Inventory Site Record

Trafalgar Square * (Westminster)

Brief Description

* on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens

Trafalgar Square was laid out in the 1820s onwards as part of John Nash's redevelopment of the West End. It stands on the former site of the King's Mews and was designed to enhance the setting of the new National Gallery and to connect the Strand with the West End. Dominated by Nelson's Column, it became a focal point for the commemoration of imperial heroes and as the favoured rallying place for momentous social and political events.

Practical Information
Site location:
Trafalgar Square
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Open to public?
Opening times:
Special conditions:
The Café on the Square (open daily 10am-6pm), toilets (open 8am-8pm)
Numerous events, including new programme of Cultural Events promoted by GLA; 4th Plinth temporary commissions programme
Public transport:
Rail:Charing Cross.Tube:Charing Cross (Northern,Bakerloo)/Embankment (Bakerloo,Northern,District,Circle). Bus: 3, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 23, 24, 53, 77A, 88, 91, 139, 159, 176, 453.
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.london.gov.uk/trafalgarsquare

Full Site Description

Site on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens, for Register Entry see https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list. The Register Entry was updated in October 2019 to reflect the landscaping modifications that occurred in the C20th and early C21st. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England was established in 1984 and was commonly called English Heritage. In April 2015 it split into 2 separate entities, Historic England (HE), which continues to champion and protect the historic environment, and the English Heritage Trust, whose role is to look after the 400+ historic sites and monuments owned by the state. HE manages the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) that includes over 400,000 items ranging from prehistoric monuments to office blocks, battlefields and parks, which benefit from legal protection.

Trafalgar Square is London's largest and most formal public space, laid out in the 1820s onwards as part of John Nash's redevelopment of the West End. It stands on the former site of the King's Mews and was designed to enhance the setting of the new National Gallery, built in 1832-38 by William Wilkins, and to connect the Strand with the West End. Dominated by Nelson's Column, it became a focal point for the commemoration of imperial heroes and as the favoured rallying place for momentous social and political events. The site of Trafalgar Square was formerly occupied by the Great Mews of the Crown Stables, a large rectangular enclosure surrounded by stables and coach houses to the north of Charing Cross. The building of new stabling behind Buckingham Palace rendered the mews redundant. The area was an important one, forming the essential link between Nash's new processional route of Regent Street, and The Strand, which connected the City with Westminster. It thus forms part of Nash's grand scheme of Metropolitan Improvements that transformed the capital. Nash was asked to prepare a design for the area, which obtained parliamentary sanction through the Charing Cross Act of 1826. This included a new square to the south of the proposed National Gallery, containing a new building in its midst intended for the Royal Academy. The square was duly connected by Nash to Pall Mall through the construction of Pall Mall East, and to The Strand by the West Strand development, and stood at the head of Charing Cross and Whitehall. A proposed avenue leading to the British Museum was not carried out, and it was not until the formation of the Charing Cross Road by the Metropolitan Board of Works in the 1880s that the square obtained a northern entrance of any significance. It received the name Trafalgar Square in 1830.

William Wilkins' National Gallery was built in 1832-38 and defined the northern perimeter of the square; Sir Robert Smirke's Union Club House and College of Physicians (now Canada House) was built on the west side in 1822-27 while the east side (now occupied by Sir Herbert Baker's South Africa House of 1935) was occupied by Morley's Hotel, designed by George Ledwell Taylor in 1830.

Wilkins' death in 1839 saw responsibility for the design of the square pass to Sir Charles Barry. Between 1840 and 1845 he oversaw the levelling of the sloping site and the design of the northern terrace, the stairs and retaining walls, and central fountains set within lobed quatrefoil basins. The principal feature of the square, The Nelson Column, was erected in 1840-43 to the designs of William Railton. It resulted from a body of subscribers to a Nelson monument who had petitioned the government in 1838 that the site be made available for this purpose, and two competitions were duly held. The 145ft high Corinthian column is built of grey Foggintor granite from Dartmoor, with a bronze capital. The statue of Nelson, 16 ft-high and carved from Craigleith stone, is by E.H. Baily and was placed in position on 3 November 1843. The pedestal sports four giant bronze reliefs, cast from captured cannon, depicting episodes from Nelson's victories at St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. The reliefs, by M.L. Watson, W.F. Woodington, J. Ternouth and J.E. Carew respectively, which were affixed in 1852.

The celebrated lions, which were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer and modelled by Baron Marochetti, were not put into position until 1868. The square is celebrated for its statuary. The finest piece is deemed to be the equestrian statue of George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey, erected upon the north-east pedestal in 1844 but originally intended for Nash's Marble Arch. There has been much speculation as to the filling of its long-vacant pair at the north-west corner, now commonly referred to as the Fourth Plinth. Two granite plinths flank the northernmost pair of guardian lions: the eastern bears a bronze statue of Major general Sir Henry Havelock (d.1857), hero of the Indian Mutiny, by Edward Behnes, 1861; its western counterpart commemorates General Sir Charles Napier (d.1853), commander during the Afghan and Indian Wars, by G.G. Adams, 1855. A statue commemorating General Kitchener (d.1885), by Hamo Thornycroft and unveiled in 1888, formerly stood between the fountain basins. It was removed in 1943 to make way for an Avro Lancaster bomber during National Savings Wings for Victory week, was temporarily reinstated, but then relocated to Victoria Embankment Gardens.

