John Vane’s London Stories: New Year in Trafalgar Square

John Vane’s London Stories: New Year in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square first became the setting for London’s annual gift of a Christmas tree from Norway in 1947 to thank Britain for its help during World War II, but it is harder to find a date for when it became a focus for seeing in the New Year.

That role has become overshadowed since 2003, when firework displays beside the Thames began – last night’s conveyed the city’s love to fine effect – but the square was the focal point for celebrations for, well, decades. “Paddling in the waters of the square’s twin fountains has become almost a tradition in recent years,” says the voice over man in the British Pathé clip of the earliest minutes of 1968. “Why? Nobody knows. Perhaps it’s an enjoyable way to catch pneumonia.”

Trafalgar Square New Year celebrations were not organised or official, which is consistent with the history of varied uses made of the square, summarised by Nicholas Boys Smith in his book No Free Parking: The Curious History of London’s Monopoly Board Streets, as simultaneously representing “both imperial prowess and popular protest”.

Designed by Charles Barry, it opened to the public in 1844, complete with its two fountains and Nelson’s Column – though not the four lions, which, while part of the original design, didn’t make their appearance until 1867.

It has always been associated with strong passions of different kinds, from patriotic celebrations to protest rallies, to cultural festivals to bombings. When the column was being designed, people complained about its height. Peter Ackroyd writes in Queer City that nearby alleys were popular settings for casual encounters.

The former Prince Charles made his famous “monstrous carbuncle” speech about the extension to the National Gallery building, which is older than the square it stands on and has had its own critics down the years. The pedestrianisation of the north terrace by Mayor Ken Livingstone from 2003, was, by contrast, a radical move made with broad support.

Trafalgar Square is, then, like its famous 4th Plinth, pretty much what Londoners and others make it. “Whatever a New Year’s got in store, people never fail to welcome its arrival,” says the 1960 voice of British Movietown below. “There are many ways of doing this of course.”

Read more about the history of Trafalgar Square here.

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Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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