The cash-strapped project to build the war hero’s memorial is set upon by hammer-wielding members of the public and receives an embarrassing donation from the Emperor of Russia

Archives Nelson

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, central London

The monument which now stands at the geographical centre of London did not have a smooth start. First authorised by Parliament in 1816, no stone was layed for more than two decades. 

During construction it faced numerous setbacks and design changes. The opening of a new promenade at the base of the pillar went awry as the public swiftly destroyed the partially set paving with a range of tools including “sticks, stones, umbrellas, and, in some cases, hammers”. A sense of shambles had clearly set in as the Builder reported that there appeared to be “little doubt that orders have been given to complete this national memorial as speedily as possible”.

It then ran out of money, resulting in Emperor Nicholas I of Russia stepping in and donating £500 to get the job finished, a move which one parliamentarian described as “extremely disgraceful to this country”. The project, which had originally been funded by public donations, was eventually taken over by the government.

Below are a list of short news items and a longer report from Parliament charting the construction of the column, its delays and the row it caused in the House of Commons.

News item, 19 August 1843


The construction of the Nelson monument, Trafalgar-square, the progress of which was interrupted in consequence of the Corinthian capital not being completed, has, after a suspension of some months, been again proceeded with. The workmen have commenced fixing on the leaves and volutes of the capital, which were cast at Woolwich dock-yard, and which have been upon the ground in Trafalgar-square some days. Some of the leaves and volutes, which have taken between two and three years for their execution, weigh two or three tons. They have not all yet arrived from Woolwich, but it is expected the whole will be forwarded in the course of a month. There will be then nothing to impede the operations of the workmen, who have already prepared the stone-work

Archives Nelson text

Original text from 1843

which will be necessary to connect the capital upon which the pedestal will have to be placed. The statue will be next raised, but it will require another tier of scaffolding to be erected for that purpose. The statue of the great naval hero is nearly finished; it is composed of two solid blocks of stone, and has been formed in a temporary house on the ground by Mr. Bailey, R.A., who daily superintends its formation. It is expected that the monument will be finished by the end of the year.


News item, September 1843


The works at the Nelson Pillar continue to progress rapidly. The men employed in fixing the several castings which form the Corinthian capital have completed that part of the work. The whole of these castings are of the best bell-metal, weighing several tons. They are fastened together by the insertion of immense hooks into proportionate eyes, and strongly rivetted. Next, several more tons of stone will be raised to the summit to form the plinth upon which the statue is to be placed. The full-length figure of the hero is in a state of considerable forwardness. It is hewn out of two pieces of Cragleith stone of great hardness. When joined, it will stand 17 feet in height, and some idea may be formed of its proportions, which are beautifully preserved, from the simple. fact that the foot, from toe to heel, measures three-quarters of a yard. It will be some time before the statue is placed upon the pedestal. The rest of the design, which is very elaborate, exhibits a simultaneous and satisfactory state of progression.


News item, 7 October 1843 

It is now confidently stated that the figure of Nelson will be raised to the top of the column in Trafalgar Square on the 29th of October, the anniversary of the victory of Trafalgar. There will be a grand ceremony on the occasion, at which all the Greenwich pensioners are to be present. It has been suggested that the public should be permitted to inspect the statue some time previous to this day, to enable them to have a just idea of the beautiful workmanship of the artist, for the statue will otherwise be raised beyond the reach of minute criticism. 


News item, 11 May 1844


Several men have been this week engaged in sculpturing the basement of the Nelson pillar; and there appears to be little doubt but that orders have been given to complete this national memorial as speedily as possible. The small portion of the promenade laid down in cement was scarcely completed on the day of admission of the public, and was consequently not set. Much of it is therefore broken, the portion being that placed between the bitumen, some of which is also broken away. Sticks, stones, umbrellas, and, in some cases, hammers have been employed by the public to test the solidity of the works - all these attempts would probably have been successfully resisted had full time been allowed for the cement and bitumen properly to harden. The damage done will have to be repaired by the laying down of blocks of the like material sufficiently hardened at the manufactory of the patentee without allowing it to he subjected to the “practical experimentalism” of the public. It is said to be in contemplation to remove the turrets from the top of the National Gallery, and it is further said to be the intention of the commissioners to order the preparation of another statue to be placed on the north-west pedestal in the square, instead of removing that of George III, as previously contemplated.


