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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.