Discover these seven audio series dedicated to exploring the capital’s history and culture.
During lockdown, many of us have been kept entertained and informed by some of the tens of thousands of podcasts out there. Whatever your interests, there is guaranteed to be umpteen episodes on offers to whet your appetite.
If you’re interested in London history, trivia or culture, then check out some of these audio discoveries, along with some handy links to get listening straight-away:
Ladies Who London Podcast
Blue Badge tour guides Alex Lacey and Emily Dell started their London history podcast at the beginning of lockdown. Every week they choose a different area of the capital or Londoner. They often highlight lesser-known Londoners, particularly women or people of colour, who have been usually been under-represented by the history books. The Ladies Who London podcast is not all serious though and expect plenty of banter in between the facts.
Open City Podcast
The Open City team – who are famous for organising Open House London – started a radio show platforming conversations about the capital in summer 2020. Exploring everything from its people to buildings to its organisations, from past, present and future. Recent episodes include the Guildhall, Old Kent Road and rethinking London’s green spaces.
Macabre London Podcast
Whether you love Halloween… or are just intrigued by the more sinister side of the capital all-year round, the Macabre London podcast is for you. Host and writer Nikki Druce tells gruesome stories from London’s past so expect murder, mystery, and perhaps the odd ghost or two. Recent episodes include the Central Line, an Edwardian cold case set in Battersea and London’s killer weather.Read the rest of this entry
The history of the West End theatre and music hall, which stood on the current site of the Odeon Luxe cinema.
Situated in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square is known for its cinemas, casinos, chain pubs/restaurants and cheesy nightclubs. As a lifelong Londoner, I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid it if I’m honest. However, I can appreciate it’s a destination for film fans, thanks to the premieres and awards ceremonies which take place there. Of course, it wasn’t always cinemas which drew people to Leicester Square, as the area has long been a destination for Londoners and tourists seeking nocturnal entertainment. One of the lost Victorian venues which lured in the crowds was the Alhambra, previously on the site of the current Odeon Luxe cinema.
Leicester Square was established in the 17th century, taking its name from Leicester House, the grand home built by politician Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595–1677). It was largely residential in the early centuries, but started to evolve into a hub for tourism and entertainment by the 19th century. Before the Alhambra was built at 24-27 Leicester Square, it was occupied by four houses, dating back to the 1670s. These buildings were homes to Lords, Ladies, Barons and Earls over the years, although No.27 was converted into a bagnio (bath house) in the 1720s.
In Victorian London, Leicester Square boasted a host of attractions to amaze and entertain. Among the delights on offer were Wyld’s Great Globe, the Savile House museum, and the Empire Theatre of Varieties (the predecessor to the Empire cinema). The first Alhambra was first built in 1854 as an attraction named the Royal Panopticon of Science Arts. Designed by Thomas Hayter Lewis (1818-1898), it opened in March 1854 and hosted art exhibitions and scientific demonstrations (see a 1854 sketch of the interior). The façade was a bold Moorish style, feature two minaret-esque towers and a dome. Although initially a hit with a reported 1,000 visitors daily, it soon fell out of favour and prompted the owners to sell up for just £9,000 in 1857. The new proprietor, E.T. Smith was an experienced theatre owner and envisioned the building as an entertainment venue. He had a circus ring constructed in time for its re-opening as the Alhambra Circus in April 1858. Smith managed to secure a license for music and dance performances later that year and went on to host ballet and variety shows. After a few years, he sold the building to William Wilde Jnr, who used it for music hall and circus productions. The famous French acrobat Charles Blondin (1824-1897) performed in front of the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) at the Alhambra soon after his successful Niagara Falls tightrope. In May 1861, the venue hosted another legendary French acrobat, Jules Léotard (1838-1870), who wowed with his flying trapeze act over the heads of the audience below. As he proved a huge draw, Léotard was paid £180 a week – an impressive salary at the time. Read the rest of this entry
Find out what physical and virtual exhibitions, events and festivals, are taking place this month.
