Hold fire! The story behind the cannon bollard on Bankside
Is this bollard really a captured French cannon from the Battle of Trafalgar?
While most of London’s street furniture has a purpose, you’d be surprised how many items have a special story or history behind them. Some items of street furniture – especially from the Victorian era – are often very attractive, such as the ‘Dolphin’ street lamps on the Thames embankments, or water fountains. However, when it comes to bollards, more often than not, they are pretty unremarkable. Bollards vary in design, from plain Georgian ones to modern electronic ones which can be lowered automatically on command.
Since at least the 17th century, bollards originated primarily as posts on a ship or dock for mooring boats. As mariners and shipyard workers would have easy access to old cannons, they would use them as bollards half-buried in the ground. The shaft would be blocked with either dirt or a large cannonball.
Today, most of the cannon bollards around London have been replaced with more modern offerings, although a few still remain. While today, a pier exists on Bankside for the Thames Clippers river boat service, in previous centuries, the Thames would have been heaving with boats and there would be a constant demand for mooring bollards. One of these original bollards on Bankside has sparked much debate about where it originated from.
Located a few metres from Southwark Bridge on Bankside, is a weathered black bollard, which has been linked to the Battle of Trafalgar. The story goes that after Nelson’s fleet defeated the French in 1805, the victors stripped the French boats. Although the Brits were able to reuse a lot of the French ships’ contents, the cannons were apparently too large to be retrofitted on British Ships. It was claimed the British decided to reuse the French cannons as street bollards in London as a way to flaunt their victory.
However, it turns out the story behind this particular Bankside bollard may be somewhat of an urban myth. There’s no doubt the bollard originated as a cannon, as it looks real due to its open muzzle and trunnion. However, naval historian Martin H Evans conducted extensive research into these (and other bollards) and concluded it was incredibly unlikely that captured French ships and their cannons ended up in the capital. Read Evans’ essay, ‘Old cannons reused as bollards’ here. Evans conceded that many foreign cannons were used as bollards across Britain by 1815, but found no French ships from Trafalgar ever reached London a decade earlier.
Next time you stroll along Bankside, why not take a look at the old cannon bollard. While we’ll probably never know if its origin is British or foreign, it has nothing to do with the Battle of Trafalgar. However, if you do want to see a French cannon, historians have suggested the cannon bollard outside St Helen’s Church in Bishopsgate is highly likely to be one.
- The cannon bollard stands near Southwark Bridge and Zizzi on Bankside, SE1 9HA. Nearest station: Blackfriars, Cannon Street or London Bridge.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.