Travel Report: Parliament Square, London.
Parliament Square, London.
If you’re into historical monuments, London has got your back. According to several online articles, there are around 1500 monuments in London celebrating iconic figures from Britain and beyond. Indeed one could spend months tracking them all down, if you were so inclined.
Call me lazy, but I decided to head to one of London’s best monument-hunting spots. A place where you can see twelve of the city’s most notable monuments in one compact space. Step forward Parliament Square! Located right in the heart of central London, the square sits a stone’s throw from The Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey.
In 1868 the British government was busy rebuilding the Houses of Parliament following a devastating fire in 1834. The project was now into its 18th year, while plans were also underway to redevelop a number of surrounding streets. One of these proposed projects was a brand new public square with a bit of greenery. Moreover, they wanted a design that would help traffic flow in what was a highly congested area.
Parliament Square, London.
The famed architect Charles Barry, who designed the new Houses of Parliament, also laid out plans for Parliament Square. He subsequently passed away in 1860, but his work lived on in the new Parliament Square, which opened at the end of 1868.
In those early years the square was a simple affair, just a scattering of trees, some public benches and the elegant Buxton Memorial Fountain that now sits in Victoria Tower Gardens. However, Parliament Square did become the location of the city’s first traffic lights that year. Later, in 1926, Britain’s first roundabout joined the party. It’s not sexy history, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.
The square we see today, with its central green, dates back to a redesign carried out by the British architect George Grey Wornum in 1950. Its first monument arrived way back in 1874 with a tribute to former British Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby.
I was a touch embarrassed that I’d never heard of him. But actually Smith-Stanley was a three time prime minister who, according to several historians, created the modern Conservative party. An achievement that has largely been attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. His statue shows him dressed in robes for his role of chancellor at Oxford University.
In 1876 Parliament Square got its second monument, in honour of another former prime minister. This one was for Henry John Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston. He was a two time leader, who had a firm grip on British foreign policy at the height of its imperial powers between 1830 and 1865.
Just a glance over Lord Palmerston’s life makes for fascinating reading. He was, for example, the first leader of the newly formed Liberal Party in 1859. He was a man adored by the public for his dynamism and ability to stir up British nationalism.
But he also fell out with Queen Victoria over what he saw as royal meddling in foreign policy. And had a public feud with longtime rival William Ewart Gladstone. At the time of writing he is the last British prime minister to die while still in office.
Next, I found myself face to face with the last Liberal Party PM, David Lloyd George. In office between 1916 and 1922, George led Britain through the final years of The First World War. As Britain’s only Welsh prime minister, and as a key player in The Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), it is perhaps surprising that his statue didn’t make it onto Parliament Square until 2007.
Parliament Square, London.
I didn’t photograph all the statues that afternoon. Rather, I soon found myself gravitating towards familiar faces. Instinctively, I just knew Winston Churchill had to be in here somewhere. And there he was, holding court over the northeastern edge of the green.
Churchill’s statue received its official unveiling on the 1st of November 1973. His wife Clementine was in attendance that day, along with the monument’s creator, Ivor Roberts-Jones. Amusingly, the artist’s first sculpture got roundly rejected because he made Winston look “too much like Mussolini”.
Nelson Mandela‘s Parliament Square monument was unveiled on the 29th of August 2007 at the green’s southwestern edge. Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown attended the ceremony, in addition to the anti-apartheid activist Wendy Woods. Oh, and her plus one, the actor and filmmaker Richard Attenborough.
Parliament Square’s Mahatma Gandhi statue came in 2015. Its creator, the award-winning Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson, based his work on a photograph of Gandhi standing outside the offices of British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.
The statue commemorates the centennial of Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa in 1896. It was a visit that historians generally accept as the beginning of his campaign for Indian independence. On the day of the monument’s unveiling, Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna joined Prime Minister David Cameron and Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan.
Adventures in London.
Parliament Square’s most recent addition was the monument to Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a tireless campaigner for women’s rights in the 1890s. Unveiled on the 24th of April 2018, Fawcett is the first woman to be honoured here.
Furthermore, the artist Gillian Wearing is the first female sculptor to have her work exhibited on Parliament Square. As fate would have it, just a few weeks later I found myself visiting an excellent exhibition on how Wearing made the sculpture. For the full story, check out my article on Firstsite Art Gallery in the English town of Colchester.
Parliament Square’s eastern side is a popular spot for protests and political rallies. You may also see protestors scattered around the streets running off the square, as I did on my way to Westminster Bridge.
This friendly, softly spoken guy had been there for over a year when I stopped for a brief chat. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he’d recently gone down to part time working hours so that he could spend more time at his protest station.
Parliament Square, London.
He doesn’t shout or try to draw in passersby. Instead, he simply makes himself available to anyone open to a frank, amiable chat about the terrible damage plastic continues to do to our planet. And, of course, of the dire need to take drastic action. For more info, check out Plastic Oceans UK.
For more on my home city, why not delve through my many travel reports from across London.
Or maybe search further afield with my articles from all around England.
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Gosh Leighton I’ve passed through this square so many times but obviously haven’t paid enough attention to all of these statues. I was particularly interested to read about the most recent one of Millicent Fawcett. How interesting you also attended an exhibition in Colchester about how her sculpture was made. Great post, thanks for sharing. Marion
Thanks for the kind words Marion. It is a fascinating and perhaps even understated square where the statues are set back among the scattered trees. This allows the stone paving to breathe I think and indeed at first glance P.S. doesn’t look like much. Hope you’re shaping up for a good weekend. We’re having intense rain, thunder and lightning here in Sarajevo!
Oh dear, hope the storm passes soon. Keep dry!
