So with an hour so in hand there was just time for a second leg of today’s journey which took care of the streets within the more or less rectangular area bounded by Southampton Row to the west, Theobalds Road to the north, Gray’s Inn Road to the east and High Holborn to the south. A large proportion of this territory is occupied by the land and buildings owned by the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court (all in London) which are the professional associations that all barristers in England & Wales must belong to one of. By contrast, in the western section of the quadrant lies Red Lion Square which has associations altogether less aligned with the establishment.
So I hop off the bus on Theobalds Road and turn left down Drake Street which is part of both the A40 and the Holborn one-way system. It’s also where you’ll find the second abandoned site of Central St Martin’s School of Art (the one that won’t be hosting a pop-up theatrical performance in May starring James Norton 0f War & Peace and Happy Valley fame – that’s the site on Charing Cross Road that featured a couple of posts back).
Swiftly take another left to skirt the northern side of Red Lion Square including a trip up and down Old North Street. In the north eastern corner of the square sits the Conway Hall which is owned by Conway Hall Ethical Society and was first opened in 1929. The name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907), anti-slavery advocate, out-spoken supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine. Nowadays it hosts a wide variety of lectures, classes, performances, community and social events and is renowned as a hub for free speech and independent thought. Its Library holds the Ethical Society’s collection, which is the largest and most comprehensive Humanist Research resource of its kind in the United Kingdom.
Head east away from the square via Lambs Conduit Passage then briefly south on Red Lion Street before resuming eastward along Princeton Street. No.1a (aka Tudor House) is now the London home of Novelty Automation which is a collection of, frankly, bonkers alternative amusement arcade machines. Didn’t have time to go in but having experienced the delights of the sister operation on Southwold pier would recommend a visit if you’re ever in the vicinity.
Next up is a circuit of Bedford Row which has to be one of the widest residential streets in the capital. If you were wondering who can afford properties like these then the clue is in the opening paragraph.
Continuing east we get to Jockey’s Fields, one side of which is taken up by the western wall of Gray’s Inn. The equestrian origins of the name of this former mews of Bedford Row have unfortunately been lost in the mists of time. As you will note, the entrance to Gray’s Inn, at the southern end of the wall, is suitably forbidding.
Just inside the gate to the left is a private road on the right side of which are the series of chambers known as Raymond Buildings. And behind you, on the wall itself, is a sign which continues the forbidding theme. The Servants of the Inn are a bit like the Deatheaters from Harry Potter I believe.
The Inn’s substantial gardens are known as The Walks and are only accessible to the general public between 12.00 and 2.30 on weekdays.
Apparently none of the Inns has a verifiable date of foundation. For many centuries it was the view that the starting point of the Inns of Court was a writ of Edward I made on the advice of his Council in 1292. The formal records of Gray’s Inn only date back to 1569 however. During the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I herself was the Inn’s patron lady there were many more members than those who went on to be admitted to the bar including Lord Burleigh, the Queen’s First Minister, Lord Howard of Effingham, the Admiral who defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, and Sir Francis Walsingham, the Chief Secretary who founded the Queen’s secret service.
Passing the southern entrance to the gardens we head through the arch leading into Gray’s Inn Square.
On your right as you enter the square is the Chapel at Gray’s Inn which predates the Inn itself in that its earliest in carnation is purported to have been around from 1315. The current building is largely a post-WW2 bombing reconstruction however.
Behind the chapel is the South Square which houses the Library of over 75,000 books and journals. In the centre of the square is a statue of Francis Bacon (1561 – 1621 ) which was erected in 1912. Bacon was admitted to the Inn in 1576 and called to the bar in 1582. He was elected Treasurer of the Inn in 1608 and held the position until 1617, when he was appointed Lord Privy Seal.
Exit the square by its south-west corner and emerge out onto High Holborn. Turning right we pass the Cittie of Yorke which, although it looks (especially inside) like something from medieval times, actually dates from the 1920’s. Nonetheless this Samuel Smiths’ pub is distinctive enough to have earned a Grade II listing.
Duck back up the alley that is Fulwood Place, the north end of which (opposite the entrance to the Walks) is guarded by these stone griffins. The badge of Gray’s Inn (as opposed to a true coat of arms) is a gold griffin on a black background encircled with the motto Integra Lex Aequi Custos Rectique Magistra Non Habet Affectus Sed Causas Gubernat, or “Impartial justice, guardian of equity, mistress of the law, without fear or favour rules men’s causes aright”.
Make our way back to Red lion square now traversing en route Warwick Court, Brownlow Street, Hand Court, Sandland Street, Red Lion Street and Princeton Street (again). Despite its small size, Red Lion Square has something of a colourful history. Legend has it that beneath this site lie the bodies (but not the heads) of Oliver Cromwell, his son-in-law Henry Ireton and the judge John Bradshaw, the chief architects of the regicide of Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, parliament had the bodies of the three men disinterred and posthumously tried and executed at Tyburn. Their heads were then cut off and displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall while the bodies were initially buried near the gallows. Rumour has it though that the bodies were exchanged while being kept at the Red Lion Inn the night before the hanging and the real remains buried behind the inn where the square is now situated.
The square itself was laid out around 25 years later by a property speculator by the name of Nicholas Barbon. This didn’t go down that well with the lawyers of Gray’s Inn however. Ironically though their legal attempt to prevent the development of the land failed and they ended up taking the law into their own hands. Around 100 of them attacked the workmen on the site, armed with bricks and other building materials. In the ensuing pitched battle the workmen came out on top and the building work carried on.
In the 1850’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelites lived here as did his friends William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.
Back in the present day; there is a bust of our old friend Bertrand Russell on the eastern side of the square (which the local pigeons have shown scant respect to) and on the west side a statue of the politician and anti-war activist Fenner Brockway (1888 – 1988). Living to the ripe old age of 99 meant that he got to be one of the few people to unveil their own statue.
After circling the square it just remains to visit Dane Street, Eagle Street, Catton Street and Fisher Street before calling time on today’s excursions.
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