Cromwell, ghosts, Tyburn, and umbrellas

This day in London history: on 16 December 1653, following the lack of success of the Barebones Parliament, Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England, Wales, and Scotland. The decision was made by the new Protectoral government at a meeting Cromwell did not attend). Centuries after Cromwell’s death (in 1658, probably of septicaemia following a urinary infection), opinion is still divided as to whether he was a hero or a villain.

In any event, over two years after his death (on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I), the bodies of Cromwell and two other men were disinterred from Westminster Abbey, taken to Tyburn where they were ceremonially hanged and decapitated, and their heads displayed on poles above Westminster Hall.

One line of thought is that the bodies had been left overnight in Red Lion Square in Holborn before being taken to Tyburn, and that later the bodies were taken back there and secretly buried. This would appear not to be true, but there was a rumour that the spirits of the three men haunted the area for many years.

Nicholas Barbon
Nicholas Barbon

Red Lion Square takes its name from the Red Lyon tavern, “in olden times the most important hostelry in Holborn”, which gave its name to the square and the nearby street.The square was one of the first licensed developments outside the City, when London was still rapidly spreading west. It was developed by the speculator Nicholas Barbon, the son of Praisegod Barebone.

Barbon was, in his own way, as much of an eccentric as his father. He started off with a career in medicine, having studied in Holland and been admitted to the College of Physicians in 1664, and later became involved in financial matters.

Barbon wrote two treatises on money and was the originator of fire insurance in Britain; he was also a persuasive man who radiated charm and arrogance in equal measure, depending on his objective. A contemporary referred to him as a “rogue, knave and damned”. He became, after the Great Fire, one of the most active and influential builders in London. He did get it wrong sometimes: not all of his buildings stayed up, but even ones that didn’t collapse could cause excitement and Red Lion Square was no exception.

Red Lyon Fields, as it was known prior to the 17th century, was purchased by Barbon for speculative development and building commenced in the late 1680s. However, lawyers in the area (the “gentlemen of Graies Inn”) were unamused at the thought of their rural surroundings being spoiled, and they began a campaign against the development and its workmen.

This campaign, or riots, if you prefer, began in 1684 and the legal men had the upper hand at first: despite the bricks being hurled at them by workmen they were able to take two hostages. Barbon was not the sort to take that kind of thing lightly, and returned the following day with hundreds of workmen, shouting threats and promising not to be intimidated. The excitement eventually died down when the square proved that it was attractive, and it became a commercial success.

Even in death, Barbon proved that he was not a man who could easily be daunted – his will directed that none of his debts was to be paid.

Red Lion Square also had its fair share of famous residents, and the most delightfully eccentric of them all was Jonas Hanway (1712-1786), explorer and philanthropist, who lived and died there. Among other things, Hanway was known for instituting the Foundling Hospital. Samuel Johnson said of Hanway that he “gained some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it by travelling at home”. In any event, Hanway’s reputation lives on mainly because he was instrumental in introducing that great British accessory – the umbrella – to the men of the UK.

Although long used by ladies in the UK, and a status symbol in China in the 11th century BC, the umbrella was considered effeminate and unseemly for British men. They were originally viewed as a sunshade rather than protection against the rain. It was not until Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of the umbrella that they became associated with rain.

For years after his death, however, it was still considered unmanly to use them – as late as 1818 the Duke of Wellington banned his troops from using them. Towards the end of the 19th century the curved steel frame rib, which allowed the umbrella to be furled, made the use of them more widespread.

The umbrella more recently was made even more famous by the Barbadian singer Rihanna, who had an award-winning song in 2007 entitled simply ‘Umbrella.

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