Red Lion Square

Back in June, I went to a meeting of the H.G. Wells Society in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. While I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to look around, I knew I was in a very special place.

In Red Lion Square in 1889, William Briggs opened the London headquarters of the University Correspondence College. He had founded the UCC two years before in Cambridge, and had begun a London operation from an office at 1 Strand Hotel Buildings (which were probably in Holywell Street, now just a widening of Strand). The new offices were likely at 27 Red Lion Square, but the labs and commercial address (for what was called the University Tutorial College) were at 32. So where are these places now?

I have only haphazardly engaged in this investigation, because the site itself isn’t that important. Who cares where H.G. Wells taught his laboratories? Well, I do, if only as a sideline. I have a pretty strong sense of place. I crawled around the Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and asked questions at their photography archives, knowing I was in the same building, possibly on the same staircase, as Wells had been when he studied there (when it was the Normal School of Science) under T.H. Huxley. I’ve walked his path from the train station at Woking toward his house, and journeyed down Euston Road knowing he lived there, and looked up at the sign by his flat in Baker Street. Wells, I’m sure, would not object to my sense of geographic romance.

I began the Red Lion Square quest a few years ago, with this page from the University College London’s Bloomsbury project of 2007-2011. It not only mentions the UCC, but boasts a page on the University Tutorial College. That page cites Anna de Salvo’s book and Alan Tait’s article (I’m familiar with both). It also has a note about Briggs that sent me to the catalog of the British Archives, and ultimately to the archives themselves at Kew, only to discover that the documents were all about the college as part of Briggs’ will, not, as the site says, records of the UCC. The page also claims the UTC moved to Booksellers Row, which is not exactly accurate: the UCC textbook-selling operation and publisher (W.B. Clive) had been there since 1887, and remained there for some time. Booksellers Row, I know, is gone.

Searching for old places is always difficult in a living city. Here the case has been particularly tough, because the square was bombed during World War II. The Friends of Red Lion Square Gardens have a page on what happened, and I was able to note some of the addresses, and see a map of the square in 1952, showing the bombed areas.

Although I had read somewhere that the addresses around the square had changed a lot, the UCL Bloomsbury site said helpfully that Horwood’s maps of 1819 correspond with the Post Office listings of 1879, which isn’t 1889 but it’s close. So I found Horwood’s map at the Romantic London research website, and took a look.

This is the map of the square in 1819, and it includes house numbers. This confused me at first – you have to add in the indicator number (in other words, the “7” between 25 and 30 is “27”), then it makes sense.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1895 shows that not much has changed with the buildings:

So I printed out this map as a template, then used a pencil and noted the addresses I had. I know Conway Hall is at 25, on the corner of Lambs Conduit Passage. It was built in 1927, so it wasn’t there in 1889, but it helped me get my bearings. Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived at 17, and there’s a plaque I can see on Google Street View, so that helped with the other side of the square. Looking around the square in Google, I marked on my map all the obviously new (since 1950s) buildings. Here’s the result:

Having done this, I’m now not surprised the UCC building isn’t there, even if it wasn’t bombed. Very little of the late 19th century square exists. Red Lion Passage is gone, and is now the entry to a block of flats. Drake Street was later extended to Eagle Street.

Why did Briggs choose Red Lion Square for his college? In 1878, according to Old and New London:

“The whole of the square, having long since been deserted by the families who used to inhabit it, has become quite a warren, so to speak, of charitable societies, which we have no room to enumerate in detail.”

William Briggs, a Yorkshireman, wouldn’t have spent a penny more than he had to. I noticed in an photo from 1941 St George’s College (civil service and secretarial training), so I wonder whether Red Lion Square was particularly suited to small, private, educational institutions — the UCC was still there in 1941. The UCL Bloomsbury Project page noted that a lot of the area had been sold off by its 18th century aristocratic landlords to pay off debts.

So yes, I suspect it would have been a cheap place to set up shop. At 8A, across the Square, was the Midnight Meeting Movement, which “rescued” prostitutes, so there was plenty of learning to go round.


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