Victorian Lions of the Fitzwilliam Museum


The lions that decorate the outside of the Fitzwilliam Museum were built in 1839 by William Grinsell Nicholl and are said, at the stroke of midnight, to come to life, walk down from their plinths, and drink from the guttering in the street, before returning to the museum.  

Do please download the pdf illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:


Since the very early years of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s existence four stone lions have been positioned outside the museum, two at the north steps and two at the south steps. In 1816 Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, bestowed his library and collection of art to the University of Cambridge as well as £100,000 to construct a building that would house them. His aim was to further "the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation".

It was not until 1835, after a process of discussions and land acquisition, that the Syndicate overseeing the project selected an architect who would design the building. After advertising the tender in the newspapers the Syndicate selected George Basevi (1794 – 1845), a London-born architect, from a group of 27 architects who had sent in plans to be considered. Two years later, on the 4th November 1837, the the Vice-Chancellor, Gilbert Ainslie, laid the foundation stone of the Fitzwilliam Museum, below where the northern lions rest.

In that same year the sculptor William Grinsell Nicholl (1796-1871) became involved in the task of creating the monumental lions that overlook Trumpington Street, when he was commissioned to realise Basevi’s architectural vision. Nicholl had started work that year carving decorative details of Basevi’s designs for the museum, working on the Corinthian columns and the decorative aspects of the façade. Then in 1839 he sculpted the four iconic lions that guard the south and north steps to the Fitzwilliam Museum’s portico entrance.

Story about the Lions from Enid Porter Collection at Cambridge Museum:

According to local folklore, when the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs’ clock strikes midnight, the Fitzwilliam Lions rise from their plinths and make their way to drink from the gutters that run along Trumpington Street, a few metres from where they sit, sometimes walking as far as Hobson’s Conduit. According to different versions, they are also said to enter the museum, passing through the walls and occasionally letting out a roar. This is the inspiration for the poem by Michael Rosen about what the Lions might see and hear over the centuries, called “The Listening Lions”.

Discover More


 Cambridge Folklore book – ask Helen


Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB

Contact the Education Team at:, 01223 332904

Head of Learning - Miranda Stearn:

Victorian Lions of  the Fitzwilliam Museum


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