Above: A view of water lapping at the lions’ heads at the time of high tide during the afternoon of 11 September 2014.
If you walk along the Victoria Embankment, take a look at the wall beside the river. You can peer over the wall perilously close to the edge but that is not a very practical idea. If you stand at Cleopatra’s Needle or the Air Force Memorial there are safe balconies with stone balustrades where it is quite easy to see the stone wall beside the Thames. You will see a row of large lions’ heads, cast in bronze, that line the side of the Embankment. They were sculpted by Timothy Butler for of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian sewage works programme in 1868-70.
The mouth of each lion holds a mooring ring, for use by anyone in an emergency needing to tie up a small vessel or if a person is in the water to cling on by hand. There is very little evidence that the rings have ever been used. It is said that if the lions drink the water from the Thames, London will flood.
The rhyme helps to remember how to keep watch on the lions – “When the lions drink, London will sink. When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains.”
The lions who keep watch along the Thames in Central London, holding mooring rings in their mouths, play an interesting role as a flood warning system for superstitious Londoners, keen to keep an eye on water levels in the Thames.
Until recent times it was exceptionally rare to see the level of the Thames high enough to touch the lions’ heads. Since the 1980s, however, very high tides have become more common. While such an event – is by no means as regular as every few weeks – there are times, particularly at spring and autumn tides when the tide does rise to touch the bronze heads.
In the picture, a short part of the top of the wall is also visible. Before the Thames Barrier was completed, an additional slab of concrete, about 12 inches in height, was added to the whole of the Victoria Embankment. There were times in the 1970s when the tide totally covered the lions’ heads and rose above the top of the stone wall. Without the extra height of those concrete slabs, Central London would have flooded.