Lockdown is easing, more of us are getting vaccinated and the prospect of normal life returning is getting that bit closer. After months of closure of our favourite London’s culture spots; galleries, museums and other attractions are starting to open their doors. Many establishments have taken creative approaches to showcasing their features in a safe new way. This month, we have two bank holidays to take advantage of, while parents will be looking for ways to occupy their kids during half-term. As the pandemic is still ongoing, we strongly recommend your check the event’s website/social media before arriving as opening times could be subject to changes. Booking in advance is also recommended where possible to avoid disappointment.
Look out for the 🐻 for family-friendly activities.
Look out for the computer symbol 💻 for online events.
- 1 May – late summer TBA 2021 : The Drive In
Head to a drive-in cinema offering film screenings and live experiences (e.g. musical performances, theatre, etc) in Enfield. With refreshments available, social distancing guidelines and the audio beamed in through your car stereo. Tickets: One car £35. The Drive In, Troubadour Meridian Water, Harbet Road, Enfield, N18 3QQ. For tickets and more information, visit The Drive In website. 🐻
- 1 May – late summer TBA 2021 : Rooftop Film Club
Rooftop Film Club are offering both drive-in and rooftop cinematic experiences this spring and summer. Watch your favourite classics or newer releases in the comfort of your car… or a cosy deckchair with a cool vista. Times vary. Tickets: Drive-ins £29.50/£31/50 per car; Rooftop seating £15.95-£21.95. Venues include Roof East (Stratford), Bussey Building (Peckham), Brent Cross (🚗), Alexandra Palace (🚗) and Sandown Park (🚗). For more information, visit the Rooftop Film Club website. 🐻
- 1 May – 19 September 2021 : Secret World of Plants @ Kew Gardens
Enjoy unique art installations dotted amongst the plants of Kew. Entrance included with normal ticket. Opening hours vary, but you must book an entry time slot. Tickets: Adults £15/£16, Children £5. Kew Gardens (Royal Botanic Gardens), Kew, Richmond, TW9 3AB. Nearest station: Kew Gardens. For more information, visit the Kew Gardens website. 🐻
- 7 – 16 May 2021 : Virtual Dulwich Festival
Arts and culture festival returns to the south London district… albeit virtually this year! Featuring art, performances, talks, recordings, flash fiction, podcasts, interviews and more. For more information and listings, visit the Dulwich Festival website. 💻
- 12 May – 10 June 2021 : Travel Photographer of the Year (TPOTY) 2020 exhibition
Check out 160 travel photographs of landscapes and people from around the world during a crazy year. Alfresco exhibition allows social-distancing and safe perusal of the imagery. Open 24/7. Free. Coal Drops Yard, Stable Street, King’s Cross, N1C 4DQ. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras. For more information, visit the TPOTY website. Check out Metro Girl’s blog post on the exhibition.
- 17 May – 1 August 2021 : Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Witness the beauty and diversity of the natural world in this annual photography exhibition. Open Wed-Sun 11am-5.50pm (closed Mon-Tues). Tickets: Adults £14.95, Children £8.95. Natural History Museum, South Kensington, SW7 5BD. Nearest station: South Kensington. For more information and booking, visit the NHM museum website. 🐻
- 17 May – 5 September 2021 : Dub London – Bassline of a City
A new exhibition explores dub reggae and its influence on the capital. Open Mon-Fri 11.30am-3.30pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm. Free entry, but book a time slot in advance. Museum Of London, 150 London Wall, Barbican, City of London, EC2Y 5HN. Nearest stations: Moorgate or Barbican. For more information, visit the Museum of London website.
- 18 May – 27 June 2021 : Sonia Delaunay: Rhythm and Colour
An exhibition of abstraction art pioneer Sonia Delaunay’s works from her Rythmes-Coleurs series. Open Tues-Sat 10am-6pm. Free entry. BASTIAN, 8 Davies Street, Mayfair, W1K 3DW. Nearest station: Green Park or Bond Street. For more information, visit the Bastian Gallery website. Read the rest of this entry
Winning images are going on show in London’s Coal Drops Yard from 12 May 2021.
Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, cases of wanderlust are certainly strong amongst many of us as we continue to live and work in smaller environments. If you’re one of those gagging to put your passport to use again, why not treat yourself to some inspirational travel imagery in the meanwhile? On show in London this spring will be the winning images from the international Travel Photographer of the Year (TPOTY) Awards 2020.
A free exhibition in Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross will display 160 photographs from 12 May – 10 June 2021. The exhibition will be open 24 hours a day and easy to enjoy in the safety of the open-air. The collection will showcase a huge range of subjects, from landscapes to people, from architecture to the natural world, taken by both professional and amateur photographers. The COVID-19 pandemic hugely impacted the 2020 awards, with any entries taken by stranded travellers spending longer at their destination than planned, or by those closer to home as their travel was restricted.
After checking out the stunning imagery, visitors can vote for their favourite photographs online, with the additional chance to be entered into a prize draw, with a one-day private photography lesson from TPOTY founder Chris Coe among the prizes. Meanwhile, the TPOTY team will be hosting a series of Fujifilm-supported tutored photography walks around Coal Drops Yard and the King’s Cross/Regents Canal area during the latter period of the exhibition, when the pandemic restrictions allow.
- The Travel Photographer of the Year (TPOTY) 2020 exhibition is on display from 12 May – 10 June 2021. Free. Coal Drops Yard, Stable Street, King’s Cross, N1C 4DQ. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras. For more information, visit the TPOTY website.
Find out what’s on in London in May 2021 here.
Read more on London’s art displays and photography
Luke Jerram’s installation returns to the Old Royal Naval College in May 2021.
The summer will kick off in Greenwich with the return of Luke Jerram’s stunning art installation ‘Gaia’. The recreation of Planet Earth will be suspended at the Old Royal Naval College from 30 May 2021 for one month. The exact scale replica of our planet is internally lit and created using 120dpi NASA imagery. Measuring seven metres in diameter, making it 1.8million times smaller than Earth, the sculpture will be on show in the Painted Hall.
Visitors will be able to stand back and gaze at the slowly rotating piece while listening to a surround-sound composition by composer Dan Jones. Jerram aims to give us an idea of astronauts’ vista of the Earth when travelling through Space.
During the month-long display, there will be a series of late night openings every Friday. Visitors will also be able to enjoy food and drink, as well as check out the Baroque and contemporary art at the hall.
- Gaia is on display from 30 May – 1 July 2021. At the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, Greenwich, SE10 9NN. Nearest stations: Greenwich, Cutty Sark or Maze Hill. Late night openings on Fridays 5.30pm-10pm. For more information, visit the ORNC website. For late night opening tickets, visit this link.
- This article was originally published in December 2020, but updated in April 2021 to reflect the new dates following the cancellation of the original January 2021 launch due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Find out what’s on in London in May 2021 here.
Today, wooden boat structures give a clue to the hidden dock, which has existed in some form for centuries.
The River Thames has always been the life blood of London, but before the rise of motor vehicles, it was a dominant way to travel. The river was a hub of industry and transport, with factories, wharf, docks and stairs lining its quaysides. As our demands on the river changed in the latter half of the 20th century, the volume of wharfs and docks has dramatically shrunk.
One remaining dock that has managed to survive is White Hart Dock in Vauxhall. With a road separating the dock from the Thames, it would be easy to miss it if you walked past. However, today there are modern boat sculptures giving a clue to what lurks behind. Situated at the junction of the Albert Embankment and Black Prince Road, there has been a dock or slipway at the site since the 14th or 15th century. On a 1767 map, White Hart Stairs are marked just a short distance south from the famous Horse Ferry embarkation, an ancient river crossing. At the time, Black Prince Road was named Lambeth Butts and led from White Hart Stairs to Kennington Palace (which existed from 12th to 16th century). By the early 19th century, the riverside end of Lambeth Butts had become Broad Street, with White Hart Stairs a popular drop off for water transport.