Sir Edwin Lutyens was responsible for the remodelling of the square's fountains in 1937-39, when larger fountains containing elaborate mermen and mermaids by Charles Wheeler and W. McMillan were installed as memorials to Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe, thereby continuing the theme of naval commemoration. Sir Philip Sassoon, First Commissioner of Works, was largely responsible for pushing this concept of a 'naval piazza'. Bronze busts of these admirals by Wheeler and McMillan, set against the northern terrace wall, were installed in 1948 and they have subsequently been joined by that of Admiral Cunningham. Between the busts, set into the ground, the Imperial Standards of Length, bronze measures indicating yards, chains, perches and poles, were placed here in 1876 by the Board of Trade. When the new central staircase was added in 2003, the measures were relocated, and information about them remains outside the new café.

The paving of Trafalgar Square has undergone changes over the years, and the original surface was asphalted, supplied by Bastinne Bitumen Company. This was renewed in 1863 and in 1926 the asphalt was replaced with very large flagstones, which were extensively overhauled by Donald Insall and Associates in 1987. The chequered paving of the upper terrace consists of Portland and Mansfield sandstone and appears to be original.

The prominence, central location, and paved floor of the square made it an ideal location for public meetings. A Chartist rally was held in 1848 which led to a ban on public assemblies. The most notorious assembly occurred on November 13th 1877, when a Radical demonstration was broken up by soldiers and the police; three men died and over 200 injured, and the day became known as 'Bloody Sunday'. Numerous political rallies were held here, culminating in the CND rallies of the 1960s. Trafalgar Square has become well known for its New Year's Eve celebrations, and since 1947 a Christmas tree has been erected here, given to the people of London by the people of Norway in gratitude for Britain's support of Norway during WWII. The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is usually a Norwegian spruce (Picea abies) over 20 metres high and 50-60 years old. It is selected from the forests surrounding Oslo with great care several months, even years, in advance. The Norwegian foresters who look after it describe it fondly as 'the queen of the forest'. The tree is felled in November during a ceremony in which the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo participate. It is brought to the UK by sea, then completes its journey by lorry. A specialist rigging team erects it in the square using a hydraulic crane. It is decorated in traditional Norwegian fashion, with vertical strings of lights, now using energy-efficient light bulbs. It remains in Trafalgar Square until just before the Twelfth Night of Christmas, when it is taken down for recycling, chipped and composted, to make mulch. Other regular festivals celebrated in the Square include Chinese New Year, St Patrick's Day, St George's Day, the Sikh New Year festival of Vaisakhi, Muslim festival of Eid ul-fitr and Diwali.

Management responsibility transferred from DCMS to the Greater London Authority (GLA) in February 2002 under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. In July 2003 Trafalgar Square was formally re-opened following completion of the 18-month improvement project that was undertaken as part of the World Squares for All initiative. The scheme included re-routing traffic from the north side of the square, which was pedestrianised to create a large terrace at the top of the square. A central staircase linking the Square with the National Gallery, a café, lifts and public toilets were also part of the changes.

The 'empty plinth' has been used in recent years as a site for temporary installation of commissions by internationally-recognised contemporary artists, commencing with a programme organised through the RSA that saw works by Rachel Whiteread, Bill Woodrow and Mark Wallinger. Since 2002, the new programme of temporary projects has been undertaken by GLA, commencing with Marc Quinn's 'Alison Lapper Pregnant'.

Sources consulted:

Survey of London XX: Trafalgar Square & Neighbourhood (1940), chap. 2; Crook, J & Port, M The History of the King's Works VI (1973), 491-94; Mace, R Trafalgar Square (1976); Clunn, H The Face of London (1951), 152-55; Stamp, G The Changing Metropolis (1984), 88-99; GLA website, www.london.gov.uk/trafalgarsquare

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ300804 (530050,180450)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
Owned by the Crown, and in the care of Greater London Authority
Site management:
Greater London Authority
1826; 1840-1844; 1937-39; 2000
Sir Charles Barry; Sir Edwin Lutyens
Listed structures:
LBI: National Gallery; Nelson's Column. LBII*: Canada House; central fountains, terrace walls with lampstandards, steps and stone bollards. LBII: statues of George IV, General Sir Charles Napier and General Sir Henry Havelock, South Africa House
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

NHLE grade:
Grade I
Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:


Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
In Conservation Area:
Conservation Area name:
Trafalgar Square
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Yes - Area of Special Archaeological Priority
Other LA designation:

Trafalgar Square *

Trafalgar Square - Photo: Colin Wing
Date taken: 14/10/21 11:07

Click a photo to enlarge.

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