News item, 8 June 1844


The committee lately assembled for the purpose of taking into consideration the completion of the column in a manner due to the memory of the illustrious hero. The additional sum required for the purpose of making lions, bas-relievos, and steps, is between 10,000l. and 12,000l. The committee have expended 20,000l, the total amount possible to be raised by public subscription, and are obliged to express a decided opinion, that if the government do not come forward and supply the money for finishing the monument, it must remain in its present condition, and be viewed rather as a reproach upon the metropolis than a credit. They agreed in the propriety of waiting upon Sir Robert Peel, to represent the exact state of the case, and to request the Minister’s aid.


Report from Parliament, 27 July 1844


HOUSE OF COMMONS, July 22. A vote for 8,000l being proposed to defray the cost of completing the Nelson Monument, Mr. WYSE begged to know whether the Government had not received an offer from an artist of the name of Park, who had offered to complete the monument at an expense of 5,000, if he were suffered to undertake and finish it in conformity with his own taste and judgement. Sir R. PEEL said, it was true that the Government had received such an offer, but had not thought proper to accept it, as a monument like that erected to Nelson ought to be the subject of competition to artists, and it would be establishing a bad principle if such a proposition as that referred to by the hon. member were to be accepted. The best way was for the Government to pay the expense attendant on completing the monument upon such a plan as might be deemed proper, and not to accept the money of private individuals in such a matter. Mr. WYSE did not disapprove the conduct of the Government in this matter, but thought the present occasion was the fittest opportunity for bringing the offer that had been made to the notice of the House.

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Text from the Parliament report, 1844

Mr. G. KNIGHT recommended that the shaft of the Nelson Monument should be carried to the height to which it was originally intended to carry it before the funds fell short: its height at present was 20 feet less than that originally contemplated, and now the Government had undertaken its completion, the monument ought to be finished in a style worthy of the nation and of the man to whom it was erected. As for the taste which was displayed in the statue of Nelson now placed on the column, he thought it in the lowest possible school of art. He hoped, in the completion of the monument by the Government, that care would be taken to secure good and competent artists to execute the lions which were to adorn the base of the column, and that they would be of a size proportioned to the structure.

Mr. B. COCHRANE observed that he had seen it stated in one of the papers that the Emperor of Russia had bestowed 500l, towards the completion of the Nelson Monument, and that this sum had been accepted. He considered that if this statement was true, the fact was extremely disgraceful to this country, for a national monument ought to be paid for by the people alone, and not to be the result of foreign assistance. As the Government had now taken charge of the structure, he begged to express his entire satisfaction with this proceeding; but he thought that if this had been done before the length of the shaft had been reduced 20 feet, in consequence of the falling off of the funds, it would have been much better. (“Hear,” and “No.”)

Would it be disputed that the monument was twenty feet shorter than it was intended to be, and that this was occasioned by the inadequacy of the sum subscribed to erect it? Why, there was still a sum of 12,000l required to finish the pedestal, and how therefore would it be denied that the sum required for the shaft, as originally designed, had not been inadequate for that purpose? The whole progress of this and of many other public buildings proved to him the necessity that existed in this country for creating a Minister of Public Works, whose attention would be directed to objects of this nature, and which were of such vast importance.

Sir. R. PEEL said the house should bear in mind that this design of a monument to Lord Nelson was originally a private affair. It was proposed to erect a monument to Lord Nelson exactly in the way in which two memorials of the Duke of Wellington were about to be erected, one in the east and the other. in the west part of the town, not by Government, but by private subscription. He could not help thinking that memorials in honour of a great general must be more acceptable to his feelings when erected by the spontaneous offerings of his fellow-subjects, than if erected by a vote of Parliament. (Hear, hear.) In like manner it was determined to erect a monument to Lord Nelson, and the design of the monument originated entirely with individuals. A sum of 20,000l had been subscribed, but the. the committee of management had expected that a considerably larger sum would have been raised. In the progress of the proceedings connected with this monument the committee thought it desirable to take the opinion of an architect and engineer as to its height, and the parties consulted Sir R. Smirke and Mr. Walker, who, considering the height of the fluted Corinthian column, which was also to have a bronze capital and statue on the top, declined to answer for its safety, strongly advising that the shaft should be curtailed by 20 feet. The curtailment was injurious to the effect, but it arose entirely from considerations of public safety, as it was thought that it would be extremely inconvenient should the monument fall in that crowded part of the metropolis, where it was now erected. This consideration alone, and not one of expense, led to the curtailment of the monument. 

