Nelson's Column

Coordinates: 51°30′27.8″N 0°07′40.7″W / 51.507722°N 0.127972°W / 51.507722; -0.127972
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Nelson's Column
Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square
51°30′27.8″N 0°07′40.7″W / 51.507722°N 0.127972°W / 51.507722; -0.127972
LocationLondon, WC2
United Kingdom
DesignerWilliam Railton, E. H. Baily and Sir Edwin Landseer
Also: Musgrave Watson, William F. Woodington, John Ternouth and John Edward Carew (sculptors), Grissell and Peto (contractors)
TypeVictory column
MaterialGranite and bronze
Height169 feet 3 inches (51.59 m)
Beginning date1840
Completion date1843
Opening date1843
Dedicated toAdmiral Horatio Nelson

Nelson's Column is a monument in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, Central London, built to commemorate Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson's decisive victory at the Battle of Trafalgar over the combined French and Spanish navies, during which he lost his life, killed by a French sniper. The monument was constructed between 1840 and 1843 to a design by William Railton at a cost of £47,000 (equivalent to £4,908,873 in 2021). It is a column of the Corinthian order[1] built from Dartmoor granite. The statue of Nelson was carved from Craigleith sandstone by sculptor Edward Hodges Baily. The four bronze lions around its base, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, were added in 1867.[2]

The pedestal is decorated with four bronze relief panels, each 18 feet (5.5 m) square, cast from captured French guns. They depict the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen and the death of Nelson at Trafalgar. The sculptors were Musgrave Watson, William F. Woodington, John Ternouth and John Edward Carew, respectively. The ornate capital upon which Nelson stands is by Charles Harriott Smith.[3]

It was refurbished in 2006 at a cost of £420,000 (equivalent to £646,501 in 2021), at which time it was surveyed and found to be 14 feet 6 inches (4.42 m) shorter than previously supposed.[4][5] The whole monument is 169 feet 3 inches (51.59 m) tall from the bottom of the pedestal to the top of Nelson's hat.

Construction and history[edit]

The column under construction, 1843. William Henry Fox Talbot
The column looking south towards Whitehall, The Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey

In February 1838, a group of 121 peers, Members of Parliament (MPs) and other gentry formed a committee to raise a monument to Lord Nelson, funded by public subscription, and the Government agreed to provide a site in Trafalgar Square, in front of the newly completed National Gallery. A competition was held for designs with an estimated budget of between £20,000 and £30,000. The deadline for submissions was 31 January 1839.

The winning entry, chosen by the sub-committee headed by the Duke of Wellington was a design by William Railton for a Corinthian column, surmounted by a statue of Nelson, and flanked by four sculpted lions. Flights of steps would lead up between the lions to the pedestal of the column.[6] Several other entrants also submitted schemes for columns. The second prize was won by Edward Hodges Baily who suggested an obelisk surrounded by sculptures.[7]

Criticism of the organisation of the competition caused it to be re-run. Railton submitted a slightly revised design, and was once again declared the winner, with the stipulation that the statue of Nelson should be made by EH Baily. The original plan was for a column 203 feet (62 m) high, including the base and statue, but this was reduced to 170 feet (52 m) with a shaft of 98 feet (30 m) due to concerns over stability.[8] The base was to have been of granite and the shaft of Craigleith sandstone, but before construction began it was decided that the shaft should also be of granite.[1]

Excavations for the brick foundations had begun by July 1840. On 30 September 1840, the first stone of the column was laid by Charles Davison Scott, honorary secretary of the committee (and son of Nelson's secretary, John Scott), at a ceremony conducted, according to the Nautical Magazine, "in a private manner, owing to the noblemen and gentlemen comprising the committee being absent from town".[9] Construction of the monument, by the contractors Grissell and Peto, progressed slowly, and the stonework, ready for the installation of the statue, was not completed until November 1843.

In 1844, the Nelson Memorial Committee ran out of money, having only raised £20,485 in public subscriptions,[10] and the Government, in the form of the Office of Woods and Forests took over the project.[6]

Installation of the bronze reliefs on the pedestal did not begin until late 1849, when John Edward Carew's depiction of the death of Nelson was put in place on the side facing Whitehall. This was followed early the next year by William F. Woodington's relief of the Battle of the Nile on the opposite side.[11][12] Carew's relief was cast by Adams, Christie and Co. of Rotherhithe.[11] The other three were cast by Moore, Fressange and Moore. The last to be made, The Battle of Cape St. Vincent became the subject of legal action, when it was discovered that the bronze had been adulterated with iron. The partners in the company were jailed for fraud and the relief was completed by Robinson and Cottam.[13] It was finally put in place in May 1854.[14]

