in England knows about Trafalgar Square. As someone who grew up near London and worked in the capital, I was fairly sure that
I did – until I started work on the book. It was never laid out to commemorate Nelson at all: it was part of the early
19th Century redevelopment of London, and it was 30 years after Nelson’s death before
serious plans to commemorate him with a memorial were put into place. By that time the Square had already acquired its name.
The fiasco surrounding the design, financing and erection of the memorial that we know
as Nelson’s Column is refreshingly – or should that be depressingly –
modern. Overspend, delay, changes to the design: it sounds just like the saga of the Millennium Dome,
except that it dragged on for rather longer. The column wasn’t the only controversial piece of architecture: the design
of the National Gallery also caused a critical furore and charges of inadequacy.
The creation of the Square is a very human story, and not just because it was built by certain individuals, most
of them with large egos, or because it commemorates the famous or because ordinary people have always seen it
as a space in which to gather. Just before World War Two broke out, the fountains were being remodelled and had been dismantled.
The file at the National Archive containes a desperately poignant memo in which one civil servant asks his colleague to check
that he has correctly recorded where everything had been taken for safe keeping, because he did not know who would take up
the work. He did not have our benefit of hindsight regarding the outcome of the war.
The book is heavily illustrated to show the progress of construction and change and also the uses to which the Square
has been put over the decades. Some images are iconic, others less known.
By the way, Trafalgar Square isn’t quite…square.