Trafalgar square might be one of the busiest and well known squares in London. With its giant Nelson Column, the fourth plinth, dirty pigeons and its central location, the square has been a popular meeting spot for decades. Though Trafalgar Square holds many little interesting secretes – its become rather well known for being home to Londons smallest police station, some even say the smallest police station in the UK or even the world. But is that actually true?
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The origins of Londons smallest police station
Before we delve into the myriad of questions that might come up, it’s worth looking into the history of how (supposedly) Londons smallest police station came into being. Before the advent of CCTV, the Police sought it necessary to keep a constant watch over the goings on of Trafalgar Square, especially since it was a very popular rallying point for protests and demonstrations.
When first the telegraph and then the telephone made its appearance, the London Police was quick to adopt the technology. Blue Police boxes sprung up around the country – but Trafalgar Square didn’t get one. A sort of middle ground was found when a temporary Police Box was set up next to the Trafalgar Square Tube entrance (now known as Charing Cross), so the Police could get in touch with the nearby Canon Row Police Station if need be (ironically, that police station has been closed).
As the Police Box was just a temporary installation, a campaign was launched in 1919 for a permanent solution. In June 1919, the Commissioner of the Police requested that an “Observation Box with direct telephonic communication to Cannon Row Police Station” should be installed in Trafalgar Square or in its near vicinity. And here we have our first clue to the solution if this really is (or was) Londons smallest police station.
A back and forth ensued, with the Police claiming that they had great difficulty requesting for support from the nearby police station (a 10 minute walk from the square) when they needed assistance quickly, while the Office of Works (a department established in the Royal Household to oversee the building and maintenance of the royal castles and residences) replied that they would “feel the greatest reluctance” in letting them build a Police Box in the square.
Protests, Riots and a Proposed Solution
The squabble continued until October of the same year, when the Office of Works finally caved (a little bit) and allowed the Police to build a small cavity in the wall for the installation of a phone. The London Police still weren’t happy with that solution though and declined.
And so the back and forth continued until 1921. The increased frequency of protests at Trafalgar Square continued to be a headache for the Police, who felt it was an absolute necessity to have an observation box at the square. The temporary Police Box was still standing by the tube station, and quite a few people wanted it gone – most notably the London Tube (as they wanted to start some renovation works). The Office of Works offered to place an observation post on the roof of the National Gallery, but that apparently wasn’t what the Police was looking for either.
It took for the General Strike and ensuing riots of 1926 (if you’re looking for something to quell a riot with – check out Londons Soviet Tank Stompie) for all parties to come to some sort of agreement – which was to transform the temporary (wooden) Police Box at the tube station into a permanent one out of granite. Seems to me like this could have been solved much quicker and easier. But this isn’t the end of the story – as we still haven’t gotten to the object at Trafalgar Square which too many people claim is Londons smallest Police Station.
A Granite Police Observation Box
By late 1926, it seems like someone made the genius proposition to place the police telephone box inside the granite base of one of the large lamps at the end of the balustrade which wraps around the square. It seemed like the people would rather spend countless hours of work (and quite a bit of money) to hollow out a big chunk of granite, rather than place a stupid box somewhere close to the square. And so another year passed, until the final approval was given in July 1927 to carve out the lamp and convert it into a Police Observation Box.
Construction began in November 1927 and relatively soon hit an interesting snag. The police wanted an electric light fitted inside the Police Observation Box at Trafalgar Square – but neither the local electricity company nor the London Underground were able secure a connection. Ironically, the light of large external lamp was lit by gas – so they couldn’t tap into that for electricity. So they compromised and fitted a gas lamp inside the Police Box as well.
A similar tale occurred in Berlin in the mid 2010s, when the city was looking into providing free wifi for its residents by fitting internet modules atop of the cities lamps. Too bad that whoever thought of this didn’t take into account that a very large portion of the cities lamps (40,000 at the time) were lit by gas, and didn’t have an electricity source. The project was thus shelved.
The Police Observation Box inside the granite lamp at Trafalgar Square was completed on the 19th of March 1928, and the temporary Police Box which everyone had been arguing about for a decade was finally removed. By the 1930s, the gas lamp was removed and replaced with an electric one which started blinking when someone rang the phone. A neat little (if not distracting) feature for when the Police Officer was out patrolling the square. Some sources say that the light flashed blue – but I couldn’t find evidence of this anywhere. Just as with about almost everything that so many websites write about Londons smallest Police Station, id take that information with a spoon full of salt.
A little bit of London Police FAQ
Is Londons smallest police station located at Trafalgar Square?
No. The object at Trafalgar Square was a Police Observation Box, also known as a Police Lookout Box, not a police station.
Legend has it that the lamp above Londons smallest Police Station once belonged to Nelsons flagship, the HMS Victory. Is that true?
Sadly, this is purely a legend. Somebody in a Pub probably came up with that myth.
Where is the smallest police station in London?
Londons smallest Police Station today is the Pinner Police Station, in the Borough of Harrow.
What is the definition of a Police Station?
According to the Metropolitan Police, a station is defined as ‘any building which is accessible to the public’.
What is the biggest Police Station in London?
The largest Police Station in London is the Lewisham Police Station, which is also officialy the largest Police Station in Europe.
How many Police Stations are there in London?
As of 2017, there were 73 Police Stations with front counters open to the public in London, though this number is bound to be lower in 2020 due to multiple front counter closings.
Londons smallest Police Station today
The Police Observation Box at Trafalgar Square was used right up until the 1970s, when the next piece of technology, the personal radio transmitter aka walkie talkie was introduced and made the box obsolete. From then on, it was said that the alleged Londons smallest Police Station was used as a broom closet for the local cleaners.
If you do visit Trafalgar Square today, and a look through the glass doors you’ll most likely see – nothing. The windows are super dirty obscuring what might be inside. If you do manage a peak inside, its actually empty – no telephone or broom to be found. You can spot a bunch of cable boxes and connecting points though, alluding to the fact that it might actually be used or have been used by a TV Crew or something of the like. For better or for worse, you can now be smug and correct people when the falsely claim that the Police Observation Box at Trafalgar Square is (or was) Londons smallest Police Station.
Londons Smallest Police Station Address
Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross
London WC2N 5DN