Tucked away in Holborn’s one-way system, Red Lion Square is one of the oldest and smallest garden squares in Camden and probably the only London square that was built after a violent pitched battle.
In June 1684, the developer Nicholas Barbon gained permission to build a 17-acre site but faced fierce opposition from the neighbouring Gray’s Inn lawyers who claimed they were “losing their wholesome air” with the new development. On losing the court case it came down to fisticuffs between Barbon and his workers against around 100 lawyers; although both sides suffered serious injuries, Barbon won the battle and continued building. Ironically, some of the early tenants were some of those very same lawyers from Gray’s Inn!
The name of the square comes from the Red Lion Inn nearby where the body of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was popularly believed to have been temporarily stored. When Charles II became king in 1660, he took his revenge on all those who had supported the Parliamentary cause. Cromwell had died two years earlier and been buried in Westminster Abbey. Charles had Cromwell and two others exhumed in 1661 and tried for regicide. Found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, the bodies were kept overnight at the Red Lion Inn before being taken to Tyburn and hanged, with the heads being placed on spikes outside Westminster Hall. Some believe the corpses were substituted for others, and Cromwell’s body was in fact buried in Red Lion Square , which was supposedly haunted by the men. Many locals claim to have seen the three, deep in conversation, walking diagonally across the square, only to vanish gradually as they pass the centre of the garden. (Nonetheless, as a matter of fact, through a complex and circuitous route, Cromwell’s head came to be buried in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, his alma mater, in 1960.)
In the early 18th century, the square would deteriorate into a dumping ground for rubbish and a hangout for thieves and other vagabonds as was quite common with other squares in London at the time. The residents were eventually allowed to levy a rate to ‘beautify’ the square, and it was then enclosed with railings and watchtowers at each corner with a stone obelisk erected in the centre marking the spot where Cromwell’s body was supposedly buried. The square became fashionable again and over half the houses were soon occupied by solicitors, lawyers, doctors, and, later, other wealthy merchants including John Harrison, the world-renowned inventor of the marine chronometer, who lived at no. 12. In the wake of several unfortunate disasters at sea, caused by poor navigation, Harrison developed the chronometer with which longitude could be calculated within half a degree but had to wait until the last years of his life to enjoy the promised British governments reward of £20,000 (about £1.5m in today’s currency). A blue plaque is dedicated to him on the corner of Grade II listed Summit House that was built in 1925 as the ‘Art Deco’ headquarters for the tailoring company Austin Reed.
No. 17 is one of the few remaining 18th century buildings on the square and still proudly displays one of the London County Council plaques from 1911 that describes the brief residence from 1856 to 1859 of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting. Rossetti also recommended the rooms to his friend William Morris (1834-1896). The studio they shared was invariably in a state of chaos, and the general mess was increased by the droppings of a pet owl they had taken in to live with them! It was here that Morris first tried his hand at furniture and textile design and became an inspirational member of the Arts and Crafts Movement and went on to open a furniture shop with Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Charles Faulkner at 8 Red Lion Square, which became Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
On the north-eastern side of the square stands Conway Hall, owned by the charity Conway Hall Ethical Society, which was first opened in 1929. The name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907), an anti-slavery advocate, out-spoken supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine. Conway Hall organises many talks and debates and the popular Sunday evening chamber music concert series is claimed to be the longest-running of its kind in Europe.
The square has always attracted free thinkers, and that can be seen in the public gardens which have various commemorative statues including a bust of Nobel laureate and philosopher Bertrand Russell who used to lecture at Conway Hall. On the other side of the square is a statue of Fenner Brockway, a politician and anti-war activist. Brockway was asked to unveil his own statue by Camden Council in 1985 as they were worried about the planning permission expiring if they waited any longer to build it! On a sadder note, nearby is a Golden Indian Bean tree that was planted in memory of Alistair David Berkley, a law lecturer at the nearby Polytechnic of Central London, who died on Pan Am 103 at Lockerbie in 1988.
Staying on the west side, the former Central St. Martin’s College still stands in its ugly and out-dated condition on the other side of the wide one-way Proctor Street. In the past few years, the buildings have been used by a film production company and recent productions include the BBC drama Giri / Haji. Killing Eve, Rocketman, Pennyworth and The Little Drummer Girl are all major, critically acclaimed productions that have been filmed there and on the square since 2018. You will often see the caravan of mobile homes, HGVs, film equipment, mobile cafes parked up around the square when filming is underway.
Recently, plans have been approved to build a £242 million 427-bed hotel complex on the site which will also include a refurbishment of the Grade II listed Lethaby Building on Southampton Row and a reinstatement of the NW diagonal passage linking Southampton Row and the square. There were also plans to create a new entrance/exit to Holborn Underground to relieve the pressure on the main Kingsway entrance, but no Holborn stop was included on the new Crossrail/Elizabeth Line that passes deep under the square on its journey between Farringdon and Tottenham Court Road.
Finally, today, it is still a small, pleasant square frequented by residents, office workers, resting courier riders and tourists often to partake in a tea or coffee and food purchased in the small café run by a friendly team who also organise a big party every September to celebrate Chilean Independence.
There is also a small team of volunteers, who help Camden Council with the upkeep of the square (Friends of Red Lion Square Gardens), so, if you see me, the blogger, with a hose in my hand watering the gardens during the dry spells, say hello, eh?!
- Former CSM Campus £242m redevelopment | Holborn | Approved | SkyscraperCity
- Streets of Old Holborn and East of Bloomsbury – Camden History Society
- Bloomsbury’s Squares and Gardens – Susan Jellis
- Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time – Dava Sobel
Featured image at top of page is Red Lion Square, (c) Brian Polley, 2021