Admiral Horatio Nelson sits atop his column 169 feet 3 inches (51.59 m) above the concourse of Trafalgar Square and has gazed down over it since 1843. The square predates the column by three years, built to commemorate the victory over the Spanish and the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The Lions guarding the column were a later addition in 1867.
Trafalgar Square is one of London’s main tourist attractions, but ever wonder what was there before it was built?
The area that was cleared for the development of Trafalgar Square in 1829 was known as Porridge Island!
There had previously been an open space or square on the same spot, but much smaller than today. On its north side, where the National Gallery is, was a large building called the “King’s Mews,” where the Monarch kept his horses, this dates back at least to Richard II in the 14th century. Author and poet Geoffrey Chaucer was not only Clerk of the King’s Works, but also “Clerk of the Mews at Charing.” The area was known as such due to its proximity to the village of Charing (Now Charing Cross). Early in the 19th century the “Mews” was occupied by Mr. Cross’s collection of wild animals. The red block in the map of 1746 approximately denotes the position of Nelsons Column.
Porridge Island along with The Bermudas and Cribbe Island denoted the area upon which the square stands today and also the land around St Martins in the Field and the Strand. The three areas were noted in their day for the poor conditions of the many dwelling houses crammed together in what were known as “Rookeries” where people lived in a very unsanitary conditions. This makes it all the more incredible that Porridge Island was renowned for the amount and diversity of its “Cookshops” forerunner of the modern “Takeaway”. These were usually second rate, using meat and vegetables well past their best. A passage in the book The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose in 1785 refers to Porridge Island as,
“An alley leading from St. Martin’s church-yard to Round-court, chiefly inhabited by cooks, who cut off ready-dressed meat of all sorts, and also sell soup.”
London in the 16th -19th century was a maze of alleyways and small courts. Most unfortunately have succumbed to the developers wrecking ball, but some still remain and are a fascinating insight to how Londoners back then, lived, worked, loved and died. I have a guided walking tour on The London Miscellany Tours website, that takes in some of these alleys and gives some background into the people that once inhabited them. Not Avenues, but Alleyways There is also a detailed piece on one of these alleys, Crane Court on my Blog
With Trafalgar Square in the planning stage the area was cleared of the great Rookeries and its Cookshops. Miraculously one small area remains to this day. Goodwin’s Court was at the time of the 1746 map a slum alley full of ramshackle housing. Today it is possibly the most desirable of addresses in the West End, but you still get a flavour of what this alleyways were like when a dollop of porridge was all you could afford.