Friends of Red Lion Square Gardens

Month: January 2017

1760 – 1860

As the Eighteenth Century continued, Professor Theo Barker remarks that the Square “grew less fashionable” with some of the upper echelons of society moving away. For example, Sir Bysshe Shelley eventually moved away, and even built Castle Goring in Sussex, after living in the Square in 1753 where his wife gave birth to their son Timothy. (Timothy being the father of Percy Bysshe Shelley). The Square, it seemed, was becoming rather dour with the obelisk, iron fence and watch houses giving a “gloomy look” and, according to Barker, a visitor in 1771 compared the latter to “four family vaults and the obelisk to ‘the sad monument of a disconsolate widow for the loss of her first husband’.”

At some point, the following bizarre inscription was added to the monument “Obtusum obtusiores ingenii monumentum. Quid me respices, viator. Vade.” This translates as “A foolish monument to a more foolish deception. Why are you looking at me, traveller? Go away.” This suggests that the secret of the obelisk had been leaked, and royalists had attempted to denigrate the sanctity of this epitaph of republicanism. However, in August 1790, the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the “monument” had been recently removed along with the “stone watch-houses at the four corners of the enclosure [Red Lion Square Gardens].”

Sutton Nicholls engraving, circa 1725, looking North, with North Street in the centre beyond the Square.

Sutton Nicholls, draughtsman and engraver, represented many of the squares in London for various surveys, such as John Bowles Prospects of the Most Noted Buildings in and about London (1724), London Described (1731) and the 1754 sixth edition of John Stow’s Survey of London. Red Lion Square is typical of Nicholls’ bird’s eye panoramic style and shows the watch houses but not the elusive obelisk. Hampstead, Highgate and Islington are shown on the horizon further north. A different perspective, by Richard Horwood, drawn up between 1792 and 1799 in his monumental survey of the whole of built-up London, offers no clarification as to the details of the Square’s accoutrements, but it does identify, as the assurance purpose of the enterprise demanded, a plan of the respective buildings surrounding the Square, complete with respective numbers.

Horwood survey, 1792-99

At No. 23 Red Lion Square, midway between Lamb’s Conduit Passage and Princes Street, Jonas Hanway, philanthropist and traveller, lived until his death in 1786 when he was given a public funeral, according to Edwin Beresford Chancellor’s, 1907 edition of The History of the Squares of London. The funeral, one is given to presume was due to his “amelioration of the lot of poor children” as opposed to the other recorded detail of his life, “his being the first man to habitually carry an umbrella in the streets of London.” In the late 1930s Hanway House was built at 27 – 31 Red Lion Square in his memory.

Jonas Hanway by James Northcote, circa 1785. © National Portrait Gallery.

On his eighty-third birthday, in 1776, John Harrison died in 12 Red Lion Square, or just round the corner in Leigh (or Lee) Street, now Dane Street. Over the course of sixty years Harrison built clocks and is remembered in history as the man who solved the problem of longitude. Harrison’s “Sea watch” know as “H4” enabled Captain James Cook to navigate on his second and third voyages. Harrison’s marine chronometer revolutionised navigation and greatly increased the safety of long-distance sea travel.

John Harrison

Around the time of his marriage, in 1795, the historian Sharon Turner moved to No. 13 Red Lion Square and researched extensively at the British Museum to write his History of the Anglo-Saxons in four volumes.

Sharon Turner by Sir Martin Archer Shee

By 1822, however, No. 13 was the Headquarters of the Mendicity Society, According to the 1850 edition of the Hand-book of London: Past and Present, by Peter Cunningham, “The society gives meals and money, supplies mill and other work to applicants, investigates begging-letter cases, and apprehends vagrants and impostors. Each meal consists of ten ounces of bread, and one pint of good soup, or a quarter of a pound of cheese”. Cunningham also records that “the affairs of the Society are administered by a Board of forty-eight managers”.

Perhaps the most famous residents of Red Lion Square are those recorded by their plaque at No. 17. Chancellor was particularly enamoured by this piece of history: “not only did Rossetti and Walter Henry [Howell] Deverell once live here; but later Burne-Jones and William Morris came to reside in the same house; such a constellation, indeed, as can be matched by no other residence, it is probable, in all London.”

In 1848, seven artists and critics, in the main recent graduates from the Royal Academy, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). On Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s behalf, Thomas Woolner, the only sculptor in PRB, enquired about lodgings at No. 17 on the first floor. The three rooms were available at 20 shillings per week (roughly £70 as at 2017). There was a stipulation from the landlord however, when he understood that artists were interested in his rooms: models were to be kept under “gentlemanly restraint” because in his opinion “some artists sacrifice the dignity of art to the baseness of passion”. Stipulations considered, Rossetti and Deverell took up residency in 1851 and lived there for a brief spell of six months.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti by William Holman Hunt, 1853

In 1856, Rossetti suggested to Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, two of his fellow Mediaevalists and Arthurian Romanticists within the widening circle of the PRB, that they take his former lodgings at No. 17. For three years the two artists resided in Red Lion Square. During this time their maidservant, Mrs Mary Nicholson, became known as “Red Lion Mary”, and by all accounts put up with the bizarre and sometimes demanding behaviour of the two and their friends with great humour and loyalty.

Red Lion Mary by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, circa 1856-59. © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

In 1916, Max Beerbohm created a series of drawings and watercolours entitled Rossetti and His Friends and illustrated how he imagined William Morris, ‘Topsy’, and Edward, ‘Ned,’ Burne-Jones amidst their own medieval themed designed furniture, in an otherwise sparsely decorated space.