In 1868, the Albert Embankment was constructed by London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, creating a riverside road and walkway and allowing for the construction of piers for the many large-scale industrial premises, along with improving flood defences for the regularly flooded Lambeth. Prior to construction, White Hart Dock was a draw dock, but was rebuilt facing south. With the main road in between the dock and the Thames, boats would have to pass at an angle at low tide to access it (see a 1872 photo of the newly-built Albert Embankment with the tunnel leading to the dock). Around the same time, many other inland docks were built for Lambeth and Vauxhall factories, including the Royal Doulton potteries. It is believed the White Hart Dock served the Lambeth and Salamanca soap works, although was deemed for public use.
To those disembarking at White Hart Dock in the mid 1800s, one of the first things they would see was the enticing Crowley’s Alton Ale Wharf. The pub chain was run by the Alton Brewery, founded by a Quaker family from Alton, Hampshire. The Crowleys were early pioneers of the traditional pub lunch, offering a glass of ale and a sandwich for 4 pence. Charles Dickens had commented on the popularity of Crowley’s Ale Houses throughout England. Their signature offering grew so famous, the Crowleys had to take out an advert warning Londoners that the Ale Wharf at Vauxhall was their only genuine London branch, accusing rivals of opening “ale and sandwich” venues. (Check out a 1869 photo of the Crowley’s Alton Ale Wharf overlooking White Hart Dock).
The dock’s decline began in the 20th century as industry started to move away from the river. During World War II, the dock was used as an Emergency Water Supply, with the letters EWS still visible today on a sign from the period. In 1960, the local council Lambeth sought parliamentary powers to close White Hart Dock as it hadn’t been used by commercial vehicles for many years. However, the closure was never realised, but the dock continued to lay unused.
After decades of neglect and uselessness, in 2004 Berkeley Homes purchased the land adjacent to the dock for development of a luxury apartment block. It was agreed, the surrounding environment should be enhanced, including White Hart Dock. A public art panel was established and the public invited to give feedback on six shortlisted proposals for the space. Sheffield artists Handspring Design won the commission with their ornamental boat-themed sculptures in 2009. Made of sustainably sourced, FSC English oak, the dock is now crowned by bow-like arches, with boat shaped benches facing the river. The dock itself is enclosed by high brick walls, with flood gates at one end. Peering over the walls you can see the slipway and under road tunnels leading to the river.
- White Hart Dock, junction of Albert Embankment and Black Prince Road, Vauxhall, SE1 7SP. Nearest station: Vauxhall. To find out more about the artwork, visit the White Hart Dock website.
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Enjoy the grounds and retail offerings as the Greenwich landmark partially re-opens after lockdown, along with illustration workshops and guided tours.
It’s been a long, dull winter in lockdown so no doubt Londoners are crying out for their favourite spaces in the capital to reopen. Fortunately, one of the capital’s riverside gems, the Old Royal Naval College will be opening their gates again from 12 April 2021. Although indoor access will have to wait, there will be outdoor events and online experiences at the Greenwich destination, as well as reopening of the gift shops and café.
Ahead of the opening of illustrator Nick Ellwood’s physical exhibition ‘Mischief and Misadventure’ in May (or when guidelines allow), he will be hosting online drawing workshops for children and adults from April. Participants will be guided through assignments to hone their children’s book illustration skills, following by masterclass workshops in May for those who want to elevate their drawing to the next level.
