How does the humble street bollard connect Napoleon to Carillion via Welsh devolution?

Just some bollards. Image: Elliot Brown/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

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:

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.

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“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.