Great post and many fantastic photos, Leighton. Whenever I am in London, I always stop by the beautiful Parliament Square which links many of the capital’s iconic buildings. While I’ve never paid much attention to the statues of famous world leaders and historical figures, I loved being in a place ringed by Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Thanks for sharing, and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva
Thanks for visiting Aiva, the square really does sit in a prime location as you say. Indeed anyone touring the heart of political London can easily swing by here while they’re visiting the surrounding monster sights.
Wow, there are a big variety of statues at Parliament Square. I was quite amazed to read when traffic lights made their first appearance … for some reason I thought it was much later. You see, it might not be ‘sexy history’, but it surely was interesting!
Thanks for visiting! I enjoyed very much the concluding chapter to your insane hiking adventures. However, (and I’m not even kidding here) a huge storm cut our electricity in the middle of my comment, which was subsequently lost. Will get back round to that a little later after we’ve (hopefully) survived the day’s online classes on shaky 4/3G. 😉
Funny … your electricity is cut by a huge storm, here in South Africa our electricity is simply switch off by Eskom (our electrical supplier) because they can’t generate enough power 😬.
Yeah, that hike … I’m still resting! Good luck with the online classes (maybe you should call it an early weekend)!
There is a lot of history packed into that square. I must admit I have seen only a few of these statues as I passed through the area. I will have to pay more attention next time. Thanks for the great history lesson Leighton. Have a great weekend. Allan
Thanks Allan. I think there is something about the square’s design where it’s easy to pass through with just a glance or two. They certainly don’t put the statues front and centre, that’s for sure.
Love it when you take a little stroll through a pleasant park bristling with history, A testament to urban planning, first traffic lights and England’s first round-a-bout. I hope you got a picture of it. My favorite statues are the more recent. Mandela, Gandhi, Fawcett. Excellent additions to history and a park. Thanks for the tour.
Glad you enjoyed this Memo. I think I was the other way round with the statues, I felt more fascinated by the people I didn’t know much about. Though architecturally I have to admit that the more recent monuments are much more impressive.
I wouldn’t call you lazy, that’s a lot of interesting history packed into one park. I love that a statue of Gandhi was included but I really love Smith-Stanley’s Movember sideburns/beard! Maggie
Ha ha you’re right, that is an epic display of facial hair. Statue-worthy in its own right. Thanks for your contribution Maggie!
I learn so much history from your posts, thank you for taking the time to share all this information.
Cheers Diana, I appreciate the feedback. I feel it’s always tricky to give a proper historical overview without straying into “boring” territory. If you know what I mean. Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread!
Definitely know what you mean. I find myself struggling with that sometimes too. But you walk the line well!
What an incredible place to wander through and absorb the history of so many people. I loved reading about all the different people honored there. Selfishly I wish there was a picture and an explanation for all the statues there, but I guess I’ll just have to go to London and spend some hours there seeing them all and reading up on all the people. You do a marvelous job Leighton of providing real insight and history of these places without it feeling like a history lesson. Another place I will be putting on my London list 🙂
Thank you Meg, it means a lot. It’s been fun putting together this latest string of London reports. Just one more in this batch.
I like the variety of the people who are honored in Parliament Square. The plastic guy sure is passionate about his position. I remember when people thought plastic was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Have a great weekend and hope your power stays on.
Thanks John, we just about muddled through the day, mainly thanks to 4G! Hope you’re enjoying Thailand. If nothing else, the weather has to be heaps better than here.
The last part caught my attention… Ban Plastic Poison… this has been on my list forever… always want to save our environment.
Indeed… in just about every beach I’ve been on in his world, there are a bunch of plastic bottles washed up on the sand.
Our whole world has changed from years ago. Back in the 1960’s glass bottles were recycled and no Styrofoam..
Statues are often an opportunity to visit a page of history. You did well to look at these statues before they are toppled for some reason, you can always find a reason.
It’s true that you never know what is going to happen these days with statutes of people who have had controversial chapters in their personal and professional lives. Indeed the Churchill statue on Parliament Square was defaced with graffiti during the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-england-london-52972531
Never been to Parliament Square (nor do I recall this part of London), but it’s surprising to see so much history packed into this concentrated area! So many statues of so many important figures throughout history, and one could spend a whole day just discovering them all!
Glad you appreciated this history-packed square Rebecca. It will be interesting to see if and when another statue gets added to the collection.
Now that’s a lot of monuments … and iconic figures from the UK. I remember walking through Parliament Square when we visited London nearly a decade ago, but I’ve forgotten so much about it. Thanks for the refresher and history lesson.
Thanks for stopping by guys. It was fun diving into the personalities behind these monuments and learning a bit more about people who I’d only known by name and even not heard of at all.
Now then Leighton, here’s an almighty coincidence. As you might see from our next post, we’ve just been up to London, including a visit to Westminster Abbey. It’s entirely possible that we were crossing Parliament Square at the very moment your post was published! The Square, you will be pleased to know, looked fabulous in the autumn sun.
Ah, how cool! And the coincidence is even more pronounced than you think. Because my next post, out on Monday, is… Westminster Abbey. Looking forward to reading your post!
Well I walk through this area all the time and never even really paid much attention to the statues, which I now realise is virtually a crime given how interesting they all are!
Ah, glad this was an eye opener Hannah! I’m sure you’ll get another chance to stroll through before long. Thanks for reading!
I don’t often pay attention to these types of statues, usually politicians or military men. Glad to see the sculpture of Millicent Fawcett and learn about the artist. And thanks for including the living figure with his plastic protest!
Thanks for the catch up Ruth!