The Red Lions
Sometimes the best of clubs are formed spontaneously without any real rhyme or reason. One such is the rather splendid Red Lions whose convivial banquets were not to be missed by those fortunate to be associated with them.
The story begins in 1839 when the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Birmingham for a symposium. Some of the younger members, perhaps bored with the company of the older fuddy-duddies, decided to dine together at the Red Lion in Church Street. So convivial was the evening and so well did the diners get on that the assembled company determined that they would repeat the exercise wherever the British Association met next. And so they did, taking their name from the hostelry where they had held their first repast. When in London, they dined at Anderton’s in Fleet Street.
The fortunes of the club mirror the life of its leading light, Professor Edward Forbes, who held the title of President. He drew around him some close friends who were described in contemporary reports as “jovial philosophers” and membership was carefully controlled. There were some qualifications for entry – you had to satisfy the other members that you could sing or roar or come up with a bon mot – not necessarily a high bar for entry but one designed to keep out the hoi polloi. You would not necessarily go for the fare, plain roast and boiled being the food of choice. Invitation cards were issued for each meal, featuring the figure of a red lion erect, bearing a pot of beer in one paw and a clay pipe in the other. So that you were in no doubt that vegetarians were not welcome, the invite commenced with the words, “the carnivora will feed”.
During the proceedings, members were invited to talk, tell jokes and sing songs. When a contribution met with Forbes’ approval, he would gather up his coat tails as if they were a tail and wag it and roar his approval heartily. Taking Forbes’ lead, all the other members would follow suit. So celebrated did this form of approbation become that the secretary of the Zoological Society, a Mr Mitchell, presented the Club with the skin of a lion. This graced the President’s chair with paws at the elbows and the tail handily positioned so that it could be waved with gusto. A drawing of proceedings at a dinner in Aberdeen survives showing the lion in action.
All good things must come to an end, they say, and following Forbes’ death in 1854 the wind seemed to have gone out of the club’s sails. An attempt was made in 1865 when the British Association met in Birmingham to revive the club and sixty conference goers attended the dinner, although for some reason it was not held in the Red Lion. Alas, though, according to the Daily News, the atmosphere was not the same. The diners, none of whom had to demonstrate any of the qualities that Forbes had insisted upon, were relatively subdued, although there were some songs sung, including Professor Rankine’s own composition, the Mathematician In Love.
The revival never got off the ground and that was that. I wonder what happened to the lion skin?