Meanwhile, the iconic Old Royal Naval College will open its grounds to the public, who will be able to explore the history and the sights with guided and self-guided tours. The knowledgeable volunteers will be showing off the gorgeous features of the grounds and details of Sir Christopher Wren’s amazing architecture on small, socially-distanced guided tours (four dailt). Alternatively, families can download one of the free, self-guided tours from the Smartify app and enjoy a treasure trail around the outdoor space, while educating their children about the area’s history on the ‘Building Detectives’ tour. Or history buffs can learn more about the buildings with the Architecture tour.
While most of the indoor spaces of the ORNC are off-limits for a little while longer, the gift shops in the Visitor Centre and King William Undercroft will be open, while the Old Brewery will be serving outdoors from 12 April. Every weekend, the King William Lawn will host pop-up stalls serving hot and cold foods, drinks, afternoon teas and picnics for visitors to enjoy outside. Deckchairs and picnic blankets will be available for rent so you can have an alfresco feast while enjoying the views.
- Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, Greenwich, SE10 9NN. Nearest station: Greenwich or Cutty Sark. For more information, visit the ORNC website.
- Nick Ellwood workshops are taking place on 1, 8 and 15 April and 13, 20 and 27 May 2021. Tickets: £50. For tickets to the workshop and other events, visit the ORNC online booking tool. Ellwood’s ‘Mischief and Misadventure’ exhibition with run from 17 May – 6 September 2021 at the Old Royal Naval College.
Find out what’s on in London in May 2021 here.
The story of a former Fleet Street printing house.
Many of the surrounding streets of Fleet Street have the industries of law and the press to thank for their many architectural designs. Although the newspapers and publishing houses have moved on, their legacy in the area lives on through their former offices. One of these buildings, the former Argus Printing Company, now survives as a great example of Victorian commercial architecture and is now luxury apartments. Located on the corner of Temple Avenue and Tudor Street in the district of Whitefriars, is a building now known as Victoria House.
The name Whitefriars comes from the former friary, which stood in the area from the 13th to 16th century. Following the dissolution of the friary, the area swiftly went from religious to run-down. At the time, it was located outside the jurisdiction of the City of London so became a magnet for the badly-behaved. The area was known as ‘Alsatia’ and was renowned for its criminal population. However, the Great Fire of London of 1666 provided an opportunity for officials to clean up the area as it was rebuilt.
By the 17th century, Whitefriars became a hub for trade with its many warehouses and wharves. Horwood’s Map of 1799 shows Grand Junction Wharf, Weft & Coves Wharf and White Friars Dock around the site of current Victoria House. Although today, Tudor Street is just over 300 metres long, on Horwood’s Map the name only leant itself to a short stretch of the eastern end. Meanwhile, the western end leading into Inner Temple was called Temple Street until it was renamed as an extension of Tudor Street in the 19th century when the area was altered by construction of the nearby Victoria Embankment in the 1860s. It was during the 19th century that the area of Fleet Street and the surrounding streets – including those in Whitefriars – became a hub for London’s booming newspaper industry. The Victorian era saw the establishment of buildings for both the editorial and production of newspapers and magazines.
One of the Victorian buildings established for this burgeoning industry was Victoria House, home to the Argus Printing Company. Journalist and politician Harry Marks (1855-1916) established the Argus Printing Company (APC) in 1887 to print his Financial News daily newspaper, which had been founded three years earlier. At its launch, the original Argus printing plant on Bouverie Street wasn’t very large, featuring one machine and rotary press which could produce 12,000 eight-page papers hourly. By 1887, the success of the Financial News meant the APC could buy a larger machine by Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni (1823-1904), which doubled the hourly output. Within a few years, the Bouverie premises were too cramped for the volume of production required so a new site closer to the Thames was acquired in 1891. Read the rest of this entry
Find out where the playwright lived, socialised and, sadly, suffered during his time in London.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was one of the world’s most famous playwrights and poets. Born and brought up in Ireland and dying young in France, he also spent a long period of his life in London. Having studied at Oxford, the young graduate moved to London around 1878, where he would remain for 17 years. During his adult life in London, he tasted success with plays such as ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, ‘A Woman of No Importance’, and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. However, this was cut short by revelations about his sexuality, which tragically led to his downfall in a society which was not so inclusive as it is today. His last six months in the capital were sadly spent behind bars. Upon his release from prison in Reading, he sailed to France and never returned to London, or the UK, ever again. He died of meningitis in Paris at the tender age of 46 following three years in exile.
