The passing of time has lost our county town at least one distinct reference to Battle of Lewes victor Simon de Montfort.
What today is Westgate Street was formerly known as White Lion Lane. With the White Lion being the device (or emblem) of Simon it should not be a surprise that there once was an inn here of the same name. The location was abutting the town walls close by where the triumphant Barons burst through the town gates into the heart of Lewes on the afternoon of 14th May 1264. The existence of a White Lion inn is recorded as early as Elizabethan times though it may not have been the same building that was later pulled down as part of a 1937 slum-clearance measure. Today we can view such destruction as nothing less than urban vandalism but way back then the future for Lewes was seen to be buildings of the ilk of the nearby YMCA.
The pub sign – a striking model of a white lion with one paw on a golden ball – was until recently raised high on a wrought iron support fixed to the wall (once upon a time the town wall) above the car park that now occupies the site. We know the lion was the work of Larwill of Lewes and that it was made in the early 19th century at a time when the Larwill in question could apparently claim to be “Tinplate worker for HRH The Prince of Wales”. Research shows members of a Larwill family living at 152-153 High Street at around the time the lion was created. Surely related? We also know that a wonderfully named Onesimus Larwill was born in Lewes in 1792 and died in Quebec, Canada, in 1864.
After the slum clearance it seems the local council assumed custody of the lion until in 1954 Mayor G R Beard gave it to the Friends of Lewes who arranged for it to be mounted on the wall. The lion is not there at present having been removed for renovation (and the provision of a replacement tail that must of fallen off at some point). Upon examination the lion turned out to be coated in copper over sheet iron. Fearing this knowledge would prove a magnet for metal rustlers, the somewhat battered beast currently resides in the cellars of the Town Hall. I say “beast” but in fact the creature has a most friendly appearance best summed up in a description of it in a 1957 book on Sussex by Clifford Musgrave: “With his paw on a ball he is the heraldic lion of the Renaissance – a Lion of St Mark with the amiable face of a Sussex yokel.”
It is hoped an inexpensive replica can be made in time for it to be in place for the Battle of Lewes 750th commemorations this coming May. At which point the original will be retired to a safe place in a local museum. Who knows? This charming lion might even become the “Pride” of Lewes!