Like many I love an urban myth: pigeons knowingly travelling on the tube; Jimi Hendrix was responsible for releasing the original breeding pair of parakeets; or cabbies have to keep a bale of straw in their boot ’to feed their horse’; and best of all, London’s bollards are French cannons from captured ships taken at Trafalgar.
The tale of the recycled cannon could almost be true.
[A]fter all the four bronze relief panels on the pedestal of Nelson’s Column are cast from captured French guns. When you look at many bollards they do have a striking resemblance to an upturned gun with a cannon ball jammed into its muzzle. Many except the City of London’s bollards, the City, after all, like to do its own thing.
First the navy didn’t actually own its guns, The Office of Ordnance was responsible for the testing and supply of the Nation’s guns. There is no doubt that redundant cannon were put to further use they had value. Two types were produced: bronze cannon barrels composed of 90 per cent copper, 9 per cent tin, with zinc and lead thrown in for good measure. These were used by the army being lighter. While the navy was supplied with a cast iron equivalent.
Bronze cannons had high scrap value and were melted down. Cast iron on the other hand had no value and was put to use as purpose-made road posts or bollards, usually in the vicinity of the dockyard.
Gun Wharf at Wapping derives its name from once being an ordnance depot supplying the navy, but alas has no cannon bollards nearby. In fact some sources disclaim it ever was used to military purposes.
The urban myth goes along the lines that after Nelson’s victory over the French at Trafalgar, eager to flaunt their power; the English stripped the captured vessels and reused anything of value. When it came to the French cannon they found they were too large to be retrofitted into the English fleet’s ships. Determined to show just who was victorious in the fight against their long-term adversary the obsolete weapons were put to use adorning the roads around the dockyards and East London.
One authentic piece of ordnance probably of English origin can be found close to Shakespeare’s Globe beneath Southwark Bridge. There is no doubt that obsolete ordnance was used for this purpose, but as Dr. Martin Evans’ research has discovered, the East End bollards are unlikely to be from captured French ships at Trafalgar. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (its bi-centenary recently commemorated) much of the French bronze field artillery would be valuable and have been recycled. At Trafalgar the spoils of war were much less. At the end of the encounter on 21st October 1805 Nelson’s fleet had captured 17 French and Spanish warships. The next day a violent storm lasting nearly a week plus a counter-attack made it necessary to stop towing the captured ’prizes’ and turn them loose only to flounder on the Spanish coast.
In the end only 2 prizes remained in British hands, plus the re-captured English vessel Swiftsure, and both the prize ships were Spanish, thus no French-built warship captured at Trafalgar was ever brought back to England. In addition the guns of the prize vessels were probably thrown overboard to help survive the ravages of the storm.
Other skirmishes with the French have led to French guns reaching England’s shores to be recycled to not Trafalgar.
An excellent blog about bollards – Bollards of London – was started by London cabbie John Kennedy. It has since been taken over and not updated of late. But it does contain a plethora of pictures on these forgotten pieces of street furniture.
Main picture: Bollards ©Jane’s London
Single bollard ©Radio Taxi Group