We've recreated a once celebrated Lion that was at the heart of the 18th century version of social media – London’s buzzing coffee houses where people gathered to hear the latest news and share opinions. In 1713 the writer Joseph Addison caused much excitement at his favourite Covent Garden coffee house when he unveiled a gilt-covered lion's head with a mighty open mouth for people to post contributions to his daily paper The Guardian.
Addison told his readers he would publish their posts under the title The Roarings of the Lion, saying: “I hope to make him roar so loud as to be heard over all the British nation.”
We tracked down Addison's original Lion to Woburn Abbey – where he has hung above a doorway for more than a century – and worked with movie prop makers to create a new Lion's Head as close as possible to how the post box would have looked in 1713.
Our Lion made his first appearance at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, where he attracted lots of fascinated attention in discussions about the power of story-telling. Visitors to the Great Britain House were the first people to make him roar in more than 300 years – posting news, ideas and opinions for publication on his Roarings of the Lion blog.
The original Lion’s Head letter-box – carved in wood and covered in gilt – was installed by Addison at Button’s Coffee House in Russell Street, Covent Garden, where for the price of a penny you could come in and read the day’s publications, drink strong coffee, and talk about the latest news.
There were hundreds of coffee houses across London in the early 1700s – and, as with social media today, people had become addicted to checking in for the latest news. One paper in 1712 complained that men were “spending whole days in coffee houses to hear news and talk politics, whilst their wives and children wanted bread at home”.
Button’s was the coffee house where some of the greatest wits and literary luminaries of the day chose to meet – people like Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay, as well as Addison himself. William Hogarth made several sketches of the famous characters who frequented Button's:
Ironically, the site of Button’s Coffee House is now occupied by a Starbucks – where people still sit down to drink coffee, check the latest news and share opinions with their friends. But instead of the noise and bustle of Button's, where cries of "What's the news?" would go up as new customers arrived, the Starbucks customers sit silently checking their newsfeeds on phones and laptops. And there’s no plaque on the wall to commemorate Addison’s wonderful Lion and the site’s importance in literary and media history.
Joseph Addison was a hugely influential figure – he and his friend Richard Steele ushered in a new age of journalism with their papers The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian. They sold several thousand copies a day – and through the coffee houses it’s estimated they were read by more than a tenth of all Londoners.
Addison’s writings were also much admired by the Founding Fathers of the United States. James Madison read The Spectator avidly as a teenager, and a 12-volume set of essays from The Spectator was among Alexander Hamilton’s most prized possessions. Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow – whose book inspired the hit musical – says: “He frequently recommended these essays to young people to purify their writing style and inculcate virtue.”
And George Washington was so taken by Addison’s play Cato – a stirring story of opposition to tyranny – he is said to have had it performed for his army while they were camped at Valley Forge at a low point in the Revolutionary War against the British.
The Guardian was launched by Richard Steele in March 1713 as a successor to The Spectator while Addison was writing Cato, which was a resounding success though largely forgotten today.
Addison took over as editor four months later – and hit on the idea of creating a splendid Lion’s Head post-box to generate some good PR for the new paper and to encourage more people to contribute stories and comments.
He announced the plan for the Lion’s Head in the 98th edition of The Guardian on Friday, July 3, 1713, saying it was inspired by the lions' mouths he’d seen in Venice – where citizens in the 15th century could post anonymous complaints. He wrote: "There will be under it a box, of which the key will be in my own custody, to receive such papers as are dropped into it. Whatever the Lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the public.”
Just over two weeks later the Lion’s Head was installed on the western wall inside Button’s Coffee House – and Addison said: “If my correspondents will do their parts in prompting him and supplying him with suitable provision I question not but the Lion's Head will be reckoned the best head in England.”
Like 21st century social media, the coffee houses were notorious for spreading fake news. Addison described how fake stories took on a life of their own when he wrote about visiting St James’s Coffee House and hearing false reports of the death of the King of France, Louis XIV:
“I found the whole outward room in a buzz of politics. The speculations were but very indifferent toward the door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very improved by a knot of theorists who sat in the inner room, within the steams of the coffee pot, that I heard there the whole Spanish monarchy disposed of, and all the line of Bourbon provided for in less than a quarter of an hour.”
