Curious facts about Trafalgar Square

You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact. So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:

Mews
The Royal Mews

Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead. This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would  have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.

StMartinsMap1871-1056A workhouse – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery. If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!

Gordon
Gordon – not where he used to be

Gordon of Khartoum – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule. Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.

St Martin’s in the Fields – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!

“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians. I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.

The mysterious Mummy in the City of London

Mummy St James's
No longer on display – the Mummy of St James’s on Garlick Hill

The church of St James’s on Garlick Hill in the City of London has a little secret that’s not put on display anymore. It’s a mummified body that used to be a key attraction.

In a 1937 guide to London, there’s a photo of what’s claimed to be a medieval body. It was discovered in 1839 when the vaults were finally being closed up. The dead man was in almost perfect preservation but had lost all of his hair. A choir boy in the 1880s claimed that the other boys would take it for a run round the church before putting it back in its case!

More recent research suggests that the body was not medieval but dated from between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century. The church website doesn’t mention the mummy and it’s no longer put on view. However, it’s still there – somewhere. So if you’re  passing by this church – you might want to pop in and ask if you can see Mummy!

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne. The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.

St Mary-le-Strand - killer church!
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!

Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.

Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.

The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.

Two men executed in south London for being gay – in 1743

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people we see in Iran these days. But this was London – and barely 250 years ago.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place
Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay. Who wouldn’t?

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter.

As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him. Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court. Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now.