25 November 2013

Trafalgar Square, an unusual measure of London

There is a secret hiding in plain sight at the world famous Trafalgar Square.

Normal tourists hit Trafalgar Square to see the national treasure that is Nelsons Column, to get a photo sitting on the back of the Lions, and if time permits maybe a wander around the iconic National Gallery.

The key word here is Normal. The last time I was in Trafalgar Square was for International Pillow Fight Day then for Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) with a very good friend. Little did I know that literally beneath my feet, a bastion of the English World is recorded for posterity.

Have you seen it yet?

Something intrinsic to being British is embodied in the Imperial measurement system. Where would the English be without their Pint (apart from sober, and less in trouble with their wives)? Jamie Oliver would be caught short without his Pecks of spices, and Irish and Scots would be bereft without their Drams of Whiskey (I actually typed Whishkey there... what a Fruedian typo).

The official measuring 'tally sticks' of units of length were originally wooden and held by an officer in Parliament, but perished in a fire of 1834 - the largest since the Great Fire 150 years earlier.

To ensure they would not be obliterated again, the standards were triplicated. In 1876, the Imperial Measures - detailing inches, feet, yards, links, chains, perches and poles - were set into the north terrace wall of Trafalgar Square. One appears in the Great Hall of the Guildhall, the second by the gate of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and the last in Trafalgar Square. When the central staircase was added, the measures were relocated to outside the cafĂ© on the square.

To this day, surveyors can still check ‘Perches’, ‘Chains’ and other archaic measures against feet and yards.

Chain - A chain is a unit of length; it measures 66 feet or 22 yards (20.1168m). There are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in one statute mile. An acre is the area of 10 square chains.

Link - The link is a unit of length in the imperial system. The unit was based on Gunter's measurement where a metal chain consisting of 100 links was in surveying property. In the English-speaking world prior to the 20th century, links were commonly used for this function but are rarely used now. 1 link = 0.01 chain = 7.92 inches = 201.168 millimetres

The Pint (the most important to the British male population), the mile and the Troy Ounce (for Gold) are the only Imperial measurements that officially made the cut to through the changes over to a Metric system (and the acre but largely seems to be un-utilised nowadays). It's quite an enigma though as most people still describe items in feet and inches in many cases, which you learn living here almost as default.

This is one of my favourite aspects of London - the history that literally seeps through the walls and floors.


  1. Wow! So interesting to know something of importance is beneath your feet and most people or tourists don't even realize it!! Fascinating!

  2. It's not just the tourists who don't realise! Great post, Emma.

  3. That is so fun, I will have to check it out next time I am there!

  4. Hi
    Nice post. Most of the times i never spend a most of the time on any posts. But i really like you post and i read your post. Thank you for sharing and keep posting a more post on new topics

  5. how do you find out about these things?! Regardless, I'm glad we've got you to find them :)

  6. So fascinating. I've seen them at Greenwich but had no idea they'd been done in triplicate! Vohn x

  7. Classic! I hadn't even noticed. Another trip to London is in order I think! ;)

  8. I am with Dannielle - how do you find things ? An interesting note is that in the States the measurements of chains, links, and acres are actually frequently used in real estate transactions to convey property size (especially in New England on older properties). I had to keep a cheat sheet of these measurements at my desk when I processed property sales.

  9. This is fascinating! How did you even discover this? I would never ever have noticed this. I love the little surprises I find over here on your blog! :o)

  10. Great post! I just visited Trafalgar Square for the first time last week, loved the random blue .. ahh rooster. Always love seeing things in real life from movies : P

  11. This is fascinating Emma! I've been to Trafalgar Square a million times but never knew about this. Actually, if I'd seen it I probably would have disliked it and thought it looked scruffy, blissfully ignorant of its history and importance.


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