Everything You Need To Know About Nelson's Column

By James FitzGerald Last edited 36 months ago

Last Updated 25 May 2021

Everything You Need To Know About Nelson's Column
William Henry Fox Talbot's photo of the Column in 1844.

You’ve climbed all over the lion statues next to it, scattered bird-feed at pigeons flapping around it, met your mates at it, wondered how to photograph it, and sat in a traffic jam orbiting it. But how long have you spent really contemplating that spiritual centre of London, Nelson's Column?

Not a lot? Well then here's your Londonist landmark lesson.

Who built it, and why?

The Nelson Column, as it was once known, was erected to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; a victory in which he died.  

The Column took a while to — ahem — get off the ground. Built decades after the Admiral's death — between 1840 and 1843 — it was mostly funded by private donations, and generously helped by the Tsar of Russia. It cost over £3m in today's money.   

Where is ol’ Horatio?

On the south side of Trafalgar Square. This now-familiar piazza was actually developed at the same time as the Column, although as a separate project. Before it, this area comprised royal stables and a mess of backstreets at the base of St Martin’s Lane.

The statue of Nelson himself faces down Whitehall, towards the Admiralty, the HMS Victory at Portsmouth, and ultimately in the direction of Cape Trafalgar, southern Spain.

Pigeon-feeding at the base of the Column around 1993: an activity now banned. Photo by Billy Hicks.

How many Nelsons?

Good question. It's not just one, but five — if you count the quartet of bas-relief panels at the base, which depict the big man's many naval triumphs.

What's it made of?

The design of William Railton, the shaft itself is made of concrete and is in a fluted, Corinthian style. The statue which adorns it was the work of Edward Hodges Baily and made from what is now a very rare sandstone.

The bas-reliefs at ground level are made of melted-down guns captured from the French.

The monument in its surrounds in the early 1900s.

Is the Column getting smaller?

Kind of — at least in people's estimations. The monument was originally meant to be over 200 feet high; an ambition which was quickly scaled back due to safety fears. Then-prime minister Robert Peel stated, quite reasonably, that it would be "extremely inconvenient should the monument fall in that crowded part of the metropolis".   

In 2006, it was discovered that the statue was, at 169 feet, about 16 feet smaller than everyone had always thought.

Anybody ever been up there?

The 14 stone masons responsible for hoisting the statue onto the top of the column in the 1840s made sure to have a dinner party up there before they did so.

Since then, climbing the Column has become the preserve of countless stuntpeople and political activists. An anti-apartheid campaigner in the 1970s was believed to be the first. More recently, Greenpeace protesters managed to affix a dust mask to Nelson’s face to make a point about air pollution.   

Photo by Beata May.

The Admiral looks awfully small from down here…

Notoriously so. In fact, French sightseers in the early days were said to be delighted that the statue depicted Napoleon.

Up close, you learn that the stone Horatio has — just as the real Nelson did late in life — just one arm and one eye. Amid fears the remaining arm would be lost after a lightning strike in 1896, brass straps were affixed and stayed there for a century.

Anyone ever tried to pinch it?

Funny you should ask. The Nazis apparently loved how this big, powerful monument symbolised imperial conquest. The German air force was ordered not to bomb it in the hope of moving it to Berlin if they won the second world war.

Photo by Jamie McK.

Tell me about the lions

These appeared a quarter-century after the Column, in 1867. The sculptor Edwin Landseer used some artistic license, after his model — a dead lion courtesy of London Zoo — rotted. His lions have been ridiculed: their backs bend the wrong way and some think their manes look more like waterfalls.

Oddly, Landseer didn't even get the gig originally. The commission had been entrusted to Thomas Milnes, whose prototypes were unloved and exiled to a garden in Yorkshire, where they stand today.

A survey in 2011 suggested that tourists clambering on the sculptures had significantly eroded them.

And it's the one and only Nelson's Column, right?

Nope. And it wasn’t even the first.