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The statue of a Red Lion on the portico outside the Iceland store in Wycombe High Street has been an iconic feature of the town centre for over 200 years, writes BFP Nostalgia expert Mike Dewey.
It was originally a distinguishing feature above the entrance to the Red Lion Hotel. As we have seen in the series of articles recently published on the Nostalgia page about the history of the hotel, both Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill made election speeches standing on the portico next to the Red Lion statue. Churchill is even alleged to have tweaked the tail of the lion, when it broke-off in his hand.
Mike Dewey with the Red Lion at High Wycombe Museum.
It is not known when the statue made its first appearance outside the hotel. This would have been between 1772, when William Hannan produced a painting of the western end of the High Street which shows a Red Lion sign but no statue, and 1832 when Disraeli gave his election speech.
In the first part of this series on the history of the Red Lion inn/hotel we saw that after Charles Tinson became the landlord in 1776 he announced seven years later that he had refurbished the premises and ‘’added several new bedrooms, rebuilt the stables, and made other considerable additions and improvements’’. He was also a coach-master.
Perhaps it was he who built the portico, and added the Red Lion statue, in order to ensure that his inn stood out from the others in the town to attract as many travellers as possible.
No reference to the statue, except its presence in paintings, photographs and other images of the High Street, has been found in the records until 1955. In the edition of November 11th 1955 the Bucks Free Press reported that after a meal in the hotel members of High Wycombe Rugby Club, including Ron Emery and Bill Bartlett, climbed onto the portico and painted the lion white. Fortunately this paint washed off easily.
However only a year later the statue was replaced with a new one. In the edition of August 24th 1956 the Bucks Free Press reported ‘Removed yesterday from his post over the Red Lion hotel portico where he has lorded it for 150 years High Wycombe’s renowned Red Lion was borne away in stately fashion in a ‘hearse’ ’’.
The ‘hearse’ was in fact a wagon belonging to local coal merchant Fred Moreton. That Red Lion statue is now on display in the Wycombe Museum and although it is referred to as the ‘old statue’ it is not known for certain if it is the original one.
The new statue was carved by the well-known Wycombe wood-carver and furniture-maker Frank Hudson in his factory in Easton Street. It was carved from Quebec yellow pine and said to be taller, bolder, with more swagger than its predecessor. Around 100 individual pieces were glued together to form the statue.
The barrel body and neck are hollow. This is a very effective way to build a statue because it allows the components to be carved in alignment with the grain of the wood. This makes for a much stronger structure.
Its modular construction is of particular importance to the statue. This allows full advantage to be taken of the longitudinal strength of the Quebec pine along the direction of the fibres in the wood. It does mean however that the joints between the different modules are a potential point of weakness. The surface coating (ie paint) on the statue therefore requires to maintain its integrity at all times.
Any failure in this coating will allow the ingress of rainwater and frost, which if into a joint would have an easy path to penetrate deep into the statue. Wet rot would then soon become established and will quickly spread throughout the statue. This is a fungus, which once present quickly breaks down the cellular structure of the wood.
The statue was regularly maintained, including re-painting, whilst it was still a part of the Red Lion Hotel owned by the Mogford family.
However the Red Lion hotel premises were sold by auction in 1961. In September 1965 the portico on which the Red Lion stood was hit by a lorry and badly damaged. So for 15 months the statue disappeared from the High Street whilst the portico was replaced, re-appearing on the new portico in December 1966.
The hotel despite being a Grade II listed building was demolished in 1968/69 and replaced by a Woolworth’s store. The statue and portico are both mentioned in the listing, as is an impending move of the portico to a new location. The developer agreed to erect a new portico, with the Red Lion statue mounted on it, at the front of the store.
During a storm in January 1990 the lion was blown off the portico, now outside an entrance to the Woolworth’s store, and smashed to pieces when it crashed onto the pavement. These pieces were gathered up and wheeled away to the back of the store in three large supermarket trolleys.
A call was then made to Frank Hudson’s grandson Colin Mantripp, who is himself a master carver. At the time Colin was working on a commission for Lord Burnham to restore the carvings which adorn the walls of the Lodge House at the Hall Barn estate in Beaconsfield.
Examination of the pieces showed that the wood was rotten in places, after only 33 years since it was commissioned. So rotten that many people thought that the Red Lion statue was beyond repair.
Colin thought otherwise and by replacing and re-carving around 50 per cent of the statue he managed to restore it to its former glory. Some of the discarded pieces were then sold around the world as part of the Mayor’s appeal for that year.
Colin’s services were again called upon in 1997 when vandals broke and removed part of the tail, and yet again in 2002 when students in a drunken spree climbed up onto the portico and toppled the statue. The legs were broken off and the tail shattered.
Once again Colin collected the pieces and took them to his studio, now at Lillyfee Farm in Wooburn Common, and restored the statue. Eventually the owner’s building insurance agreed to pay for the costs of restoration.
In 2013, The High Wycombe Society reported that the tail had again become detached from the lion. It was ‘repaired’ by the owner’s building contractors with black gaffer tape, which was later painted red.
The Red Lion statue now suffers from the ignominy of having had half his tail broken off. He literally had his tail between his legs.
I am grateful to Colin Mantripp, and to Jackie Kay of the High Wycombe Society, for their assistance in tracing the chequered recent history of the Red Lion statue.