So Addison took a stand against fake news when he unveiled his Lion, telling his readers to "diet him with wholesome and substantial food – I must desire that they will not gorge him either with nonsense or obscenity; and must likewise insist that his mouth be not defiled with scandal.”
The Lion was soon the talk of the town as Addison started publishing his “roarings". One correspondent left a message in his mouth to say “I must acquaint you that we have all of us taken a mighty liking to your lion. His roarings are the joy of my heart, and I have a little boy, not three years old, that talks of nothing else.”
Steele and Addison were Whig politicians as well as writers. Steele had intended that The Guardian would feature news and political comment, giving them opportunities to take on the Tory government – but the stories and comments posted in the lion’s mouth showed readers were much more interested in topics like the fashions of the day. Some correspondents urged the lion to roar against the new female fashions coming in from Paris that were leading to shorter petticoats and plunging neck-lines. One letter – from an astrologer in Moorfields – said: “In a few months, there will not be a female bosom or ankle uncovered in Great Britain.” Another said that if the fair sex wish to go uncovered they should imitate their Great-Grandmothers the Picts "and paint the parts of their bodies which are uncovered with such figures as shall be most to their fancy”.
We tracked down Addison’s original Lion’s Head to Woburn Abbey where it was taken after being purchased by the 6th Duke of Bedford in 1837. Pictured below, it now hangs above a doorway, and some time in the 19th century a decorative gold starburst was added behind the head. The team who curate all the treasures at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire helped us piece together the story of Addison’s Lion.
Photo: Copyright His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate
The Guardian ceased publishing in October 1713 – and when Button's shuts down several years later the Lion’s Head was moved round the corner to the Shakespeare Tavern in the north-east corner of the Piazza at Covent Garden. In 1751 it was borrowed by the editor of a new daily paper, The Inspector, and set up in the next-door Bedford Coffee House where it was once again used as a post-box for correspondence. Busts of Addison and Steele were apparently placed alongside it.
But The Inspector didn't last long and the Lion moved into retirement once again – first back to the Shakespeare Tavern and then in 1804 to Richardson's Hotel, on the site of what is now the Apple Store in the Piazza at Covent Garden. By this time the Lion was just being used as an ornament by its new owner, Charles Richardson. A watercolour at Woburn Abbey shows the lion in 1811 at Richardson's Hotel – high on the wall above a fireplace.
Photo: Copyright His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate
Richardson’s son inherited the Lion’s Head when his father died in 1827. He moved it to his home in Golden Square where he found it attracted lots of questions from his friends and visitors. He said it involved him in a long story and explanation “much oftener than suited either my leisure or inclination”.
So he gathered together various papers about the Lion collected by his father and published a short book that would save him having to constantly retell the fascinating story: Letters and Extracts Relating To The Lion’s Head Which Was Erected At Button’s Coffee House In The Year 1713. Richardson’s son sold the Lion’s Head to the Duke of Bedford, and his own copy of the book – with many annotations – is also now at Woburn Abbey.
The book (pictured above, with kind permission of His Grace, The Duke of Bedford, and Trustees of The Bedford Estate) included a “finely executed” engraved plate of the Lion’s Head – which we used to help recreate the Lion, as well ensuring its gilt finish and dimensions match the original at Woburn. We worked with film prop makers Dick George Creatives – who have worked on movies like Into The Woods, Fury, Hugo and The Mummy – to make the new Lion’s Head.
Our business is all about story-telling. We help people find, develop and share stories from across their business or organisation using a range of social, web and mobile tools.
When we came across the story of the Lion we couldn’t believe how many similarities there were between what Addison and his contemporaries were doing in 1713 and what everyone does with social media today. And we couldn’t believe the Lion’s story had been so forgotten.
We were determined to make the Lion roar again – and explore this wonderful 18th century story of British creativity and innovation, and what we can learn from it in the 21st century.
Perhaps one day a blue plaque will commemorate the spot in Russell Street where Addison and Steele held court and paved the way not only for the modern newspaper but also for "Letters to the Editor" and today's social media.