8 Secrets Of The South Bank Lion

By Zoe Craig Last edited 14 months ago
8 Secrets Of The South Bank Lion
A thing of beauty. Photo: Dun.can.

Think you know all about the South Bank lion? There's more to this leonine statue than meets the eye.

1. He started life selling beer

The lion statue you can see at the south end of Westminster Bridge first started life sitting on top of James Goding's Lion Brewery building in the 1830s.

An inscription on his paw, 'WFW Coade 24 May 1837' gives a very precise birthday for this lovely lion.

The WFW is his creator's initials: William Frederick Woodington was a notable sculptor, and curator of the Royal Academy's School of Sculpture from 1851.

The word 'Coade' describes the material from which our lion is made. More on this later.

The Red Lion Brewery and Shot Tower on the south bank near Waterloo, in June, 1932. By AG Linney, courtesy of the Museum of London.

The Lion Brewery, and our feline friend, prospered it was badly damaged by a fire in 1931.

The brewery lay mostly derelict until it was demolished in 1949 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.

2. He's older than he looks

Looking at the lion's lovely clean white coat, smooth mane and pristine paws, it seems surprising he's nearly 200 years old.

The secret to this big cat's polished appearance is down to a very special material: Coade stone. Not really stone at all, Coade stone is actually a ceramic material, or fortified clay, made to a recipe by a Richard Holt, and tweaked and perfected by Mrs Eleanor Coade around 1770.

This lion is actually very long in the tooth... Photo: Sarah Heenan.

Coade stone was popular for making statues and architectural decorations in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as it was easy to work with, and resistant to weathering.

It fell out of favour in the 1840s; today the cheaper Portland Cement is more likely to be used.

There are about 650 examples of Coade stone artworks still around today: our lion is one of the best examples.

Photo: Francesco Camardo.

He weighs 13 tons, and was made of separate parts cramped together. His size and weight can, in part, be attributed to the proximity of the Coade Stone factory in Narrow Wall, Lambeth, to the Lion Brewery in Belvedere Road where he took up residence.

3. Emile Zola was a fan

In 1893, Emile Zola was staying at the Savoy across the river from the brewery. Like us, he was impressed by this gorgeous beast, writing, 'It amused me greatly, this British Lion waiting to wish me good morning."

Years later, towards the end of his life, Zola is said to have returned to visit the site to see the statue, which is affectionately referred to as 'my lion.'

4. He was saved by a king

When the Lion Brewery was knocked down in 1949, the largest lion was preserved, seemingly at the wish of King George VI.

Photo from the excellent Hidden London website.
This plaque credits George VI with the lion's survival.

5. He prowled around Waterloo for a while

Thus our magnificent, but curiously down-in-the-mouth lion found himself at the entrance to Waterloo station, just in time to greet visitors to the Festival of Britain.

The view from York Road looking at the Coade stone lion outside Waterloo station. Copyright British Railway Board.

But he was uprooted again, when an office block was built next to the station in 1966. The GLC moved the statue to his current position at the end of Westminster Bridge, and renamed him the South Bank Lion.

6. He hasn't always been white

Today the South Bank lion is a gloriously glossy white, a great example of how well Coade stone can last.

But at some point it seems this lion was painted red. Sources vary: some say he was red when he graced the top of the Lion Brewery, which was also known as the Red Lion Brewery; others insist he was rouged while he was standing guard at Waterloo station, as a nod to British Rail's mascot at the time: a red lion.

No, not blue, but red. Photo: nicolassardella.

We rather like him in white, so hope he doesn't succumb to the same retrofitting as Crystal Palace's sphinxes.

7. He's got a time capsule in his bum

When the Coade Stone Lion was removed from the top of the Lion Brewery, workers found a bottle in a recess in its back. Inside were two William IV coins and a Coade trade card.

With adornments in 2012. Photo: P1ay.

In 1966, when the big cat was moved again, the time capsule was updated.

A 1966 coin was added as well as a copy of the GLC Chairman's letter (published in The Times, 17 March 1966, which gave a brief history of the lion), and a copy of an article on Coade stone by JH Holroyd, (also published in The Times, 5 March 1966.)

8. He's part of a set

Originally, there was a triplet of lions created by Woodington for the Lion Brewery.

One of the Southbank Lion's siblings survived, and can be seen at the entrance to the Rowland Hill Gate at the All-England Rugby Football Club in Twickenham.

Twickenham's coade stone lion. Photo: Peter Denton.

This lion was given to the Rugby Football Union in 1971, its centenary year. He was covered in gold leaf in 1991, when England hosted the second Rugby World Cup.

Another view of the Lion Brewery, with another lion. This from the north-west side of Belvedere Road in 1930. From the British History website.

Sadly, Woodington's third lion (perhaps the one shown above?) was destroyed.

You might also like:

A Closer Look at London's 10,000 Lions

How Much Do You Really Know About Trafalgar Square?

Last Updated 06 September 2016