PROMINENT among the lions of the shining hour in the reign of good Queen Vic were, would you believe, sculptured lions. Sir Titus Salt, a lion in his own right, had four in his model village of Saltaire.

Landseer’s Lions in Trafalgar Square are undoubtedly the most famous of the lot but many from the period still adorn civic squares, for example those outside Leeds City Hall, by William Keyworth. They were a heraldic image to represent much admired Victorian virtues of strength and bravery.

Sir Edwin Landseer, famous painter of adorable dogs and well-groomed horses, wasn’t first choice to sculpt the four lions, the most popular of London’s statues. The commission originally went to Thomas Milnes, from Tickhill near Doncaster. In his youth Milnes went to London, found work with a marble mason, and from 1841 attended the Royal Academy. He became an in-demand sculptor with his acclaimed 1848 marble statues of Wellington at the Tower of London and of Nelson, in 1852.

It is in Saltaire, however, where his four finest works are found. His lions were judged to be a little short of stature for the grand memorial to our greatest naval hero but Nelson’s loss was Titus Salt’s gain. Salt bought the lions and placed them, in 1869, either side of Victoria Square, two before his school and two in front of the Mechanics’ Institute, now Victoria Hall. The statues are individual, though their reclining position, front paws forward and tails curled, are similar. Their poses differ in attitude, representing virtues associated with Nelson, undoubtedly in harmony with Salt’s own values. As a schoolboy at Salts Grammar in the 1960s, I was spellbound by these enigmatic felines, my gaze held by the way their eyes would follow you. I passed them daily until the school relocated to Coach Road. Even then I continued to be captivated by them, each 8ft long, 3ft wide, 5ft high, tipping the scales at nearly three tons, blackened by almost a century of industrial pollution. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that sandblasting revealed the honeyed-coloured sandstone, quarried in Pateley Bridge.

Going down Victoria Road Determination is the first lion you encounter, striking a proud pose. Keeping him company is Vigilance, wide-eyed and alert but, with one paw folded over the other, more at peace with the world than his strongwilled brother. On the opposite side is pensive Peace, licking his right paw as though he might have known the pain of combat and would rather not repeat the experience. At his side is War, defiantly belligerent, his right paw slightly protruding, suggesting readiness to spring. Put the four together and you might almost have carved in stone a tract of the times, about heart, nerve and sinew, resolution and endeavour, pursuing peace but looking your enemy in the eye.

Milnes was devastated when his lions were rejected for the heart of Empire. Having positions of prominence in a World Heritage site, however, is no bad second choice - and they don’t have plagues of pigeons to worry about or drunken tourists climbing all over them. Their virtues have been rewarded.