Guide to Oscar Wilde’s London sites
- 44 Tite Street, Chelsea
After graduating from Oxford, Wilde moved in with his university friend and society painter Frank Miles (1852-1891). Wealthy Miles had commissioned architect Edward William Godwin to build him a house, complete with artist’s studio, in 1880. Wilde is listed on the 1881 census as a ‘boarder’ at what was then 1 Tite Street.
– 44 Tite Street, Chelsea, SW3. Nearest station: Sloane Square.
- St James’s Church, Paddington
Wilde married Constance Lloyd in the Anglican church in May 1884. The Grade II* listed building was designed by Victorian architect George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and completed just two years before the Wildes’ wedding. A plaque to commemorate the Wildes’ ceremony was erected at the east end of the church in 2016.
– Sussex Gardens, Paddington, W2 3UD. Nearest station: Lancaster Gate or Paddington.
- 34 Tite Street, Chelsea
Wilde and his wife Constance lived together at 16 Tite Street (now 34) from 1884-1895. It was their family home to raise their two sons Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967). Despite Wilde’s sexuality and his affairs, the boys had a good relationship with their father until his arrest. It was at this house that Wilde had a run-in with his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry in June 1894 after he caught the men together at a restaurant. Queensberry threatened to “thrash” Wilde if he caught him with Bosie again. Following the writer’s conviction, Constance changed their sons last name to Holland and got her husband to relinquish his rights to the boys. Today, there is a blue plaque commemorating Wilde’s residence at the house.
– 34 Tite Street, Chelsea, SW3. Nearest station: Sloane Square.
- St James Theatre (demolished)
Several of Wilde’s plays made their debut at the now-demolished St James’s Theatre in St James. Built in the late Georgian era, the theatre was managed by actor Sir George Alexander (1858-1918) when Wilde was writing plays. The two creatives started a professional partnership, with Lady Windermere’s Fan being presented at the theatre in 1892. In February 1895, the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest was under threat of disruption by Queensberry, who planned to throw rotten vegetables on stage. However, Wilde received a tip off and had the theatre heavily guarded by police. Queensberry raged in the street outside for three hours, before finally going home. Despite the play’s initial success with critics and audiences, it was short-lived as Wilde was arrested the following April. As public outrage erupted at the Wilde scandal, Alexander tried to keep the run going by removing the playwright’s name from the bill, but to no avail. The production ended prematurely after just 83 performances. St James’s Theatre was eventually demolished in 1957 after 122 years.
– 23-24 King Street, St James, SW1Y 6QY. Nearest stations: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.
- James J Fox, St. James
Wilde was an enthusiastic smoker, having acquired the habit while studying at Oxford. While cigars and pipes were popular at the time, he preferred cigarettes, once declaring: “A cigarette is the type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.” The poet frequently bought his cigarettes from James J Fox, London’s oldest cigar merchant. Today, the shop has a smoking museum downstairs which includes Wilde’s ledger and a High Court letter showing an outstanding balance for the writer’s purchases made between September 1892 and June 1893.
– 19 St James’s Street, St. James’s, SW1A 1ES. Nearest station: Green Park.
- Truefitt & Hill
Wilde was generally clean-shaven and often visited this top Mayfair barber. Opening in 1805 and securing a royal warrant, it’s the oldest barbershop in the world.
– 71 St James’s St, St. James’s, SW1A 1PH. Nearest station: Green Park.
