Do you know where Britain’s smallest police station is? Go on, see if you can guess.
I only ask, because I pass it on a regular basis and very rarely do I see people giving it a second glance or, for that matter, paying it any attention at all.
Indeed, I would go so far as to lament that it gets totally ignored by the majority of passers-by, whose main objective is to scramble onto the backs of the nearby lions in order to get that compulsory selfie, whilst being photo-bombed by Big Ben in the background.
Oops, I may have given the location away then!
A UNIVERSAL GATHERING PLACE
Since, if the mention of the lions and Big Ben haven’t given the game away, the caption to the above photograph almost certainly has, please allow me to reveal the answer to my opening question by revealing that the smallest police station in Britain is located at the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square – a place that tourists simply must visit, celebrations and concerts must be held, and protesters did, do and always must gather in their thousands, despite frequent and fervent attempts at discouragement by successive British Governments, who simply must stop them doing so.
VICTORY AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
The Square itself opened to the public in 1844, and was intended as a commemoration of Admiral Nelson’s great victory over the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
That’s why Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson stands proudly atop the stone column that rises heavenwards from between the plinth between the aforementioned lions.
It was this victory that enabled Britannia’s naval fleet to, quite literally, “rule the waves” – until, that is, it all went horribly wrong sometime in the 20th century – and which made Britain safe from external invasion for the first time in, what was for many people, living memory.
The fact that Nelson had been shot down, slain no less, by a French sniper’s bullet at the very moment of his resounding victory, struck a chord that resonated in the hearts and minds of all free born Englishmen (and one or two women), and it was decreed that, henceforth, Britain would be a nation in which free speech would be the inalienable right of every citizen, to be valued more than life itself.
All would be equal in the eyes of the law, although, as it soon transpired, some were to be more equal than others.
THE HAVE NOTS AND THE HAVE IT ALLS
For example, if the persons wishing to avail themselves of the right to free speech happened to be from the downtrodden underclass, well – that wasn’t quite what Nelson had made the ultimate sacrifice for.
The problem for the Victorian authorities was, in the latter years of the 19th century, the downtrodden masses had started to display an extremely worrying tendency to protest against their downtroddenness, and were being egged on by lilly livered Liberal Socialists whose ulterior motives could only be guessed at.
The fact that Trafalgar Square had become the place where the have nots were prone to gather to make their displeasure known to the have it alls, had put those have it alls somewhat on edge, and Trafalgar Square protests tended to be put down as quickly as possible, sometimes with excessive and brutal force, by the perceived agents of the have it alls – the Metropolitan Police.
Eyes on the ground or, in this case, on the Square, were a hugely important part of the onerous task of keeping the have nots firmly in their place and in preventing them from attempting to acquire too much equality with the have it alls.
To this end, various methods of surveillance were used to enable the authorities to keep abreast with what protesters were up to whenever they gathered in Trafalgar Square.
A TEMPORARY POLICE BOX HAD BEEN ERECTED
A temporary police box had been erected in Trafalgar Square prior to the First World War.
But, with the commencement of 1926 General Strike, it was decided by the powers that were that the old police observation box should be renovated and made permanent in order that an even more watchful eye might be kept on the striking workers who were likely to protest in the Square.
However, this idea incurred so much public displeasure that it was discreetly shelved, although the desire for a permanent fixture, from which the authorities might observe the goings on in the Square, remained strong.
The question was, what form was it to take?
THEY HOLLOWED OUT A LIGHT STAND
To the rescue came the then head of the Office of Works, Sir Lionel Edwards who, in 1927, proposed that a police box could be inserted into the base of the lamppost plinth on the south east corner of the square.
It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a light bulb moment.
The proposal was, so the powers that were declared in the clipped tones of their street cred lingo, an absolutely spiffing idea.
CCTV CIRCA 1930’s
Thus, the lamppost plinth in Trafalgar Square’s south-east corner was hollowed out, fitted with a set of narrow slits for windows, given a phone line that connected it to nearby Canon Row Police Station, to enable an officer stationed within to call for reinforcements should and when the need for them arise – and, what had up until then, been nothing more than a simple and unobtrusive light stand, was soon pressed into the service of King and Country as a very primitive form of CCTV, and it soon acquired the distinction of being hailed as the UK’s tiniest police station, although whether it was ever actually a police station per se is a moot point.
Sources differ as to when it actually became operational, but it was certainly in service by the 1930’s and, no doubt, from that point on, many a police constable who found himself saddled with the unenviable duty of standing in the hollowed out stone tube, squinting through the narrow slits at a seething tide of protesting humanity that was surging towards him, had a few choice names for the ingenious Sir Lionel Edwards – none of them good and none of them repeatable!
A TERRIFIC UNTRUTH
The ornamental light that surmounts the box was long reputed – and according to some guides and books still is reputed – to have come from Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, although, in truth, there is no truth in this colourful tradition!
But, it’s a good yarn nonetheless.
Whatever its provenance, the light served – on paper at least – a very useful purpose in that, whenever the solitary occupant of the police box was forced to dial out for assistance, the light atop the box would begin flashing the moment he lifted the receiver in order to notify nearby police officers that things were about to get nasty.
TALK ABOUT A SITTING DUCK!
Now, don’t get me wrong.
But, if I was a solitary police officer, sitting inside a barely concealed stone tube in the south-east corner of the square, and a revolting rabble was beginning to get a little restless in Trafalgar Square, the last place I’d actually want to be would be inside a barely concealed stone tube in the south-east corner of the square, spying on said revolting rabble.
For that matter, the last thing I’d want to happen as I crouched down and, with trembling hand, lifted the receiver to summon my fellow officers to come to my rescue, would be for the great big ornamental light on top of said barely concealed stone tube to start flashing, thus alerting said revolting rabble to the fact that I was calling for back up. Sitting and duck are the two words that spring most readily to mind. Help, is another. Bring clean underwear, are yet another three.
But, who knows, perhaps revolting rabbles were more respectful towards the forces of Law and Order when the box was erected?
NOW YOU KNOW
So, if the desire to visit Britain’s smallest police station should ever take your fancy, you now know where to head, albeit, don’t expect to find a pair of suspicious eyes squinting out at you from the tiny interior.
For, sadly, as has been the case with so many of those who have given faithful service to the Metropolitan Police force, the box has found itself redundant and is now used as a broom cupboard by Westminster Council cleaners!
Oh, the indignity of it all!