When the Emperor of Russia gave 500l towards the completion of the monument, the Government had not the charge of the monument, and the committee accepted the gift, which was not given towards the expense of a public monument erected by public money, but in aid of private subscriptions already collected; the Emperor of Russia being willing to mark his sense of Lord Nelson’s merit, and shew his gratitude for the courteous reception he had experienced in this country, by this subscription of 500. (Hear.) With the same feelings the Emperor subscribed towards the Wellington Monument. Though the Government had now the charge of the Nelson Monument, he hoped the hon. member would not advise the Government to return the subscription of the Emperor of Russia, which was presented before the monument came under the charge of the public, and when it was to have been raised by private subscriptions.

After a few words from Mr. B. COCHRANE, the vote was agreed to.

[In allusion to the proceedings in the House of Commons, reported above, the Times of Thursday observes, “We did yesterday a very unintentional, but very material, injustice to Mr. Patric Park. We stated erroneously that he had offered to complete the Nelson Monument for the sum of 5,000, whereas his proposal was to do all that remains to be done gratuitously, giving, at the same time, a guarantee of 5,000l. that the work should be finished according to the terms specified in his communication to the committee. So generous an offer requires no comment.”]

It appears that the sum of 12,000l and upwards is yet required for the completion of this great national memorial, which the Lords of the Treasury have recommended Parliament to supply, a vote of 8,000l being proposed to be taken for the expenses of the present year. The sum of 3,095l is required for the discharge of Messrs. Grissel and Peto’s contract for granite steps; 4,000l. for the cost of four commemorative subjects, in bronze; and 3,000 for four lions, in granite; making altogether 10,095l. Upon this there is, however, a charge of 2,000l for the architect’s commission upon the gross amount, and for incidental expenses. It was so far back as the year 1816 that the House of Commons (on the 5th of February) resolved, nem. con., that an address should be presented to his Royal Highness the then Prince Regent, humbly requesting his Royal Highness to give directions that a national monument be erected in honour of the ever-memorable victory of Trafalgar; and on the 11th of February, 1816, the Prince Regent intimated to the House, through Lord George Beresford, his willingness to grant its request.

A meeting of the Nelson Pillar Committee took place on Saturday at the National Gallery, Sir George Cockburn in the chair, for the purpose of taking into consideration a communication which had been transmitted by the Government, on the subject of the application made by the committee, to the effect that the Government would either supply the means of completing the monument, or take it wholly into their own hands. There were present, besides the chairman, the Marquis of Northampton, Lord Colborne, Lord Monteagle, Sir P. Laurie, Mr. Sydney Herbert, one of the Lords of the Treasury, &c.

The official letter from the Treasury was read. It stated that in the year 1816, the House of Commons having voted adequate sums for commemorating the great military victories which were achieved, and might thenceforward be achieved, by the arms of this country, there could be no doubt of the existence of a similar desire to perpetuate the memory of the naval valour by which England was so eminently distinguished. It appeared, therefore, to the Government, that the most advisable course which could be pursued by the committee of the Nelson Pillar was to deposit whatever sums of money might be in the possession of the treasurer to the fund in the hands of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who would undertake the task of completing the monument. The letter also alluded to the large sum, 20,000l, already subscribed by the public, and desired that all the drawings, plans, and documents relative to the pillar should be sent to the office of the commissioners.

The meeting unanimously agreed to the suggestion in the official letter, which was con- sidered by the committee as a security for the most perfect completion of the work. A general wish was expressed that upon one side (the northern) of the pedestal not only the name of Nelson, but the names of all the other eminent officers engaged in the battle of Trafalgar should be chiselled. The expense of completing the pillar will amount to 10,000, or 12,000l.

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