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Buffing Nelson’s Column

Londoners of a certain age- and indeed others who’ve visited the capital in years gone by- will remember how Trafalgar Square used to swarm with pigeons. Thousands of them. There was even a family-run stall in the square which sold bird seed to entice the critters.

Myself amongst Trafalgar Square’s pigeons in the early 1980s

Thanks to a clean-up initiative introduced by former mayor Ken Livingstone at the turn of the 21st century however, the pigeons have since flocked elsewhere, robbing the square of its ornithological character. It’s now easy to forget just how prevalent those tough little city birds were.

Pigeons at Trafalgar Square (copyright The Daily Herald)

When they ruled the roost the pigeons made quite a mess and it was the statue of Naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, standing at the centre of Trafalgar Square, which bore the brunt of their droppings. Consequently his statue often required a scrub- easier said than done when said sculpture is perched upon a 170 ft column.

Nelson’s Column as seen from the National Gallery

The chaps responsible for maintaining Nelson’s statue in days gone by were hardy blokes for sure; scaling the dizzying heights with steeplejack knowhow and practically zero safety gear. Their boldness was famously highlighted in 1977 when legendary children’s TV presenter, John Noakes– who sadly died on the 29th May 2017- joined them up top for an episode of Blue Peter. Just watching John scale the rickety ladders is enough to make your palms sweat… click below to view if you dare!

This wasn’t the only time the hair-raising process of cleaning Nelson’s Column was captured on film- please click below to view earlier footage which appears to date from the late 1950s/early 60s.

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7 responses

  1. I well remember those pigeons, and the films about cleaning Nelson. When I used to work near Trafalgar Square, from 2004-2012, I noticed that seagulls had mostly replaced the pigeons. They were very aggressive too, and lived on the scraps from the fast-food outlets.
    Nice memories on this post, Rob.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. That is some climb! Just watching John Noakes going up that tricky bit at the top was enough for me, and I was only watching. I’ve no head for heights.
    I was last in London in the late 70’s, and I do remember the pigeons 🙂

    1. Thanks for the nice comment 🙂

  3. By Gum (as John said)

  4. I visited the West End annually during the 1980s and 1990s and soon learned to wear an oilcloth cap from Barbour’s to somewhat protect me from the Trafalgar Square birds. I often stopped to rinse it off in one of the fountains as I crossed the square. I wouldn’t have ventured in the square without some sort of head protection, as I had much more hair in those days.

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