- Albemarle Club
The exclusive Albemarle Club in Mayfair was unusual during Wilde’s time because it was a members’ club open to both sexes. Oscar and his wife Constance were both regulars. This club provided a key role in Wilde’s eventual downfall. Scottish nobleman John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), arrived at the club on 18 February 1895 demanding to see Wilde, who he (correctly) suspected of having a love affair with his son Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945). The porter blocked his entry, so Queensberry left a calling card with the message, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” (sic). Wilde didn’t receive the card until he turned up at the club two weeks later and was so offended by it, he decided to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. It was the libel trial which led to evidence being produced about Wilde’s sexuality, leading to his subsequent arrest and conviction for gross indecency.
– 13 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, W1S 4HJ. Nearest station: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.
Originally one of the first French restaurants in Soho, Kettner’s opened in 1867 and hosted Wilde, among many other prominent names, at its lounge and champagne bar. Today, Kettner’s is a private members’ club run by Soho House and comprises seven Georgian townhouses.
– 29 Romily Street, Soho, W1D 5HP. Nearest station: Leicester Square or Tottenham Court Road. Read the rest of this entry
Exploring George Gilbert Scott’s stunning government offices in Westminster.
Many UK Government buildings in Westminster date back to the Victorian era. It was an age when no expense was spared when it came to decorating buildings’ exteriors and interiors, when structures were created to ‘make a statement’ about the people within them. Although the Palace of Westminster gets most of the attention from Londoners and visitors to the capital alike, there is also another remarkable piece of architecture housing a government department. At the time it was built, Britain was at the height of colonial power, so had an extensive budget with which to impressive foreign visitors.
When it came to settling on the final design for what we know today as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Building, it was an arduous process to get there. As was (and still is) common at the time, a competition was launched in 1856 to choose the design for the Foreign Office and neighbouring War Office. English architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) ended up in third place in the competition with his original Gothic revival design (see the designs in the RIBA archives), which also incorporated the War Office. However, it was Scott’s former pupil Henry Edward Coe (1826-1885) and his then-partner HH Hofland’s French Visconti-type design which was chosen for the Foreign Office. However, Coe and Hofland’s plans were ditched the following year when Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), brought in the government’s favoured architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), who had originally designed plans for the Foreign Office a few years previously, but had not entered the competition. Lord Palmerston’s decision to dismiss the competition results outraged the architecture industry, with Scott leading the protest against it. In 1858, Lord Palmerston lost power and Scott was given the commission. It was around this time, the plans for the War Office were ditched in favour of the India Office, established in 1858 to take over the governing of India from the East India Company.
In June 1859, Lord Palmerston was re-elected and kicked up a fuss over Scott’s neo-Gothic design, demanding he redesign something neo-Classical, which the architect described as “a style contrary to my life’s labours”. Scott feared ditching his signature style would leave his reputation as one of the key Gothic Revival architects “irreparably injured”. However, Scott decided turning down the opportunity would be unwise, bought some books on Italian architecture and headed to Paris to study classical buildings, such as the Louvre. The India Office insisted he collaborate with their Surveyor Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877), who designed the interior of their office, leaving Scott to focus on the classical exterior of both offices. The plans were finally approved by the Government in 1861, with construction completed in 1868. The Foreign Office was located on the north-west corner of the building with the India office on the south-west corner, while the Colonial Office and Home Office were added on the eastern side in 1875. Fortunately, Scott’s fears about his reputation were unfounded, with support from his peers and the public. “Even Mr (John) Ruskin said I had done right,” wrote Scott in his Personal & Professional Recollections in 1879. As for Scott’s original Gothic vision of the Foreign Office, it was used as the basis for the Midland Hotel at St Pancras.
On completion, it was the first purpose-built Foreign Office, which by that point had been in existence for nearly 80 years. The white, Portland stone façade features many classical elements, including balustrades, columns and pediments. Dotted around are sculptures of former monarchs and politicians as well as allegorical figures of Law, Commerce and Art by English sculptors Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) and John Birnie Philip (1824-1875). Most enter the complex through the grand arched entrance on King Charles street leading to a large outdoor courtyard. Read the rest of this entry