A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Seven


Red Lion Square, WC1R

If you walk eastwards down Theobalds Road in Holborn and turn right into North Street you will come across the pleasant square and garden that is Red Lion Square. Amongst the statues to be found there are those of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and the peace activist, Fenner Brockway. Despite Brockway’s presence the square has had a rumbustious past.

In the 17th century there was a pub there, the Red Lyon (natch), and 17 acres of fields. Property speculator, Nicholas Barbon, saw the opportunity to build housing on the land and bought it. However, the lawyers of nearby Gray’s Inn objected to his scheme, claiming that they would lose their rural surroundings and their “wholesome air” and it would be detrimental to their highly strung constitutions. In June 1684 the lawyers, as lawyers do, took Barbon to court but lost the case as he had bought the land fair and square.

Matters did not end there. On 10th June 1684 around 100 lawyers armed with bricks and other building material set about the workmen on the building site. They, led by Barbon, resisted and by the time order was restored, many men on both sides had sustained injuries. Having seen the lawyers off both in the courts and on the site, Barbon succeeded in building a square with neat and tidy houses, many taken up, ironically, by lawyers from Gray’s Inn.

In my student days Red Lion Square was notorious for a dust-up on 15th June 1974 between the National Front, their political opponents and the old bill, in which, unfortunately, Kevin Gateley from the University of Warwick was killed.

In the early 18th century the square in the middle went to rack and ruin, becoming a dumping ground for rubbish and a hangout for thieves and vagabonds, the lawyers’ clients perhaps? In 1737 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the residents to tart the square and they proceeded to erect iron railings and four post houses, one at each corner, together with a rough stone obelisk with the inscription “obtusum obtusioris ingenii monumentum. Quid me respicis, viator? Vade.” This translates as “a dull memorial of a duller character. Why are you looking at me, traveller. Be on your way.” Charming!

One theory is that it marks the resting spot for Oliver Cromwell’s body (but not his head). Cromwell died in 1658 and when Charles II regained the throne in 1660, Parliament ordered that the bodies of the principal regicides – Olly, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw – be exhumed from their resting places in Westminster Abbey, and posthumously hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. The bodies were exhumed and carried by cart to the Red Lyon pub where they were kept overnight before the gruesome task of their disembowelling and execution the following day. The three bodies were decapitated – the heads were put on display at Westminster – and dumped into a pit near the gallows.

But were they bodies of Cromwell and his two accomplices? Legend has it that whilst they were at the Red Lyon the bodies were switched and buried near the pub at the spot later marked by the obelisk. The rather disingenuous inscription, perhaps, was intended to put the inquisitive off the scent. No one knows for sure whether there is any truth in the story but it is said that the ghosts of the three haunt the square.

The square was badly damaged during the Second World War and only a few of the original houses, principally numbers 14 to 17 although they were given new facades in the 19th century, survive to this day.


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