The South Bank Lion: A historic big cat looking a bit off colour…
The South Bank is one of London’s most heavily tourist-populated areas, thanks to the London Eye, London Dungeon, Aquarium and view of the Houses of Parliament to name but a few. Those who have lived in London a long time, know this is a relatively recent phenomena, having really kicked off with the opening of the London Eye by the southern shores of the Thames in 2000. Prior to the 1950s – when the Royal Festival Hall was built for the Festival Of Britain – the Southbank was a place of industry, which has long since gone.
Standing on the south side of Westminster Bridge, just by the pedestrianised steps leading down to the front of County Hall, is a proud-looking stone lion. Tens of thousands of people – predominantly tourists – walk over Westminster Bridge every day to get a selfie of themselves with Big Ben behind or to board the Eye for a 360 degree vista of the capital and many not even notice him. He stands tall at 12 feet at a width of 13 feet, weighing an impressive 13 tonnes.
While the grey-coloured lion looks very comfortable against the backdrop of the similarly coloured County Hall building, his origins weren’t quite so low-key. This sculpture was originally red and belonged to the Red Lion Brewery, an imposing great building on the site of the Royal Festival Hall. The brewery was designed by Francis Edwards and built between 1836–7 for owner James Goding. The site spread south of Belvedere Road after Goding acquired land for stables and warehouses as his beer empire expanded. (For an image of the Red Lion Brewery, click here). Our current lion was one of two red ones which stood at the brewery – a great emblem for the beer brand. What makes these lions special is they are made of Coade stone – a type of stoneware made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, named after its creator Eleanor Coade (1733-1821). Coade’s Artificial Stone Company stood not far away on Westminster Bridge Road.
The red lions stood on the site for nearly 100 years until the brewery was damaged in a fire in 1931. The semi-ruined building was briefly used as storage for waste paper before lying derelict for years before it was demolished in 1949 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall. Apparently King George VI (1895-1952) rather liked our lion and encouraged city planners to find a new home for him. The lion was then moved to Station Approach outside Waterloo railway station, but that home didn’t last long either when the station was later expanded.
Finally, in 1966, the lion was restored to his original Coade Stone grey colour and placed on a plinth outside County Hall, where he remains today. During his final move, the name of the noted sculptor William F Woodington (1806-1893) was found engraved on one of the paws, along with the date 24 May 1837. He is now Grade II-listed by English Heritage. As for his twin, the other lion is now painted gold and stands at the Rowland Hill Memorial Gate at Twickenham Stadium 12 miles away. (For a photo of the Twickenham lion, click here).
- The South Bank Lion stands on the south east corner of Westminster Bridge. Nearest station: Waterloo or Westminster.
For the history of the nearby 19th century swan benches and the Albert Embankment, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s London history posts, click here.