Holborn’s Red Lion Square – one of London’s oldest – harbours more celebrities in its history than most. They include Dante Gabriel Rosseti, Edward Burne-Jones, his room mate William Morris (who set up shop there), John Wilkes and John Harrison, the globally recognised inventor of the marine chronometer, which changed perceptions of longitude.
John Milton lived for a time nearby and the dead body of Oliver Cromwell, extracted from its grave in Westminster Abbey, spent the night at the Red Lion pub before continuing its journey to be ritualistically hanged at Tyburn the following day. Some say he is actually buried under the square. A bust of Bertrand Russell was erected there in 1980. But the most fascinating person connected to the square was the man who built it – the little-known but extraordinary Nicholas Barbon.
Barbon’s life was never going to be normal. The son of the infamous Fifth Monarchist Praise-God Barebone (hence “Barbon”), he was apparently christened “Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned”.
Such hellfire talk did not limit Barbon. He escaped from his childhood environment and became a polymath. He studied medicine in Holland, qualifying as a doctor, and later wrote treatises on economics that, nearly 300 years later, found favour with John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter. Then he found his true vocation: property speculation, which he practised on a scale seldom seen since.
Barbon pulled down several palaces on the Strand, including the Earl of Essex’s estate. In June 1684, he seized the opportunity to buy 17 acres of fields on what was then the very edge of London to build Red Lion Square. This incurred the wrath of lawyers at Grays Inn, who were based an open field away from the development, which they feared would destroy their “wholesome air”.
When they took their case to court and lost – because the land had been legally purchased – they refused to give in, and on 10 June a fierce battle broke out between upwards of 100 lawyers armed with bricks and the workmen, led by the indomitable Barbon himself. He emerged victorious, notwithstanding many casualties. Maybe the circumstances of its birth explain why it was built with a watchtower at each corner – shown in the c.1725 engraving of the square by Sutton Nicholls – which could be used as prisons.
In recent years, Red Lion Square has been associated with the Conway Hall radical meeting place. it is less known that in 1818 it saw the foundation of the London Mendicity Society – the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, to give it its full name – whose curious aim was to stop people begging by bribing them to leave the area immediately, with prosecution threatened if they didn’t.
The Society attracted so many donations that in 1824 the Times questioned how much of the money was being given to beggars compared with the bonus received by its Honourable Secretary. The controversy eventually faded and in 1860 Queen Victoria became patron. The Society closed down in 1960 on the grounds that it was no longer needed because of the success of the welfare state. If only.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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