Lucy Peterson discovers the social media pioneer of 18th century London, and his curious lion of news.
You know the feeling. You can only get a reservation at that “it” restaurant once the in-crowd has moved on. Flash back 300 hundred years and nothing’s changed.
In the late 1600s, London’s intelligentsia were all about trading ripostes with literary giant John Dryden over java at Will’s Coffee-house in Covent Garden. By 1712 Dryden was 12 years underground, Will’s was a bore and Button’s Coffee-house was in. The new “it” place of the Wits, as they humbly called themselves, was across the way on the south side of Russell Street, courtesy of newspaper pioneer Joseph Addison.
Addison established Button’s Coffee-house in 1712 on his own initiative under the proprietorship of Daniel Button, a former servant of the Countess of Warwick. Then, in 1713, Addison became editor of a new publication called The Guardian (unrelated to the modern namesake), founded by his friend Richard Steele. It’s questionable how much time he spent at his desk as he practically lived at the coffee house, soaking up news and gossip.
Face of a lion and a wizard
Addison wanted to encourage daily submissions to The Guardian from as many people as possible, and he wanted to do it from Button’s. His solution was as flashy as a Lamborghini parked outside a Starbucks. He commissioned a wood carving of a savage lion’s head with “a most wide and voracious mouth … the face of it being compounded out of that of a lion and a wizard.”
The much-admired carving was painted gold and “planted on the western side of the Coffee-house, holding its paws under the chin … a proper emblem of knowledge and action, being all head and paws.” Papers pushed into the lion’s mouth fell into a collection box below; the key was in Addison’s custody. He promised, “Whatever the Lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the publick.”
A post box for news and gossip
Bear in mind, this was more than 100 years before the advent of pillar boxes in London. Receiving-houses for mail were typically shops, hotels, coffee houses and the like, so a receiving house for newspaper submissions was not far removed in concept. But only Addison had thought of it — and his beast achieved something akin to rock star status in London.
The lion chewed on some tasty morsels in his time, as evidenced by this notice in The Guardian (one can only imagine the circumstances):
Whereas a Modesty piece was lost at the Masquerade last Monday night, being the 17th instant, between the hours of twelve and one, the author of this paper gives notice, that if any person will put it into the hands of Mr Daniel Button, to be returned to the owner, it shall by her be acknowledged as a last favour and no questions asked. N.B. It is of no use, but to the owner.
The lion on the prowl
The Guardian folded in just seven months. Addison died in 1719 and the Wits moved on, but the lion persevered at Button’s until 1731. From there, it went to the Shakespeare's Head in the Great Piazza at Covent Garden. In 1751, it was briefly placed in the adjoining Bedford Coffee-house, where it served as a receiving-box for botanist John Hill, who wrote a daily letter called The Inspector.
In 1804 the lion was purchased for 17£ 10s by Charles Richardson and displayed at Richardson's Hotel (later Evans's Coffee-house) in Covent Garden. When Charles died, his son used it as a rather dubious home furnishing. The Duke of Bedford brought the lion to Woburn Abbey in the late 1800s, where it acquired a sunburst surround and remains today.
Two lines of Latin are inscribed beneath the curved claws. Addison borrowed them from separate epigrams by the Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis. Ever clever, the editor rejiggered them into a warning for those who might be tempted to flood his leonine Inbox with silly rubbish:
Seruantur magnis isti ceruicibus ungues
non nisi delecta pascitur ille fera
Those talons are kept for mighty necks
He feeds only on the beast of his choice