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.
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.
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.
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.
Several years ago, I wrote a piece about the famous ‘Lucozade’ sign which has welcomed motorists approaching London from the west with its vintage, sparkling display since the 1950s.
The sign, located at Brentford, can even be glimpsed in a 1975 episode of ‘The Sweeney’:
But now, thanks to the brazen action of advertising giant JC Decaux, the sign has vanished; hastily removed over the Christmas period and replaced with yet another, generic digital board. An so, yet again, London has had another little piece of its uniqueness and character chiseled away.
What a sad way to start the year.
Pictured below is Craig’s Court, a tiny dead-end street tucked away off of Whitehall.
Although located just yards from Trafalgar Square, this cramped little cul-de-sac is often overlooked by the thousands of tourists and commuters who stream past every day, completely unaware of the site’s quirky history.
Little is known about the origins of Craig’s Court, other than it was laid out at some point in the 1690s by Joseph Craig, a vestryman of St Martin’s. When inaugurated, Craig’s Court lay at the northern tip of the Palace of Whitehall, a vast royal residence which had been expanding ever since Henry VIII pinched it from Cardinal Wolsey in the 16th century.
The palace was destroyed by a huge fire in 1698. Today, only the Banqueting House on the corner of Horseguards Avenue remains.
As the remains lay smouldering, one William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington convinced himself that the palace would be rebuilt and so, not wishing to miss out on the opportunity to shack up beside the royal family, purchased a plot of land on Craig’s Court and built the splendid Harrington House which was completed in 1702.
Unfortunately Whitehall Palace was never reconstructed. The royals migrated westward, depriving Stanhope of the opportunity to call the monarch his neighbour and rendering his grand home an isolated white elephant (although the family remained there until 1917).
Today, the 18th century building houses a telephone exchange…and allegedly harbours an entrance shaft to a large, top-secret government bunker dubbed ‘Q Whitehall‘- although you didn’t hear that from me…
Paving the way
Despite its diminutive size and association with folly, Craig’s Court can be thanked for blessing London with a major innovation.
In the mid-18th century, the then speaker of the house, Arthur Onslow decided to pop by Harrington House for a visit.
In those days London’s streets were not paved, leaving many thoroughfares boggy and treacherous.
Craig’s Court was no exception and the sodden road, coupled with the dead-end’s narrowness resulted in Onslow’s coach becoming lodged as he approached Harrington House. So tight was the squeeze that a hole had to be cut in the coach’s roof so that the flustered and infuriated speaker could drag himself out.
When he returned to Parliament, Arthur Onslow pushed through a bill which required London householders to ensure kerbstones were laid outside their door- thus giving birth to ordered pavements.
Craig’s Court was also once home to Teresia Constantia Phillips, a woman who caused great scandal in the 1740s when she published shocking series of accounts detailing her numerous affairs.
In the 1760s, a fashionable artist named George Romney also set up house here.
Romney was noted for his relationship with Emma Hart- the woman who would later become Lady Hamilton and mistress to Lord Horatio Nelson, the celebrated admiral whose infamous memorial stands just around the corner on Trafalgar Square…