Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A fight in Red Lion Square - and the origins of town planning

Red Lion Square in Holborn is not one of London's best known or most attractive squares, but it is one of the oldest in its origins.  It was laid out in the 1680s by the remarkable Nicholas Barbon, a dodgy-sounding character who was a doctor, developer, economist and one of the inventors of fire insurance.

According to the London Encyclopedia, when the square was being laid out by Barbon's men 'the lawyers of Grays Inn objected to losing their rural vistas and there were pitched battles when 100 or so of them went to beat up the workmen; but, led by Barbon in person, the workmen won.'

It's not hard to work out what must have happened next. The lawyers retreated to the safety of their Grays Inn quad to lick their wounds and consider how they could learn - and perhaps profit - from the experience. The answer: some sort of legal framework for controlling development, whereby disputes of this kind could be settled by brain rather than brawn, with the double benefit of favouring the lawyers rather than the builders next time the former wanted to protect their own amenities - and providing a source of work for them evermore in helping everyone else to achieve their aim either to develop or to obstruct. A clever lot.

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