The origins of the 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 tooutside 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 being a popular feature. The changes also included a cafe, public toilets and lift for disabled access which have provided additional accessible facilities for all visitors.
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.
Restoration of Nelson’s Column
Nelson's Column is Grade 1 listed and is normally inspected every two years to assess the condition of the sculpture, the granite column and the bronze. Recent inspections had found that the column was in sound condition and cleaner than in the past, but recommended maintenance and conservation work to preserve the column’s condition for future generations.
The work included local repairs to the stonework; cleaning back of areas of corrosion and protection of bronze with wax; general cleaning to remove pigeon guano, and pigeon proofing of minor areas.
The restoration team was able to repair damage to the statue of Nelson using Craigleith sandstone, the original material used to make it. Since the closure of the Craigleith quarry in Scotland sixty years ago, getting hold of the stone has been virtually impossible and previous restorers had patched up Nelson using a mixture of mortar and cement. The Craigleith stone used to repair Nelson was salvaged during a restoration of Donaldson's School for the Deaf, an A-listed building in Edinburgh, and was donated to the Nelson’s Column restoration by Scottish company Watson Stonecraft.
Statues and fountains
William Railton designed the column and statue to honour Admiral Nelson (1758-1805), following 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 castings are from guns captured at battles.
The lions, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, are said to protect Nelson’s Column.
Nelson's Column last underwent restoration in 2006.
The fountains were added in 1845, and the mermaids, dolphins and tritons (which are 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 is on the plinth in the southwest of the square, Major General Sir Henry Havelock on the southeast plinth and King George IV on the northeast plinth.
The Fourth Plinth
The fourth plinth, in the northwest of the square, was empty for many years. It is now programmed by a Commissioning Group Panel of specialist advisors appointed to guide and monitor 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.