Tag Archives: Trafalgar Square

The Statue of Charles I – a London landmark Jane Austen would have known

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Standing on the southern edge of Trafalgar Square, facing down Whitehall, and in the midst of a permanent traffic jam, stands the bronze statue of Charles I, looking down towards the place of his execution as he has done since 1675. The surroundings have changed beyond recognition, but every Georgian Londoner and visitor would have been familiar with the statue which appears in numerous prints.

The statue was created by Hubert le Suer in 1633, but it was not erected immediately and by the time of the Civil War it had become a target for the Parliamentarians. It was sold to John Rivett, a brazier, in 1649 on the strict instructions that it was to be melted down. Rivett, obviously both a shrewd political forecaster and a businessman, buried it in his garden and made a great deal of money from small souvenirs allegedly made from the bronze. Charles II acquired it on his restoration and it was erected, more or less on the site of the medieval Charing Cross, in 1675. It can be seen on the map, just below the R of Cross. Behind it is the King’s Mews and the Golden Cross Inn, now occupied by Trafalgar Square. The bulk of Northumberland House is to the east, below the final S of Cross.

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The pedestal is said to have been designed by Wren and carved by Grinling Gibbons.

This print of 1811 from Ackermann’s Repository, shows the view east past Northumberland House and down the Strand.

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The statue was obviously a familiar landmark that enabled artists to locate their images. The 1823 print of ‘The notorious Black Billy “At Home” to a London Street Party’ (drawn by Samuel Alken, published by Thos. Kelly) shows it surrounded by lively street life. Despite being shown as white, “Black Billy” Waters (c. 1778–1823) was black and is said to have been a slave who escaped by joining the British navy and who lost a leg in a fall from the rigging. Whatever the truth, he was a popular street entertainer with his characteristic feathered hat and violin.

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By the middle of the 19th century street life was rather more decorous and this undated Victorian engraving shows a pristine Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery (with columns recycled from Carlton House).

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Today the traffic around the statue is unrelenting, and so often jammed solid, that bus and taxi passengers have ample opportunity to study Charles in all his melancholy glory!

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Jane Austen Visits Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is one o1-Scan0013cropf the most recognisable London landmarks, a major tourist destination redolent with history, yet it is a relatively modern feature, only about 175 years old.

If Jane Austen were to find herself in Trafalgar Square today, I wondered, would she recognise anything at all? There are, in fact, only two landmarks she would be familiar with and one is the statue of Charles I which stands at the western end of the Strand looking down Whitehall to his place of execution. It was the work of Hubert Le Sueur in 1633 but was not erected here until 1675 after a perilous time buried to avoid being melted do1-Scan0005cropwn by the Parliamentarians. Eventually it was purchased by Charles II and the pedestal was designed by Christopher Wren.  You can see it here in this print from Ackermann’s Repository (1811) which looks eastward down the Strand.

The other landmark she would be familiar with is the church of St Martin in the Fields (built 1722-6) which is clearly recognisable in another Ackermann print of 1815. If Jane stood on the steps, what would she have seen?

The road was called St Martin’s Lane, as it is now, but the buildings on the left of the picture formed a frontage to the vast St Martin’s Workhouse which covered the space now occupied by the National Portrait Gallery.

Directly in front of her would have been a jumble of small buildings and lanes and then the yard of the Queen’s Mews. The King’s Mews occupied the site of the National Gallery.

The royal mews for falcons, horses and carriages, along with lodgings for grooms,  and all the associated workers, had been here since the reign of Edward I . The name of nearby Haymarket is explained by the huge requirements for fodder and bedding. William Kent rebuilt the main stable block in 1732 and a detail from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London shows something that looks more like a palace for horses than a stables.Roayl mews

The land sloped to the south – the flatness of the square is due to terracing by Charles Barry in 1840 – and around the mews other buildings grew up like coral on a reef. Many of the buildings were let to private individuals for lodgings or shops, there was a menagerie, a store for public records and in the south-west corner, facing onto Cockspur Street, was the Phoenix fire engine, ready to gallop off to deal with fires – provided the buildings bore the mark of the phoenix showing that they had been insured with the company.

The most notable inn in the area was the Golden Cross, a major coaching establishment with a large yard. It lay under what is now South Africa House at the point where Strand meets Trafalgar Square.

Opposite was Northumberland House which can be seen in the print showing the Charles I statue. It was built in the 17th century for the Earl of Northampton before passing into the hands of the Percy family – the earls of Northumberland. Despite its antiquity and splendour it was demolished in 1874. The site now lies between Craven Street and Northumberland Avenue.

The area would have remained much as Jane Austen knew it until 1830 when demolition began to create John Nash’s Charing Cross Improvement Scheme. The National Gallery was built 1833-7 and includes one feature Jane must have seen in her lifetime but may not have recognised again – pillars from the recently-demolished Carlton House. Nelson’s Column was erected between 1839-43 and the statue added in 1843. The fountains and basins came next in 1845 (remodelled in 1939) and the four lions arrived in 1867.Nat Gallery

The National Gallery

So what would Jane have made of the changes? Probably she would be most upset by the disappearance of Spring Gardens just to the south of the square and now under Admiralty Arch. Once the home to picture galleries that she visited and charming tea shops and amusements, it now survives as a few yards of truncated street, a sad relic of Jane Austen’s London.

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