Many years ago we had a short holiday in Perth, Western Australia. An activity arranged by the city tourist authority for bored and fractious or, possibly, clever and inquisitive, children was a follow-the-clues hunt that led, one after the other, to the city’s major attractions. We took part with our children and got acquainted with the geography of the inner city by solving the puzzles. The final destination turned out to be Point Zero, the cadastral centre of the city.
Ballarat, where we live now, also has a Point Zero, from which all references to the geographical entity of the city are ultimately referable. Perth’s Point Zero was a brass plaque; Ballarat’s, in its main street, is a mile-post marking 0 miles to Ballarat.
London’s Point Zero is at Charing Cross, represented by a plaque in the footpath a few feet behind an equestrian statue of King Charles I, on a traffic island just south of Trafalgar Square. It is inscribed:
“On the site now occupied by the statue of King Charles was erected the original Queen Eleanor’s Cross, a replica of which stands in front of Charing Cross station. Mileages from London are measured from the site of the original cross.”
The notion of the defined central point of a city is fairly recent, and it was not until the 19th century that the statue of King Charles at Charing Cross began to be treated as the centre of London, the agreed point from which all distances from the city were to be measured.
The original Charing Cross was one of twelve medieval Eleanor crosses that stood at the heart of the hamlet of Charing, Westminster, from the 1290s. The Eleanor crosses were a series of twelve tall and lavishly decorated stone monuments topped with crosses erected in the east of England by King Edward I between 1291 and about 1295 in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile, who died in November 1290. The crosses marked the nightly resting-places along the route taken when her body was transported to London. Eleanor’s bier spent the final night of its journey, 16 December 1290, in the Royal Mews at Charing, Westminster, a few hundred yards north of Westminster Abbey. The cross erected at Charing was the most expensive of the twelve, built of Purbeck marble.
Charing Cross was destroyed by order of Parliament in 1647, under “An Ordinance for the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all Monuments of Superstition or Idolatry,” which had been passed four years previously (early in the period of the First English Civil War). In 1675 the present bronze statue of Charles I was erected on the site of the Eleanor Cross, fifteen years after the restoration of the monarchy.
Geographers distinguish between the centroid of an area and its stipulated centre. The centroid is the mathematical centre, the point at which it would balance on a pin. The centre, of course, is more or less arbitrarily assigned. Interestingly, in 2014 the geographic centroid of London was calculated by Army cartographers to be 51°30’37.6”N
0°06’56.3”W, about 900 metres east of the Charing Cross marker. Despite several hundred years of expansion and a population increase from 250,000 to more than 8 million, the centre of the city of London has stayed close to its centroid.
Sources and further reading
- Perth (W.A. : Municipality). Council The secret of Point Zero : a guide for adults and children to a walk between the Perth Cultural Centre and the Swan River. City of Perth, [Perth, W.A.], 2000.
- Horne, Mike. “London Milestones and Mileposts.” , Metadyne (Mike Horne, Writer and Researcher), 17 Aug. 2019, www.metadyne.co.uk/n-milestones.html.
- ‘The statue of Charles I and site of the Charing Cross’, in Survey of London: Volume 16, St Martin-in-The-Fields I: Charing Cross, ed. G H Gater and E P Wheeler (London, 1935), pp. 258-268. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol16/pt1/pp258-268.
- ‘August 1643: An Ordinance for the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all Monuments of Superstition or Idolatry.’, in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. 265-266. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp265-266.
- Prynn, Jonathan. “London’s Real Centre Point Is next to Bench on the Victoria Embankment.” Evening Standard, London Evening Standard, 16 May 2014, www.standard.co.uk/news/london/londons-real-centre-point-is-next-to-bench-on-the-victoria-embankment-by-the-thames-9381800.html.