There’s a persistent myth that the first street bollards in London were actually French naval cannons captured after Napoleon’s defeat in the Battle of Trafalgar, presumably to give one last one in the eye to “old Freddy Frenchman”.
While naval historian Martin H. Evans has comprehensively determined that it is spectacularly unlikely that any French weapons made it back from Trafalgar to become street furniture, it is true that, dating back to the 17th century, many iron cannons did undergo this transformation, often with a cannon ball jammed into the end to provide a nice round top. Captured foreign cannons were particularly good candidates because they took different-sized ammunition, and you can still find at least one (most likely) French cannon outside St Helen’s Church off Bishopsgate.
In the absence of an infinite supply of cannons, most iron bollards are simply cannon-shaped, in a sort of tribute to their origins (or just because the manufacturers were already really good at making cannon-shaped things). And this isn’t the only way in which bollards have a naval history. The word, derived from the Middle English for “thing a bit like a tree trunk”, originally referred specifically to mooring posts found on quaysides.
Only later did it come to refer to the classic traffic management solution of ‘a big post that stops horse-drawn carts smashing into things and/or killing pedestrians’. This, incidentally, is still the primary point of the things: the City of London Technical Manual specifying that “Bollards provide protection to both paving and buildings and offer safety for pedestrians”, as well as noting that historic bollards “reinforce local character”.
Left, City of London Technical Manual. Right, Star Trek The Next Generation Technical Manual.
Bollards do have other uses. Historically they sometimes marked out property boundaries, or asserted civic identity (as the decorated bollards of the City still do today), while in 1970s Liverpool they were used in an attempt to combat kerb crawling by closing off roads in the red light district. Today they’re part of defensive strategies against terrorism. They’re also a fantastic way for planners to troll cyclists, as in:
My precise words were "You are fucking kidding me" pic.twitter.com/7mKZOgbqGM
— Paul Kennedy (@paul_K_fair_oak) August 30, 2017
They’ve even made their mark on politics, unwittingly making the case against Welsh devolution. In a debate about the Wales Act 1978, which created the framework for the unsuccessful 1979 referendum, Lord O’Hagan expressed concerns that a legal technicality would pass control of Greater London’s bollards to the Welsh Assembly. Imagine! They’d have probably started filling London with dragons or something!
A dragon on the Victoria Embankment, yesterday. Image: Mike Peel/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0.
On occasion bollards have even become art. In 1994 sculptor Antony Gormley took a break from making endless life casts of himself to make a set of bollards for the area of south London he was then based in, appropriately named Bellenden. The work, titled “Bollards (Oval, Snowman, Peg, Penis)” proved too controversial for Southwark council because, as the name implies, one of them looks like a gentleman’s wang, but local traders stepped in to pay for them and Bellenden Road retains its bellend to this day.
Bellendian bollards. Image: Google Maps.
There’s also a set of ‘art bollards’ in Camden. Judith Dean’s 2000 work simply titled “Bollards” is a set of seven polished granite bollards which can found in various locations (e.g. by some church steps, beside a tree, in middle of some grass in a square) around King's Cross. “The paradox of these works is that quotidian materiality becomes the focus of attention: the ordinary made extraordinary”, it says here.
Quotidian materiality. Image: Google Maps.
The bollardic impact on art isn’t limited to sculpture. A quick search on Spotify yielded the track “Cats Eyes and Bollards” by a DJ called Glenn Storey, which samples someone talking about, well, cats eyes and bollards.
Bollards haven’t had a huge part to play in cinema*, but at least two people seem to wish that they had: the creators of blog Bollards in Movies, which considers such topics as “The Terminator: What if Bollards Appeared in the Terminator Films?” and “The Dark Knight: What Traffic Posts Could Have Done to Save (or Ruin) Gotham”.
The iron street bollard has a certain sense of permanence about it – not least in cases where it is, in fact, a cannon that has been jammed into the ground for the best part of two centuries. But they have on occasion become far more transitory: visit the town of Swanage in Dorset and you’ll find dozens of bollards with London markings, for reasons which have suddenly become slightly topical.
In the 1800s Swanage was a quarrying port, and a major source for stone used in Victorian London. A logistical problem with this was that, once you’d unloaded the stone, you needed some kind of ballast to fill the ships back up so they could make the return journey safely.
George Burt, a Swanage boy made good as the manager of a big construction firm, solved this by filling the boats with interesting bits and pieces recovered from his firms’ demolition and reconstruction sites. As documented in the excellent 1976 publication “The Bollard Story: How Londons (sic) Street Posts Came To Swanage”, when Swanage had no further need for bollards, they instead ended up as posts for the gates for farms and houses.
One of a small handful of books in existence dedicated entirely to the subject of bollards. Image: author's own.
Why is this suddenly topical? Well, George Burt had inherited his company from his uncle, John Mowlem. The company, eventually known simply as Mowlem, went on to become one of the biggest construction firms in the UK, working on everything from Battersea Power Station to Buckingham Palace, from London Bridge to the Docklands Light Railway.
Until 2006, when it was bought by its biggest competitor: Carillion.
The bollards, at least, persist.
* Although I can confirm that if you spend enough time reading about bollards you can warp your own brain so that when you watch TV your eyes start focussing on random bollards in the background rather than than what's actually happening.
Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.