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.”

Improvements,_Charing_Cross_-_Shepherd,_Metropolitan_Improvements_(1828),_p199

View in 1828 from the top of Whitehall, looking west towards Cockspur Street and what is now Canada House on the west side of Trafalgar Square in London. In the foreground is the Equestrian statue of Charles I by Hubert Le Sueur installed in 1675. From page 199 of Metropolitan Improvements; or London in the Nineteenth Century, by James Elmes. Original held and digitised by the British Library; image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Old Charing Cross

Old Charing Cross, probably a not very accurate depiction as the picture was made well after its destruction. Image from Old and New London; illustrated. A narrative of its history, its people, and its places [vol. 3 Westminster and the western suburbs by E. Walford] page 124 retrieved from archive.org

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.

AtoZ map x

Point zero in London is beside the Equestrian Statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square. This is the location of the original Charing Cross. Charing Cross station is nearby. The geographic centroid of London is about 900 metres away on the Victoria Embankment in front of King’s College London.

Sources and further reading