Trafalgar Square, New Year’s Eve, 1981

In my last post of the year, I revisit an earlier New Year’s Eve celebration in London, but can I firstly wish you all a very Happy New Year for 2018 and thank you for reading my posts and your feedback over the past year – it is so very much appreciated.

New Year’s Eve in London has become a very organised event. Large areas of central London are closed, tickets must be purchased, and sell out very quickly, security will, understandably, be very tight. This is all very different to my first experiences of New Year’s Eve in London. In the late 1970s and 1980s we would occasionally spend the evening out and about, wandering the streets, pubs, clubs of the West End and celebrating midnight with thousands of people in Trafalgar Square.

One year I took my camera with me and recently I found some of the negatives. Many had camera shake a I was trying to take hand held photos at night and using a film camera. I still have to find some of the other negatives of photos taken whilst walking the streets, however here is a set of photos taken in the crowd in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve, 1981.

New Year's Eve

Trafalgar Square was then the centre of New Year’s Eve celebrations until the focus moved to the Embankment with the firework displays along the Thames.

My memory of these nights in London are probably influenced by the passage of time and alcohol on the night (the reason why I only risked taking my camera along on one New Year’s Eve), however I remember the very large crowds that assembled in Trafalgar Square ready for midnight and so many people walking the streets before and after midnight, usually with bottle or cans in hand.

New Year's Eve

This was only 36 years ago, but it feels like a different world. If you compare these photos with those of the crowds in London tonight there is one very big difference – in 1981 there was not a single mobile phone in sight. Tonight the glow of mobile phone screens taking photos of the fireworks, selfies etc. will be seen across the crowds.

There was also minimal security, I do not remember seeing many police around and those that were visible would not be armed.

I do not remember any road closures (although the roads around Trafalgar Square probably were closed), however there was hardly any traffic. I do remember the freedom to wander the streets into the early hours and the alcohol induced friendliness of everyone on the streets – probably one of the few times Londoners will talk to so many strangers.

There was also a need to be careful – as when any such large crowd assembles there were rowdy elements, those who had been drinking too much and for too long, and crime such as pickpocketing – but at the age I was then it was all a big adventure.

New Year's Eve

Some detail from the above photo – if it could be climbed then it would be climbed:

New Year's Eve

The only organised facilities that I remember were some first aid facilities around the base of Nelson’s Column:

New Year's Eve

I have no idea how many people there were in Trafalgar Square, however you had to get there well before midnight to get in the centre of the square. Crowds would stretch along all the roads leading into Trafalgar Square. In the following photo the sea of heads can be seen stretching off into the Strand.

New Year's Eve

I am not sure what time we got home that night, but after midnight, celebrations continued for many hours in the streets across the West End.

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square could not compete with the massive firework display along the river tonight, however I suspect that the New Year’s Eve fireworks are aimed just as much for TV viewers around the world as they are for those standing along the Embankment, as London competes with other global cities.

With the now ubiquitous mobile phone, they will also probably be one of the most photographed large events in London.

16 thoughts on “Trafalgar Square, New Year’s Eve, 1981

  1. Jennifer Metcalfe

    Thank you for a year of delightful posts. It has been enjoyable and informative to read these each week and to see parts of London as it was and is now. I never went to Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve, but my family always went on Christmas Eve for the carols in the square. Photo history and personal memories need to be recorded and shared, particularly as life seems to have moved on a long way in the past 70 years. I have found your posts on Southwark particularly interesting as my family lived there from the 1880s to the 1970s.

    I hope you continue with your posts for a long time to come.

    Happy New Year

  2. Jo W

    Thank you for all your posts this year, Admin. They have made interesting reading on a Sunday morning-better than any newspaper and I’m looking forward to next year’s.
    I wish you and yours a very happy and informative 2018.

  3. Sam C

    Happy new year to you! Thank you ever so much for the work that you put into your posts. I have always been interested in how locations, buildings and general areas change over the years as culture, society and technologies change an I believe you capture and record those changes very well. I live in Southwark and I believe that’s how I originallly stumbled across this site whilst doing research on the local area. The attention to detail in your research is genuinely impressive, from the detailed photos of areas to finding related articles in the newspaper archives.

    I’m looking forward to more interesting and informative posts on your quest to locate the locations of your father’s photos!

  4. Oonagh Gay

    I remember well standing in Trafalgat Square in the 1970s. The only negative aspect as a teenage girl was the unwonted groping you had to fend off! A long walk home as well- no tubes and I don’t remember night buses

  5. Oonagh Gay

    I remember well standing in Trafalgat Square in the 1970s. The only negative aspect as a teenage girl was the unwonted groping you had to fend off! A long walk home as well- no tubes and I don’t remember night buses

  6. Caroline Greenwell

    I’m a recent visitor to your posts and am thoroughly enjoying them. Especially how areas mutate over time.
    I only went to Trafalgar Square once maybe 30 years ago. Never again. Drunken crowds are not my thing and I’ve no ambition to kiss a policeman.

  7. Joan Balch

    Many thanks for your enjoyable posts about London old and new. Lots of history and back facts make it come alive. I read all the info re the older parts of the city…having ancestors from Westminster and City of London and over the Thames.
    Greetings for the New Year from the other London, London Ontario Canada

  8. Roger Thomas

    Happy New Year – I very much enjoy your posts and your comparisons between what was and what is. I have done similar things for my own amusement, but nothing on the scale of your good, thorough work. Thank you

  9. John campbell

    Your site was my find of the year, I have really enjoyed your varied and interesting posts. Wishing you a very happy new year!

    1. Richard Herbert

      Very good description of what New Years’s celebratons were like in London in the 70s.
      But my main memory of going to Trafalgar Square 3 or 4 times was that there was no central clock or device to tell you when midnight had arrived. And as you say there were no mobile phones, so each group was going off their own watches, so little cheers would spring up randomly within the crowd, with others muttering it was too earl

  10. David Cooper

    Great post that brought back memories, as a teenager I remember riding in to the “Westend” as my Mum calls it on my moped, the atmosphere was electric, everyone was friendly and talked even though they did not know each other, kissing all the girls at the stroke of midnight was the best part! then everyone drifting home, you could walk anywhere even up to number 10 Downing Street without fear.

  11. Jan Saunders

    I was there in 1981, I was 14! My Boyfriend and I had been to see “Black Sabbath” at “The Hammersmith Odeon and had naughtily jumped the turnstiles and caught the Tube to Trafalgar Square. I can’t be certain but we might well be in that first image there!! (70% sure it is us) We were definitely on the News coverage that night though as I got pushed in the Fountain! 😀

  12. Luke McKernan

    I was there in 1981 but also in 1982, when two women were crushed to death not far from where we were standing. I’ve not been to a London new year’s eve celebration since.

    A happy new year to you and all your readers.

  13. Frank

    I stumbled across your site as I was explain to my Canadian friends & my adult children what New Years was like in London back in the day. I went regularly between 1976 & 1980 & it’s Pretty much as you’ve described. I always thought we could hear the chimes of Big Ben at midnight but could be mistaken…getting into a local pub early was key & buying ALL your rounds in advance..inebriated, boisterous yet friendly, dancing in the fountains, kissing total strangers & the long walk home along.


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