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 café 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.

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