Red Lion Square: Cromwell, a most unusual name, reforming prostitutes, Pre-Raphaelites, and more

It’s time to take a closer look at Red Lion Square. It has more than its share of ghosts and stories.

Red Lion Square with Jo Wilkinson

My heritage hot spot is one of London’s garden squares. It may not have the elegance of Bedford Square or the fountains of Russell Square but it is a remarkable place with a long history and some surprising stories.

It is said to be haunted by the ghost of Oliver Cromwell, whose body, having been dug up, posthumously tried and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn, rested at the local Red Lion Inn in 1661.

Red Lion Square by Jo Wilkinson

Red Lion Square by Jo Wilkinson

Red Lion Square itself was developed in the 1680s by Nicholas Barbon, or to give him his full name: Nicholas Unless Jesus Christ had died for Thee Thou hadst been Damned Barbon. He qualified as a Doctor but abandoned medicine for property development and profit. He tended not to worry about nice details such as ownership or the law, demolishing other people’s property when it suited him.

The lawyers of nearby Gray’s Inn objected so strongly to the building of the square that there was a pitched battle between them and Barbon’s builders with bricks and other building materials thrown. They failed to stop the development and once the houses were built got used to the idea, with some moving in to the new square.

Determination to save fallen women

Over time, it has been home to many individuals and organisations. In the 19th century The Midnight Meeting Movement, founded by the wonderfully named Theophilus Smith, tried to reform prostitutes by holding meetings during their working hours and find them a better way of life.

The Female Aid Society was also based in Red Lion Square, helping unprotected women of good character and fallen but penitent females. In the 1850s the society featured in a divorce case, when a husband claimed that far from consorting with prostitutes he was working for the Society and trying to reform them. The judge did not believe him!

Summit House, Red Lion Square by Jo Wilkinson

Summit House, Red Lion Square by Jo Wilkinson

More recently, if you have seen the film Denial you may recognise Summit House built in 1925, which was the offices of law firm Mischcon de Reya and featured in the film.

If you would like to hear more of the square’s stories it is featured on my walk Holborn: Residents, Rascals and Riots, which I am next leading on 22nd April (2017).

Jo Wilkinson, London tour guide (own photo)

Jo Wilkinson, London tour guide (own photo)


Jo Wilkinson is a qualified City of London and London Borough of Camden Guide. With her long-time friend, Karen Lansdown, they are Lansdown’s London, offering walking tours and the opportunity to explore their home city.



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Jo was brought up in Holborn, and confesses to have taken privet leaves from the hedges in Red Lion Square to feed her stick insects as a child.

More on Red Lion Square from Jill

As Jo says, Red Lion Square doesn’t have the elegance and fountains of its neighbours, but it has a lot of history, including the amazingly named Nicholas Unless Jesus Christ had died for Thee Thou hadst been Damned Barbon.

I had paid no attention to Red Lion Square and then it turned up in three pieces of research I was doing within the space of about a month.

The inventor of the marine chronometer

My husband The Geologist has long been fascinated by the H1 Marine Chronometer and its relatives, H2, H3, and H4. Before this very accurate “sea clock” was invented, navigating longitude could be risky business. The marine chronometer was revolutionary.

Jo mentioned Summit House, on the south side of the square. Summit House has a blue plaque for John Harrison, inventor of the H1 etc. The book Longitude tells Harrison’s story – a lifetime devoted to making a clock that would keep reliable time at sea. We stumbled upon the plaque last spring without taking any notice of the square.

In the fall I wrote about Admiral Nelson’s first trip to London in 1771. One of Nelson’s uncles lived and worked close to Red Lion Square. Nelson was a boy on this trip, and Harrison an old man, but I think there is a reasonable chance they met, or at the very least, that the uncle showed Nelson where Harrison lived.

The slightly muddled connection to Pocahontas

Also in the fall I started reading about Pocahontas (not her real name, but the one by which she is most widely known). March 2017 is the 400th anniversary of her death en route home from London. It turns out there used to be a statue of Pocahontas in Red Lion Square. Why?

Publishers Cassell & Company moved to the square in the 1950s and commissioned the statue then. They had adopted the image of “la belle sauvage” as their colophon quite some time earlier. Cassell’s first home, in the 1800s, was at the yard of the Bell Savage Inn. Gradually the firm grew, the inn shrank, and Cassell’s took up the whole property. That alone would have been enough to justify the name.

Pocahontas became identified with the image of “la belle sauvage”. In 1616, she had stayed at the Bell Savage Inn, which was already going by that name before she arrived. The inn’s name was not “belle savage” and it wasn’t named after Pocahontas. Savage was an owner, and the inn was probably called the Bell or Bell on the Hoop when Savage arrived.

By the time Cassell’s commissioned the statue, Pocahontas and “la belle sauvage” were melded.

I should say that although the French word “sauvage” looks and sounds like “savage”, and “la belle sauvage” is usually translated as “the beautiful savage”, I prefer “sauvage” as in “fleur sauvage”, meaning “wildflower”. Pocahontas was a woman who lived close to Nature, and in that gentle sense, might be called “sauvage”.

The statue has since gone into private hands and has left Red Lion Square.

Home of Pre-Raphaelite artists

Red Lion Square Pre-Raphaelites plaque by Spudgun67 via

Red Lion Square Pre-Raphaelites plaque by Spudgun67 via

To round out the trio of Red Lion adventures that I didn’t know I was having, some of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists lived on the square. My last trip to London included visits to the William Morris Gallery at Walthamstow, and the Red House, built for Morris and his family. William Morris and his friend and fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones shared a flat on Red Lion Square in the 1850s. That was on the recommendation of founding Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was already there.

Finally, I’d like to mention the Friends of Red Lion Square, who are on Twitter @RedLionSquare. Their website, has some news and history of the square.

3 thoughts on “Red Lion Square: Cromwell, a most unusual name, reforming prostitutes, Pre-Raphaelites, and more

      • Thanks, Mike & Roger. The evolution of “Bell Savage” from Tudor(?) coaching inn to a naked recumbent lady in Red Lion Square is remarkable, I think. What if the inn had been called the Hoop and Grapes, would all this have unfolded the way it did, or would Red Lion Square be graced with some vineyard-themed art now?

What do you think?