Little slices of London's history

Greenberry Street and Red Lion Square: street names for St Patrick’s Day and Red Nose Day

I’ve already mentioned a couple of green streets in an earlier post about colours and music in London street names, which you can read here. Green Street, one source stated, took its name from the fact that it was just a plot of grassy land between Park Lane and Oxford Street. I’ve checked my other sources and it appears rather that it was named for John Green, who was contracted by the Grosvenor family to build houses here in the 1720s when the Grosvenor Square area was being developed.

By happy coincidence, there is a Red Place leading off Green Street; the name may have arisen both from the proximity to Green Street and to the colour of the buildings therein.

But in recognition of the fact that it is both St Patrick’s Day and Red Nose Day today, here are two appropriately coloured London street names – one for each occasion.

Greenberry Street in St John’s Wood is linked to a murder story full of coincidences. In 1678 the body of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was found in a ditch near Barrow Hill, once known as Greenberry Hill. He had been strangled, presumably with his own cravat, which was missing, and had been run through with his own sword, upon which he was impaled.

“By strange coincidence,” says one source, “the three men convicted and executed for the murder – each protesting his innocence to the last – were Green, Berry, and Hill.” Robert Green, Henry Berry, and Lawrence Hill, to be precise.

Much as I love an outlandish story regarding London street names, this sounded too good to be true, and I feared that, like Bleeding Heart Yard, I could be further propagating a myth. I decided to go through various other references; my mother always said I shouldn’t believe anything until it had been confirmed by two reputable sources. According to the charming Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel (who feature in my previous post on Bleeding Heart Yard), the murder of Sir Edmund (they call him Sir Edmundbury Godfrey) was turned into anti-Papist propaganda and three evidently innocent men were blamed and beheaded.

“For many years after the execution of the three innocent servants,” they say, “Primrose Hill was familiarly called Greenberry Hill, in their memory. Then the old name came back. But, for some curious reason, six hundred yards from Primrose Hill, and in the Borough of St Marylebone, there is a short thoroughfare still named Greenberry Street.”

The men did appear to be innocent and the question of who did murder Sir Edmund has never been answered.

Having read all that, I broke my new rule of not defaulting to the internet for information. Luckily I stumbled quickly onto a wonderful website called Minimum Labyrinth and discovered an essay by Robert Kingham in which he, like Bolitho and Peel, dismisses the coincidence of names as fake news. “In this scenario,” says Kingham, “the likely explanation is that a punster in 1678 observes that Barrow Hill ought now to be called GreenBerry-Hill, and it is taken up humourlessly as an alternative fact. The only conclusion I can reach for now is not a new one for me: that underneath the myths of London crawl a multitude of aberrant half-truths, no less engrossing.”

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 saw a great deal of activity in its early days: before it was developed, it was the scene of an unseemly bit of grave robbing. In 1660, after the Restoration of Charles II, the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and two other men were dug up by over-enthusiastic Royalists. The corpses were left in the square overnight before being taken to Tyburn and ceremonially hanged and decapitated. The rumour was that the bodies had been taken back to the square and buried there. They weren’t, but the spirits of the three men supposedly haunted the area for many years.

Red Lion 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, who 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.

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 of disturbance against the development and its workmen.

These ‘riots’ 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 had a number of famous residents; the most delightfully eccentric of them all was Jonas Hanway, who was instrumental in introducing 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.

Three of the core pre-Raphaelites – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), lived at number 17 where there is a blue plaque to mark their residence. Their lease included the restriction that “models are kept under gentlemanly restraint as some artists sacrifice the dignity of art to the baseness of passion”.

3 responses to “Greenberry Street and Red Lion Square: street names for St Patrick’s Day and Red Nose Day”

  1. I have never celebrated SPD, or RND. Both annoy me as a Londoner, to be honest.
    Best I leave it there.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I have to confess I’m with you on both counts, Pete – it’s all about the angle. Some of the ‘events’ I’ve eschewed are Cookie Dough Day and International Tooth Fairy Day! 😄 All the best, Elizabeth

  2. […] one of its more famous residents was Nicholas Barbone (sometimes referred to as Barebone), he of Red Lion Square; for a time it was the home of the Royal Society; and the second circulating library ever started […]

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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