Spotted the weird-looking bollards on London’s Southbank? London’s bollards began life as cannons. Or so the legend says…
Have you ever looked at a bollard? Like, really looked. One of those slightly gnarled, glossy-black ones you see around London with the rounded top and the various ribs that now just look like swellings under a million coats of paint.
What you’re looking at is the modern-day version of sticking a cannon into the ground.
Yep. We wouldn’t lie to you. Old cannons used to be turned into bollards regularly back in the day. Many have since been replaced, but you can still find some around town.
Some, even, with quite a sensational history.
Intrigued? Stick around to discover the history of a bollard that may have begun life as a French cannon at Trafalgar, why people decided to use cannons for bollards anyway and where you can find the ones that are left.
The History of London’s Cannon Bollards
Why Use Cannons as Bollards?
Still thinking about that bollard? Wondering how on earth that thing could be a cannon?
What you’re imagining is an artillery piece with its bottom (the part the guy would light) stuck in the ground and its muzzle in the air. The people behind this unusual repurposing were responsible enough to weld a cannonball onto the top of the muzzle so the thing couldn’t be re-repurposed and used for clandestine enterprises.
Why bother? Well, the simple answer is that they had a lot of spare cannons. In the mid-1800s, ironclad warships were putting the humble cannon out of business. Many had to be decommissioned and replaced by modern guns capable of knocking a hole through plate-metal armour.
The boys on the ships docking in London had a smart idea to kill two birds with one stone. They could upend a cannon, stick it in the ground and use it to tether their boat to the shore.
It wasn’t these sailors that came up with the idea though. So the legend goes some old boys had been doing it decades before, and with some pretty special cannon.
The Trafalgar Guns
It’s 1805 and Napoleon is knocking on your door with the full intention to come in and make himself at home. You’re the plucky kind of British patriot that can take pride in the country because conquering people was still considered good and you’ve not been jaded by postmodern politics yet.
Word gets around that the French and Spanish are teaming up to come bloody your nose and make themselves unwanted guests in God’s own country – and Nelson is sailing down a fleet to stop them.
You catch a ride to Trafalgar and, on arrival, realise the enemy fleet has you outgunned by five ships and – to make matters worse – they’ve got the biggest ship in the battle. You probably wish you were back in London in some kind of dull factory job before things all kick off and you’re sailing right at the enemy.
Luckily, it happens that the man commanding your ship is one of the savviest naval commanders in history. His plan to sail in column through the enemy lines has rendered half their fleet useless and tipped the balance back in your favour. You send the enemy running, capturing 21 of their 33 ships with hauls of men, booty and weapons on board.
Legend has it that the big haul you just swiped from the French turns out to be useless because their guns are too big for your ships. So what do you do with them?
You do the only thing a plucky sailor who just stuck it to a cocky enemy would do. You use the weapons they just tried to kill you with to decorate your Southbank waterfront mooring and you laugh with your buddies every time you tie your ship to them, winding the French up no end.
What Really Happened?
OK, so at least that’s what the legend says. Recent evidence is showing that it’s unlikely the cannons on the Southbank actually came from the battle of Trafalgar, though it’s not been proved. Like much of London’s history, the truth is hidden behind years of Chinese whispers.
What we can be sure of though, is that the bollards on the Southbank are genuine cannons. A few of them are unmistakable. Some were even dug up and examined a few years ago.
At one (about 100 years ago) time a large number of the bollards on the Southbank would have been old cannon.
Many have since been taken away and replaced and funnily enough one of the later iterations of London bollards mimicked the shape of these makeshift cannon bollards – they were the template for the shape afterall, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
You can still see some of the cannon ones around London if you know where to look.
Where to Find the London Cannon Bollards
The supposed Trafalgar gun is by the Globe Theatre on Bankside, just off the Southwark Bridge. It’s a long, thin cannon and it’s just a few metres off the west side of the bridge.
There’s one other cannon bollard you can see in London and curiously enough historians are more convinced that this one is French, though probably not from Trafalgar. You can see it outside the church of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.
London’s Cannon Bollards: Practical Information
Address: Southbank, beside the Southwark Bridge. Outside the church of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate
Cannon Bollards London: Map
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