Notoriety in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is one of London’s best known landmarks, commemorating a famous British naval victory. Its statue of Lord Nelson peers down on fountains, lions, tourists and – in the past – pigeons.

The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) took place between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French and Spanish during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). Fought off the south-west coast of Spain, near Cape Trafalgar, it was the most decisive British naval victory of the war and spectacularly confirmed the supremacy that Britain had established during the previous century. Unfortunately, Nelson died on the point of victory.

Laid out in the 1820s by John Nash, the architectural genius behind Regency London, Trafalgar Square is the heart of modern London. Tourists come in their thousands to pose for photographs in front of Nelson’s column, erected in 1840.The statue atop the 150-foot Corinthian column is foreshortened to appear in perfect proportion from the ground. The granite fountains were added in 1845 and Sir Edwin Landseer’s bronze lions joined them in 1867.

At the corners of the Square are four plinths. Three of them have statues: in the north-east corner George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey (originally intended for the top of the Marble Arch); in the southeast Major-General Sir Henry Havelock by William Behnes, and in the southwest General Sir Charles James Napier by George Cannon Adams. In 2000, then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone characteristically expressed a desire to see the two generals replaced with statues of people “ordinary Londoners would know”.

The fourth plinth in the north-west corner was originally intended for a statue of William IV but funds for the statue could not be raised, in part due to the King’s unpopularity. Since 1998 the 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 Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in a giant glass bottle by Yinka Shonibare was installed on the plinth in May 2010.

Trafalgar Square is also known for its fountains. When the square was laid out in the 1840s, the fountains’ primary purpose was not aesthetic, but rather to reduce the open space available and the risk of riotous assembly. They were originally fed by water pumped from an artesian well by a steam engine sited behind the National Gallery. In the late 1930s it was decided to replace the stone basins and the pump. The new fountains were built to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens at a cost of almost £50,000. The old fountains were presented to the Canadian government and are now in Ottawa and Regina.

The Square is a delightful (if crowded) place to meet. That was not always the case. Famous for its pigeons, the birds’ droppings disfigured stonework and the flock, estimated at its peak to be 35,000 strong, was considered a health hazard. In 2005, the sale of bird-seed in the square was stopped and other measures introduced to discourage the pigeons, including the use of trained birds of prey. Groups of Mary Poppins supporters continued to feed the birds, but in 2003 the Mayor enacted by-laws to ban the practice.

For many Londoners, the controversy recalled American singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer’s 1959 song “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”:

“We’ve gained notoriety,
And caused much anxiety
In the Audubon Society
With our games.
They call it impiety,
And lack of propriety,
And quite a variety
Of unpleasant names.
But it’s not against any religion
To want to dispose of a pigeon.”

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