In history

Did you know that this month marks the 178th year that Lord Nelson’s statue has looked over Trafalgar Square in London? The column is now one of London’s most recognisable landmarks so to mark the occasion, here’s some fun facts to wow your friends with next time you’re walking through Trafalgar Square.

  • Nelson’s Column was built to commemorate Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, which is also where he died – however, construction didn’t actually begin until several decades after his death. The build took place between 1840 and 1843, which was also when the Trafalgar Square that we know today was created. In fact, the National Gallery was only recently completed when work began on Nelson’s Column.
  • The position of Nelson’s Column is purposeful – the statue faces towards the Admiralty, the general direction of Plymouth and the direction of Cape Trafalgar in Spain.
  • The column was designed by William Railton who won the protracted competition for the column after two attempts. The first time he won, his contract was rescinded, but it was then reinstated. The column is in the style of Greek and Roman architecture and is decorated with leaves and scrolls.
  • Funding for the column came from private donors, including the Tsar of Russia who footed more than a quarter of the bill on his own. The total cost came to £47,000 which would be around £4 million in today’s money.
  • Initially the proposals was for a 203ft column but it ended up being scaled back due to budget constrictions and safety concerns. When it was measured in 2006 during renovations, it was found to be 14ft 6in tall, which is shorter than anyone had previously thought – a little nod to Nelson’s stature perhaps? The full height, from the bottom of the pedestal to the top of the hat is 169 ft and 3 inches.
  • The column is made from Dartmoor granite – originally it was supposed to be sandstone, but plans were changed shortly before construction. The statue on the top stands at 5.5 meters and is made from three pieces of Craigleith sandstone which was donated by the Duke of Baccleuch from his own quarry.
  • While we all know about the Nelson on the top of the column, did you know that there are actually five Nelson’s located on the column? The four panels at the bottom each depict a scene from Nelson’s battles, including the Battle of Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Cape St Vincent and the Battle of Trafalgar.
  • Speaking of the panels, they are made from French guns which were captured and melted down. Each one is designed by a different artist.
  • Climbing the column is frowned upon and in 2011, the Greater London Authority called for a total ban of climbing on it, though English Heritage opposed this. There are only a few people who have actually managed to climb it, allegedly, the 14 stone masons who put the statue at the top of the column had a dinner party at the top before he was placed.
  • The statue was damaged by lightning not long after completion – a chip is missing from its shoulder.
  • While you might have expected the statue to be damaged during the Blitz, the Nazi pilots were under strict instructions not to bomb the column. Allegedly, Hitler planned to relocate the entire monument to Berlin had he succeeded in invading Britain.
  • Did you know that the famous lions at the base of the monument were added 25 years after the column? They all sit in the same position but they’re not actually identical!
  • Nelson’s Column, though arguably the most famous, isn’t the only monument to have been erected in his name. There was one built on Glasgow Green in 1806, just a year after his death – much more timely than the one in London. There are also monuments to Nelson in Edinburgh, Forres, Birmingham, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Hereford and Great Yarmouth. There was one in Dublin too but it was bombed in the 60s during the height of the troubles. It stood empty until 2003 when the site became the Spire of Dublin.

You can find Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in Central London – there are no restrictions on when you can visit or how long you stay and the National Gallery opposite is free to visit too! While you’re in Trafalgar Square, make sure to check out the other four plinths, three of which feature statues of notable figures, while the fourth features specially commissioned artwork that is installed on a temporary basis.

Finding Trafalgar Square is easy – by tube or mainland train head to Charing Cross, the tube station has an exit opposite the column, while the overground station is just a short walk away. There are regular buses passing through and the open top city tour buses also pass by.

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