“Topsy and Ned Jones Settled on the Settle in Red Lion Square” by Sir Max Beerbohm, 1916. © The estate of Max Beerbohm.

After leaving the Square in 1859, William Morris returned in 1861,  to No. 8 Red Lion Square, with some of the other PRB members to establish the headquarters of what would eventually be known as Morris and Co.

1660 – 1760

As Professor Theo Barker introduces in his Three Hundred Years of Red Lion Square: 1684-1984, “The laying out of Red Lion Square in June 1684 was marked by scenes of violent protest which obligingly enable us to date the event with some precision”. Barker also includes William Morgan’s map of 1682, which immediately predates the eventual construction and shows “all the land to the north of a thin ribbon of buildings skirting High Holborn.”

Red Lion Fields named after the original Red Lyon Inn and Red Lion Street, both off High Holborn.

The Red Lyon Inn, established in the Sixteenth Century (rebuilt in 1899), was reputed to be the most important hostelry in Holborn. Barker notes, “In better weather patrons engaged in energetic, thirst-making sports in Red Lion Fields or just took their drinks outside. The lawyers and their students at nearby Gray’ s Inn were also in the habit of seeking their recreation in this open space to the west of them.”

But the story of the Square really begins, it is rumoured, 23 years earlier. In 1661, Charles II ordered the bodies of the three signatories of his father’s death warrant, who had died natural deaths to be exhumed and tried at Newgate. These were Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, an English general in the army of Parliament during the English Civil War, and John Bradshaw, one of the judges who sentenced Charles I to death. Still in their shrouds, the bodies were drawn on sledges to trial, condemned, and then dragged to the Red Lyon Inn: hence to Tyburn, where they were to be beheaded.  However, many believe that that their bodies never made it to Tyburn. Instead, the poet John Milton, with Dr Nicholas Barbon and Ebenezer Heathcote, were rumoured to have been involved in a plot to bribe the guards of the bodies at The Red Lyon Inn, substituting alternative corpses and then burying the Parliamentarians in Red Lion Fields with an rough and plain obelisk to mark the spot.

In 1684, Nicholas Barbon returns to ignite Red Lion’s Square’s history. This time, he is the cause of a battle his between builders and the lawyers.

He was the eldest son of Praise-God Barbon, author of Barebone’s Parliament, the last attempt of the English Commonwealth to find a stable political form before the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, Nicholas trained as a physician and received his doctorate when studying in Utrecht in 1661. Three years later he became an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, in London. Medicine, however, was not to be his real vocation. Property development was the arena within which he made his mark upon history, with Barker stating that Barbon was “the most successful building speculator of his day.”

Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 and Sir Christopher Wren’s enthusiasm for redesigning, Barbon helped to shape The Strand and Bloomsbury and to connect the City with Westminster courtesy of swathes of housing and commercial developments. In 1684, though, Red Lion Fields came once more, if one believes the Cromwell tale, across his path. Barker describes Barbon’s flair for dividing up sites into “prestigious houses” set around “an airy central square”, with “more modest properties” densely packed on further perimeters to act as “screens” from the hustle and bustle of the “meaner dwellings beyond”.

His model set, Barbon could begin dividing up Red Lion Fields to create a new square with greater exclusiveness and commercial return. As far as he was concerned, he needed to screen off the south side from High Holborn’s noisy traffic of animals bound for slaughter in the City, and disregard various Acts of Parliament and Royal Declarations that might have prevented a less determined developer from demolishing existing buildings and rebuilding as he saw fit. Unfortunately, for Barbon, one hundred or so lawyers from Gray’s Inn physically stood in his way.

After losing their case in court, Barbon having purchased the land legally, the lawyers took to the field. Their resulting loss of “wholesome air” they deemed worth fighting for and fight they did. On the 11th June 1684 a pitched battle broke out between the workmen and lawyers armed with bricks and other sundry building materials. Both sides sustained injuries, but with Barbon himself leading the workmen they won and building continued. The first leases in Red Lion Square were granted in 1686 and, ironically, some of the early tenants were lawyers from Gray’s Inn!

Barker records that the “new square seems to have been highly successful in attracting to it men of quality as Barbon had intended”. As well as lawyers, doctors and other professionals turned to Barbon’s development to provide for their residential needs. The renowned surveyor Edward Hatton, in 1708, described the Square as “a pleasant square of good buildings, between High Holborn south and the fields north”. Another observer, writing in 1720, Barker discovered, “remarked favourably upon the rows of trees, gravel walks and grass plots in the square”, stating that they were “all neatly kept for the inhabitants to walk in.” By 1729, the rate book for the area showed that among the forty houses in the square, numbered anti-clockwise from the north-west corner, there were six knights and two titled ladies. One of the knights, Sir Robert Raymond, Barker notes, became Lord Chief Justice and died at number 23 on the east side.

Copyright National Portrait Gallery

A period of change seemed to creep threateningly in the 1730s. In a much quoted volume, A Tour through Great Britain, an unknown author states as follows: “This present year, 1737, an Act was passed for beautifying Red Lyon Square, which had run much to decay”. The Act of Parliament, Barker explains, passed a levy “upon all the residents in order to have the Square’s appearance improved”. He identified that the Square had become “a receptacle for rubbish, dirt and nastiness of all kinds and an encouragement to common beggars, vagabonds and other disorderly persons to resort thither for the exercise of their idle diversions and other unwarrantable purposes”. Barker concludes that around this time, or soon afterwards, “new railings were put up round the square and rather forbidding watch-houses put up at each corner.”

Looking East, with Princes Street (now Princeton Street) in the centre beyond the Square.


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