The sandstone statue by Edward Hodges Baily

The 5.5-metre (18 ft 1 in) statue at the top was sculpted by Edward Hodges Baily R.A. from three pieces of Craigleith sandstone donated by the Duke of Buccleuch, former chairman of the Nelson Memorial Committee, from his own quarries.[15]

The statue stands on a fluted column built from solid blocks of granite from the Foggintor quarries on Dartmoor.[16] The Corinthian capital is made of bronze elements, cast from cannon salvaged from the wreck of HMS Royal George[17] at the Woolwich Arsenal foundry. It is based on the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome, and was modelled by C.H. Smith.. The bronze pieces, some weighing as much as 900 pounds (410 kg) are fixed to the column by the means of three large belts of metal lying in grooves in the stone.[18]

One of the four lions designed by Edwin Landseer at the base

The four identical bronze Barbary lions[19] at the column's base were not added until 1867. At one stage, they were intended to be of granite, and the sculptor John Graham Lough was chosen to carve them. However, in 1846, after consultations with Railton, he turned down the commission, unwilling to work under the restrictions imposed by the architect.[20][21] The sculptures eventually installed, commissioned in 1858, were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer in collaboration with Baron Marochetti. Their design may have been influenced by Marschalko János's lions at each abutment to the Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) in Budapest, installed 6 years before the Trafalgar Square lions were commissioned. Landseer was paid £6,000 for his services, and Marochetti £11,000.[21] In 2011, consultants for the Greater London Authority reported that tourists climbing onto the backs of the lions have caused considerable damage and recommended banning tourists from climbing them.[22]

The column also had a symbolic importance to Adolf Hitler. If Hitler's plan to invade Britain, Operation Sea Lion, had been successful, he planned to move it to Berlin.[23]


The column was renovated and cleaned by sandblasting in 1968. [24]

The column was refurbished in 2006, during which time it was scaffolded from top to bottom for access. Steam cleaning was used together with gentle abrasives to minimise any harmful impact on the bronze and stonework.[25] The £420,000 cost was covered by Zurich Financial Services, which advertised on the scaffolding for the duration of the work. Before restoration began, laser surveys were taken during which it was found that the column was significantly shorter than the usually quoted 185 ft (56.4 m). In fact, it measures 169 ft (51.5 m) from the bottom of the first step to the tip of the admiral's hat.[4][5]

Publicity stunts and protests[edit]

John Noakes of the BBC TV children's programme Blue Peter climbed the column in 1977. Television presenter and entertainer Gary Wilmot climbed the column in 1989 for LWT's Six O' Clock Show to recreate the 'topping out' ceremony of 1843. Dressed in Victorian attire and sporting a boater hat, Wilmott enjoyed tea and sandwiches at the top of the column before climbing down.

The column has also been climbed on several occasions as a publicity stunt to draw attention to social or political causes. Ed Drummond made the first such climb in 1978 for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, making use of the lightning conductor en route.[26] On 30 March 1988, Joe Simpson and John Stevenson climbed the column as part of a Greenpeace Campaign against Acid rain. On 14 June 1992, it was climbed by Martin Cotterrel, Joe Simpson and John Stevenson on behalf of Greenpeace to protest against the first Earth Summit meeting in Brazil. On 13 April 1995, Simon Nadin free-climbed Nelson's Column with Noel Craine, Jerry Moffatt and Johnny Dawes following on top rope, and graded the climb as "E6 6b/5a". This protest time was on behalf of Survival International to publicize the plight of Canadian Inuit. On 13 May 1998, the Column was climbed by Al Baker, Peter Morris and John Cunningham on behalf of Greenpeace to protest against Old growth logging activity in British Columbia. In May 2003, BASE jumper and stuntman Gary Connery parachuted from the top of the column, in a stunt designed to draw attention to the Chinese policies in Tibet.

In December 2015, Disney paid £24,000 to cover it in lights to make it resemble a giant lightsaber, to promote Star Wars: The Force Awakens.[27]

On 18 April 2016, in the early hours of the morning, Greenpeace activists climbed up the column and placed a breathing mask on Admiral Lord Nelson in protest of air pollution levels.[28]

Other monuments to Nelson[edit]

The first civic monument to be erected in Nelson's honour was the Nelson Monument, a 44-metre high obelisk on Glasgow Green in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1806. Also in Scotland, the foundation stone for Nelson's Tower at Forres in Moray was laid in 1806 and it was completed in 1812;[29] while the Nelson Monument stands on top of Calton Hill, Edinburgh. In Dublin, Ireland, Nelson's Pillar was erected in 1808 but was destroyed by republicans in 1966, and in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, England, there is a Grade II* listed bronze statue of Nelson by Richard Westmacott, dating from 1809. Sir Richard Westmacott also designed the elaborate monument to Nelson in Liverpool. In Portsmouth, Nelson's Needle, on top of Portsdown Hill, was paid for by the company of HMS Victory after arriving back in Portsmouth. There is a column topped with a decorative urn in the Castle Green, Hereford – a statue was planned in place of the urn, but insufficient money was raised.[30] The Britannia Monument, Great Yarmouth, England (1819), is a 144-foot-high doric column design.

