Standing proud above the tourists on Westminster Bridge is a statue of a noble lion who gave hope to London during WW2 and was saved by a King.
This is the South Bank Lion, of good antiquity and made from a revolutionary type of artificial stone.
It all goes back to 1769, when an artificial stone manufacturer, Daniel Pincot joined up with the the entrepreneur Eleanor Coade to set up a ceramics factory in Lambeth to make decorative mouldings.
The venture only lasted a couple of years, and Coade took over the whole firm, making ornaments from a twice fired stone called Lythodipyra — but is much better known as Coade Stone.
This artificial stone made from clay, flint, quartz and soda lime glass, then fired for several days.
At first, the company prospered, as the Coade Stone was lauded for its weatherproof qualities and ease with which it could be cast into a wide range of shapes. Sadly for them, the development of Portland Cement took over as the favoured material, and the company stopped trading in the early 1840s.
One of the very last large commissions though was for a couple of large lions.
Next to the Coade factory was the Lion Brewery owned by James Goding, and in 1837, he commissioned the sculptor William Frederick Woodington to sculpt a pair of lions to adorn his brewery.
The larger of the two was painted red and mounted on top of the brewery which faced the Thames, and became a landmark for the area.
The brewery was badly damaged in a fire in 1931 and was used as a storehouse after that.
The lion still standing on the building overlooking the Thames gained a new lease of life during WW2 though. It strangely became a bit of a beacon of hope during WW2, when there was a saying that “so long as the lion stands, London will stand”.
London stood, as did the lion.
For an artificial stone material that was noted for it’s clean creamy white colour, the lion had always been painted red. There is some confusion about the red paint as to whether it was added after the lion was taken down, but it seems clear from contemporary news reports that it was red when on top of the brewery, but maybe the confusion comes from the fact that early drawings seem to show a white lion, and that it was later painted a brighter red when removed.
You can also see in this photo that the Lion appears to have been painted, and that the paint is wearing away. Certainly this photo shows a much darker colour lion standing outside Waterloo station, so it’s probable that a red lion was later repainted bright red for the Festival.
After the war the old brewery was mostly left derelict until it was demolished in 1949 — for the Festival of Britain. The Lion Brewery stood where the festival was to take place, and the site is today the Southbank Centre.
However, the lion nearly didn’t survive this interruption to its long life, for with the demolition of the old brewery imminent, it seemed the lion was to go with it.
Such was the popularity of the red lion and how it had given hope during WW2, that thousands of Londoners petitioned the LCC to save the lion. Then King George VI himself intervened and had his secretary phone the Chairman of the LCC to ask for the lion to be saved from destruction.
And when a King asks, you obey.
The lion was saved, hurrah! He was carefully taken down on 11th February – 70 years ago today.
He was moved to stand on a plinth outside Waterloo Station at one of the gates to the Festival of Britain. And that is why there used to be signs around the South Bank using the lion as their icon.
When Waterloo Station was expanded in 1966, the lion moved again — this time to its current home, on the Lambeth end of Westminster Bridge, where it has remained ever since.
Such is the fate for a red lion that stood proud over the Thames, defied German bombs, gave hope to thousands of Londoners, appealed to a King, and gloried the Festival of Britain.
Today though, the South Bank Lion no longer gazes over the Thames, having been positioned with a view of the road instead.
Which seems a pity. He deserves better.