• Richard Ing

Nelson's Column. Commemorating England's greatest naval hero.

Nelson's magnificent column.

Dominating the great public space of Trafalgar Square is the the great memorial to Horatio, Admiral, The Lord Nelson, known to Londoners and the wider world as, Nelson's Column. Although the subject of many smutty schoolboy jokes, Nelson's Column has a fascinating history and it took more than six decades from the great Admiral's untimely death at the Battle of Trafalgar, to complete this most famous of London monuments.

On 21st October 1805 at around 1pm, Nelson was shot by a French sniper on the deck of his Flagship, HMS Victory, almost at the point of glory against the combined naval forces of France and Spain. Following the removal of his mortal remains back to London and eventual State Funeral and internment at St Paul's Cathedral, a full 32 years passed before a some enlightened individual came up with the idea of constructing a permanent memorial to Britain's greatest ever Naval victor. A competition was launched and over 100 designs were put forward. Perhaps the most outlandish of these was to build a replica of HMS Victory in stone and dramatically, the positions of all the sailors on board, to be cast in bronze, would re create the exact moment that Nelson was shot!

Eventually the design we know today was agreed and it took until 1842 for the 172 feet high column to be constructed from Dartmoor granite,following the design of William Railton. The magnificent Corinthian capital atop the column was constructed from bronze recovered from the canon of HMS Royal George. This was a controversial decision as HMS Royal George had capsized in the most unfortunate of circumstances while anchored in calm waters off Portsmouth. This was one of the worst disasters in British Naval History with over 1000 souls lost. Nevertheless following the completion of the capital, Railton arranged a celebration dinner for fourteen guests during which rump steak was served. I imagine it was pretty cold by the time it was put in front of the guests. You can get a feeling for the sense of vertigo that the diners might have felt by looking for Blue Peter legend, John Noakes ascent of the column in 1977 without a harness or safety line, on YouTube.

The 17 foot high statue of Nelson, carved from Craigleith stone by the sculptor, E H Baily was added in 1843. The enormous bronze panels at the base of the column depicting Nelson's great victories at Copenhagen, The Nile, Cape St Vincent and Trafalgar were not put in place until 1849.

Guarding the base of the monument are Edwin Landseer's famous Lions. Landseer was a perfectionist and took no less a person than Queen Victoria to persuade him to take the job on. He was a perfectionist and demanded that his work should be based on the study of a lion from life or rather death. Landseer acquired a lion corpse from London Zoo. (It had died of natural causes). He then spent rather too long studying the unfortunate feline until the stink of rancid decomposing flesh led to multiple complaints from neighbours. However,he had completed enough preparatory work. Yet Landseer was not an artist to be hurried and it was not until 1867 that the four magnificent beasts were finally installed and Nelson's great memorial was finally completed.

Copyright, Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing.

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