More than just a traffic island | The history behind Parliament Square
London is famous for its lovely squares – often idyllic pockets of green surrounded by Georgian townhouses. However, when it comes to Parliament Square, Londoners are more likely to associate it as a traffic island than anything else. Funnily enough, Parliament Square became Britain’s first roundabout in 1926 and was also the location of London’s first traffic signals.
While the City of London as we know today was the centre of the our capital from Roman times onwards, the focus moved to the adjoining City of Westminster in the 11th century onwards when the royal family decided to set up their palaces there. The word Westminster derives from ‘west of minster’ (minster being an honorific title given to a church, this being located west of the City of London and St Paul’s).
Parliament Square was laid out in 1868 by Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) in a bid to improve the landscape around the grand new Houses of Parliament, which he also designed and was built between 1840-1870. The new government headquarters were created after the previous old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834 (although the Jewel Tower still survives today). Sir Charles was actually born on Bridge Street – just opposite where the Clock Tower containing Big Ben stands today – so no doubt had great affection for the area. A few decades earlier (1840-1845) he re-modelled Trafalgar Square, which has since been changed again in 2003 with the closure of the north side road. Already in the area were St Margaret’s Church (15th century) and Westminster Abbey (12th century onwards).
Over the decades since, Parliament Square has been a huge draw to tourists checking out Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It has also been a traditional place for demonstrations against the Government, most famously the late anti-war campaigner Brian Haw, who camped on the square for nearly 10 years.
Being in the heart of Westminster and beside Parliament, it is only fitting for the Square to house statues of famous British and foreign statesman. Standing directly across the road from Elizabeth Tower (which houses Big Ben) is a sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s most famous Prime Ministers. During his second tenure as PM in the 1950s, Churchill expressed a wish to have a statue of himself erected on the same spot. Sculptor Ivor Robert-Jones’s statue was unveiled in Parliament Square by Churchill’s widow in November 1973 and has since been Grade-II listed.
Other former Prime Ministers commemorated in Parliament Square includes George Canning (PM 1827, sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, unveiled 1832), Sir Robert Peel (PM 1834-35, 1841-46, sculpted by Matthew Noble, unveiled 1877), Edward Smith-Stanley, Earl of Derby (PM 1852, 1858-59, 1866-68, sculpted by Matthew Noble, unveiled 1874), Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (PM 1855-58, 59-65, sculpted by Thomas Woolner, unveiled 1876), Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (PM 1868, 1874-80, sculpted by Mario Raggi, unveiled 1883),
As well as British PMs, there is also sculptures of former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts (PM 1919-24, 1939-48, sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein, unveiled 1956) and former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, unveiled 1920). More recently, sculptures of former South African President Nelson Mandela and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George were added.
The South African icon’s likeness was created by Ian Walters and its location was the subject of much debate. Although many wanted it outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, it was eventually erected in the south-western edge of the green. Mandela himself attending the unveiling and admitted he wished for that day since a visit to Britain in the 1960s. He said: ‘When Oliver Tambo visited Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square… we half joked that one day a statue of a black person would be erected here.’ Glynn Williams’ sculpture of Lloyd George (PM 1916-22) was erected in November 2007 – three months after the unveiling of Mandela’s statue.
Of course one of these statues was unveiled before Parliament Square even existed, but was relocated after it was laid out. The Canning statue was originally in New Palace Yard, but was moved to the Square in 1949.
- Parliament Square, Westminster, SW1P. Nearest station: Westminster.
Or to read about another famous London ‘traffic island’, read about the Wellington Arch.
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