The top of the Duke of York’s column off The Mall, can, unlike Nelson’s Column, be accessed by a spiral staircase. But it has been closed to the public for over 120 years. I stumbled across this curious fact reading the redoubtable Augustus J C Hare’s account of Trafalgar Square, which he was not a fan of. In 1896, he described it as a “dreary expanse of granite” with the “miserable buildings” of the National Gallery flanked by a “hideous hotel and a frightful club”. He considered Nelson’s Column “a very poor work, which, however, does not signify much as it can only be properly seen from the top of the Duke of York’s column, which no one ascends”.
This whetted my appetite to see a view of London that hardly anyone has seen for well over a century and – to cut a long story short – managed to blag permission to ascend the column’s 168 Aberdeen granite stairs, accompanied by two attendants.
At the top, we were hit by a wonderful panoramic view of London from an angle I’d never seen before. I looked immediately for Nelson’s Column, only to find that what would have been Hare’s untrammelled view of Trafalgar Square was obscured by the British Council building, a Johnny-come-lately structure. This apart, the platform revealed an unfolding panorama rarely seen from the west of the capital.
It is easy to see why it is still closed to the public, as there is a clear risk of suicides. But it is less easy to understand why the Duke of York (1763 – 1827) got a column in the first place, let alone one with a coveted spiral staircase.
He was appointed Commander in Chief of the army by his doting father, George III, but failures on the field of battle in France and Holland made him widely regarded as unfit to command an army in the field. He was a notorious philanderer and gambler, with the dubious honour of being satirised in the famous nursery rhyme:
Oh, the grand old Duke of York, he had 10,000 men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill.
And he marched them down again.
When he died he left debts of £401,169 – tens of millions at today’s prices – leading some to suppose that he was put on top of a column to dodge his creditors. However, he did bequeath a lasting legacy for which the nation was grateful, by reducing corruption in the granting of army commissions (though this didn’t stop his mistress earning a bob or two that way) and established a military college that became Sandhurst.
The column, built, appropriately, from York stone at the foundations as well as Aberdeen granite, was paid for by soldiers in the army donating a day’s pay – by conscription rather than subscription, one presumes – amounting to £21,000 for its construction, which began in 1831. The statue of the duke was raised to the top three years later.
The public used to be allowed to climb to the top from from between noon and 4:00 pm from May until to Sept for the price of six (old) pence, until a spate of suicides led to its closure in the late 18th century. On a clear day you can see for miles.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.