838, Sir Charles Barry (architect of the Palace of Westminster) presented a plan to develop Trafalgar Square. Barry’s proposal included an upper terrace next to the National Gallery and a lower level square, linked by a staircase and including the Nelson memorial statue and two fountains.

In 1843 Nelson’s Column, designed by William Railton, was erected, and in 1845, the fountains were built based on designs thought to be by Sir Charles Barry. In 1867 Sir Edwin Landseer designed the bronze lions placed on guard at the base of Nelson’s Column. In 1876, the Imperial Measures - detailing inches, feet, yards, links, chains, perches and poles - were set into the north terrace wall. When the central staircase was added, the measures were relocated to outside the café on the square.

Transformation of the square

An impressive new public space was formed with the completion in July 2003 of the eighteen-month construction project to transform Trafalgar Square. It involved the removal of traffic from the north side of the square and improvements to the wider area.

2 July 2003 saw the formal reopening of the square by the Mayor. The pedestrianised north terrace now links the square to the National Gallery, with the central staircase a popular new feature. The changes also include a cafe, public toilets and lifts for disabled access. St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Edith Cavell statue benefit from the more dignified setting created by the new high quality paving in front of the church.

Today’s square

Trafalgar Square is a site of significant historic value and its monuments and statues also have individual heritage classifications.

Since its construction in the early 1800s, Trafalgar Square has been seen as a centre of national democracy and protest. Rallies and demonstrations are frequently held at weekends on a range of political, religious and general issues. The Mayor supports this democratic tradition, and gives access to the square for such causes.