Elsewhere in the world, Nelson's Column in Montreal was erected by both Britons and Canadians in 1809, and there is also a Mount Nelson, near Invermere, British Columbia. As at London, the column in Montreal has the admiral standing with his back to the waves. A much shorter statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square, Bridgetown, Barbados, is older than its counterpart in London.[31][32][33]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Selected Design for the Nelson Testimonial". The Art Union. 1: 100. 1839. Retrieved 30 May 2011., p.100
  2. ^ White, Colin (2002), The Nelson Encyclopaedia, Park House, Russell Gardens, London.: Chatham Publishing, Lionel Leventhal Limited, p. 178, ISBN 1-86176-253-4
  3. ^ Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 by Rupert Gunnis
  4. ^ a b "Restored naval hero is revealed", BBC News, 11 July 2006
  5. ^ a b Dawar, Anil (13 July 2006), "Nelson's Column is 16ft shorter than everybody thought", The Telegraph, London, archived from the original on 12 January 2022, retrieved 20 May 2010
  6. ^ a b "Lot No: 35 An important mid 19th century carved bathstone architect's 1:40 scale model of Nelson's column". Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  7. ^ The Civil engineer and architect's journal, Volume 2, 1839
  8. ^ Report from the Select Committee on Trafalgar Square. London. 1840.
  9. ^ "The Nelson Memorial". The Nautical Magazine. 9: 887–8. 1840. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  10. ^ Hansards Parliamentary Debates, Vol. CXLIV, p.1220
  11. ^ a b "The Nelson Column, Trafalgar Square". The Times. 6 December 1849. p. 3.
  12. ^ "The Nelson Column". The Times. 5 April 1850. p. 5.
  13. ^ "Bronze sculpture founders: a short history". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
  14. ^ Mace, Rodney (1976). Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire. London: Lawrence and Wishart. p. 107.
  15. ^ "Granton Quarry". Archived from the original on 6 February 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  16. ^ "Holiday Geology Guides – Trafalgar Square". British Geological Survey. Retrieved 24 May 2009.
  17. ^ "BBC News – The wreck that revealed the Mary Rose". 4 September 2011. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  18. ^ Timbs, John (1858). Curiosities of London. London. p. 284. Retrieved 27 October 2011.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  19. ^ "The lion: A victim of its own power?". BBC. 30 June 2015. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  20. ^ "Landseers Lions in Trafalgar Square". Retrieved 30 May 2011.[permanent dead link]
  21. ^ a b "Origins of Nelson Column". The Times. 22 November 1943. p. 6.
  22. ^ "Ban tourists from Trafalgar Square lions before they destroy them, report says". 19 June 2011. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  23. ^ MacLean, Rory (1 October 2007). "London illuminated". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  24. ^ Nelson's Column (Newsreel). British Pathé. 14 April 1968. Retrieved 7 May 2023.
  25. ^ Project of Nelson's Column Restoration, David Ball Restoration, archived from the original on 15 June 2008, retrieved 30 September 2008
  26. ^ Beresford, David. "Anti-apartheid protestors make first ascent of Nelson's Column". The Guardian. No. 21 October 2016. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  27. ^ "Video: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens': Disney pay £24,000 to turn Nelson's Column into a lightsaber – Telegraph". 17 December 2015. Archived from the original on 17 December 2015.
  28. ^ "Eight arrests after Greenpeace protesters scale London monuments". BBC News. 18 April 2016.
  29. ^ "Forres, Cluny Hills, Nelson's Monument". Canmore. Historic Environment Scotland. Retrieved 2 April 2022.
  30. ^ Patrick Burns (30 August 2011). "BBC site with photograph". Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  31. ^ Lord Nelson Statue Archived 8 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  32. ^ Barbados Tourism Encyclopaedia – Lord Nelson's Bronze Statue
  33. ^ The Government of Barbados Archived 13 November 2009 at the Wayback Machine – Lord Nelson's Bronze Statue

External links[edit]