Dr Nicholas Barbon – Red Lion Square

A story of the Bad, the Good and the Ugly!barbon

The square was named after the nearby Red Lion Inn in Holborn and was laid out on a 17-acre paddock by Dr Nicholas Barbon (1637-1699).



Barebone was the eldest son of Praise-God Barebone (or Barbon), after whom the Barebone’s Parliament of 1653—the predecessor of Oliver Cromwell‘s Protectorate was named. His unusual middle name, given to him by his strongly Puritan father, is an example of a religious “slogan names” which were often given in Puritan families in 17th-century England, to urge them on to greater things. Nicholas was born in London in about 1637. He studied medicine at Universities in the Netherlands, and received his Doctor of Medicine qualification from Utrecht in 1661. Three years later, he became an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London.

THE BAD – general consensus

He soon turned from the medical profession to the building trade where he worked under the name Nicholas Barbon.

Building had suddenly become important in 1666 after the Great Fire of London devastated the City. At this time the commercial district of London was still separate from Westminster, which was the seat of Britain’s government. Within a few years Barbon was “the most prominent London builder of his age”. He worked on a large scale, building swathes of housing and commercial developments to the west of the City of London, where land was plentiful. He was ultimately responsible for connecting the City and Westminster for the first time. This was as a result of his work in the districts, which became The Strand and Bloomsbury. Barbon worked despite long-established restrictions on new buildings associated with various Acts of Parliament and royal declarations in the late 16th century: he often simply disregarded legal and local objections, demolished existing buildings without permission and rebuilt speculatively in search of a quick profit. On 11 June 1684, Barbon’s continued aggressive expansionary speculation brought him and his workers into conflict with lawyers based at Gray’s Inn. Barbon started his largest project yet, the redevelopment of Red Lion Square, without being authorised to do so. The Gray’s Inn lawyers, whose Inns of Court were adjacent, started and won a physical battle with Barbon and his colleagues, and arranged for warrants to be issued against him to stop the scheme proceeding

THE GOOD – From Fire Service History and Insurance Hall of Fame

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, he also helped to pioneer fire insurance. In 1680 he founded the Fire Office in London, the first joint-stock company for fire insurance in London and perhaps the world. Renamed the Phoenix Office in 1705. An appropriate name for the society as the Phoenix is a mythical bird, which burns itself and then arises from the ashes reborn, as all HP fans know!

Initially it insured buildings but not furniture, fittings, or goods.

He conceived the idea of founding an insurance company to protect owners of homes and buildings against losses by fire. Appalled by the loss of property and the human suffering that grew out of the Great Fire of London, he had the courage and imagination to develop an institution whereby losses could be shared by those purchasing protection in his organization.

He recognized that service of an insurer should reach beyond the mere provision of indemnity in case of loss. He instituted the practice of maintaining a number of “water men in livery with badges” who would assist in extinguishing fires. His office originated the use of fire marks where properties it insured could be identified when fires occurred. If a fire started, the Fire Brigade was called. They looked for the fire mark and, provided it was the right one, the fire would be dealt with. Often the buildings were left to burn until the right company attended!

Mr. Barbon wrote copiously on questions of home and foreign trade. A monograph was written on his economic theories and he was elected a Member of Parliament in 1690 and again in 1695.

He deserves the title, “father of fire insurance”, because his office was the first private enterprise fire insurance company in the world. His signature appears on early policies issued by his company. 

In 1660 when Charles II returned from exile, he took his revenge on all those who had supported the Parliamentary cause. The leading parliamentarians, Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton were all dead, but in 1661 Charles had their bodies dug up and given a trial for regicide. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The bodies of Cromwell and Ireton were kept overnight at the Red Lion Inn before being taken to Tyburn and hanged. One version of the story goes that the corpses were substituted for others, and Cromwell’s body was in fact buried in Red Lion Square. Whatever the facts, the square is now said to be haunted by the men. Many claim to have seen the three, deep in conversation, walking diagonally across the square, only to vanish gradually as they pass the centre of the garden.

By 1720 it was a fashionable part of London: the eminent judge Bernard Hale was a resident of Red Lion Square.

In 1776 John “Longitude” Harrison was buried in the graveyard of Saint-John-at-Hampstead after living for many years in Red Lion Square.

In the 1860s, on the other hand, it had clearly become decidedly unfashionable: the writer Anthony Trollope in his novel Orley Farm (1862) humorously reassures his readers that one of his characters is perfectly respectable, despite living in Red Lion Square.

Number 17 was briefly the residence of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who founded the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting. Five years later, he recommended the rooms to his friends William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, despite their dampness and decrepitude. It was here that Morris first tried his hand at furniture and textile design, producing the first of the medieval-style furnishings, which gave rise to the Arts and Crafts movement.

In 1861 Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti set up a design business together at No. 8 Red Lion Square, to produce high- quality furniture and fittings using traditional craft methods. Their housekeeper, known as ‘Red Lion Mary’, did much of the sewing and tapestry, and also contributed to some of Morris’s designs.

Most of the buildings around the square were replaced in the 19th and 20th centuries, but numbers 14 to 17 are houses originally built by Nicholas Barbon around 1686, which were re-fronted in the 19th century.

With very grateful thanks to:





Buried in Hampstead by the Camden History Society.



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