Bigger than Ben | The history of Shell Mex House and its giant clock
The story behind London’s Art Deco riverside structure and the buildings which came before.
Most of us would agree that the Elizabeth Tower (known more popularly by its nickname ‘Big Ben’ – actually the name of the bell), is one of the world’s most famous clocks. When it comes to iconic symbols of London, the Palace of Westminster’s time-keeper is up there with the Tower of London. While the clock faces of Big Ben are 23ft (7m) in diameter, there’s actually a bigger clock in the capital – just under a mile down river from Parliament.
Shell Mex House at No.80 Strand is a few years shy of its 90th birthday. Overlooking the River Thames and dwarfing the nearby Cleopatra’s Needle, the Art Deco structure is the latest in a series of interesting buildings to stand on the site over the centuries.
The Earls of Bedford at Russell Place
The land was first owned by the Bishop of Carlisle prior to the 16th century. It was around the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it came under the ownership of the famous landowning family, the Russells. John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485-1555), acquired some of the Carlisle estate in 1539, naming his home Russell Place (also known as Russell House and becoming later Bedford House). Eleven years later, the Earl took possession of more land in nearby Covent Garden. Following his death at Russell House in 1555, his home and land passed to his son, Francis, 2nd Earl of Bedford (1527-1585), who also died there. Francis’ grandson and heir to the peerage, Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford (1572-1627) built a second Bedford House on the north side of Strand in 1586, which remained the centre for the family’s estate until it was demolished in 1705-6.
It appears it was a case of musical chairs houses for the aristocratic families of Russell and Cecil. While the Russells moved the name Bedford House from south of the Strand to the north, the Cecils started north before expanding south. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598), originally lived in the 16th century Burghley House on the north side of the Strand, where the Strand Palace Hotel is today. It was renamed Exeter House in the early 17th century when William’s son Thomas Cecil (1542-1623) became the 1st Earl of Exeter. Meanwhile, Thomas’s younger brother Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), expanded the family land across the road, acquiring the site of the original Bedford House in 1599.
The rise and fall of Salisbury House: From a stately home to a den of iniquity
Robert Cecil built his southside mansion Salisbury House at the turn of the 17th century. He was famous for discovering the Gunpowder plot in 1605 and served in Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England’s government. His son, William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury (1591-1668) split the estate in two, living in Great Salisbury House and letting out Little Salisbury House to tenants. However, the estate started going down hill under the watch of his grandson James Cecil, 3rd Earl of Salisbury (1648-1683), who demolished Little Salisbury House for a new, narrow road named Salisbury Street in the early 1670s. He also built the Middle Exchange – a covered row of shops and stalls, which quickly garnered a reputation for prostitution and was nicknamed ‘Whores’ Nest’. By the 1690s, his son and heir, James Cecil, 4th Earl of Salisbury (1666-1694), started plans to tear down the Exchange and Great Salisbury House. After his premature death in 1694 and with his heir James Cecil, 5th Earl of Salisbury being only a toddler, his widow Frances (1670-1713) continued her late husband’s wishes. The Dowager Countess of Salisbury signed her consent on the government bill for the demolition in 1695. Under her watch, a new road named Cecil Street was built through the middle of the estate, with Frances signing leases for houses to be built upon it. Historian John Strype (1643-1737) described Cecil Street as “fair”, with “very good houses fit for persons of repute and be better ordered than Salisbury Street was”.
Less than a century later, Salisbury Street was rebuilt by prominent architect James Paine (1717-1787). He built his own home, along with 24 other houses. Famous for his Palladian designs, Paine’s business suffered in his later years as he refused to follow the fashion for neoclassical, popularised by the Adam brothers, who had built the nearby Adelphi Buildings.
Hotel Cecil: The story of Europe’s largest hotel
The advent of the railways was to transform the Strand from a residential area to a transport hub. When Charing Cross station was opened 350 metres away in 1864, it became a popular departure point for wealthy Brits travelling to the continent. As more hotels started cropping up in the late 19th century, the area became even more urbanised when the Victoria Embankment was built in the 1860s along with Joseph Bazalgette‘s (1819-1891) new sewage system, narrowing the River Thames in the process. The fate of Cecil and Salisbury Street was sealed (see a sketch of a Cecil Street dwelling in 1882). In 1888, then-Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830–1903), sold off the family’s land.
With such a prime location just a short walk from Charing Cross and with views over the river, the Salisbury estate was quickly snapped up by hoteliers. The Savoy Hotel had already been opened next door in 1889 by Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901). Cecil and Salisbury Street were consigned to the history books and demolished (see a photo of Salisbury Street prior to demolition). In their place, the Hotel Cecil was built in 1890-96 to a design by architects John Tavernor-Perry (1842-1915) and Frederick Henry Reed (1851-1909). The nine storey hotel was designed in a neo-classical style, made with 7,500 tons of steel. Politician Jabez Spencer Balfour (1843-1916), was an early investor, but fled to Argentina in 1892 and was later jailed for fraud. When the Cecil opened in 1896, it was the largest hotel in Europe and one of the largest in the world. In the 1920s, it boasted the largest banqueting space in London and could accommodate 600 diners in the Grand Hall, another 350 diners in the Victoria Hall and a further 200 diners in the Prince’s Hall. The Hotel Cecil soon became renowned in London for being a great dancing hotspot. (See Alamy’s archive of Hotel Cecil photos here).
During World War I, the hotel was requisitioned and became the first headquarters for the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1918-1919. During the 1920s, the Cecil regained its popularity as a leisure venue, with many jazz nights taking place in the hotel’s entertainment spaces. However, just 34 years after opening, the Hotel Cecil was closed in February 1930 and was largely demolished in just 16 weeks. The Strand-facing façade and arched entrance managed to survive and still remains today, with shops operating out of its ground floor.
Victoriana makes way for Modernism
In 1932, petroleum companies Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (BP) merged to become Shell-Mex and BP. They required new headquarters for their merged company and took over the Hotel Cecil land. Architect and artist Frances Milton Cashmore (1892-1971) from Ernest Joseph’s (1877-1960) firm Messrs. Joseph was contracted to design an Art Deco building. The results were a bold Modernist, Portland stone building, from 11 to 15 storeys high, with two basement levels. The river-facing façade’s upper storeys step inwards, and is crowned by a short tower with large clock face. The tower allowed the architect to circumvent the city’s height restrictions at the time, because the upper levels were for decoration, not for office space. Shell Mex and BP later extended upwards with a two-storey extension after height restrictions were relaxed following World War II. The building is 58 metres high, and has 49,000 square metres of floor space. When Shell Mex House officially opened on 25 January 1933 and, as was common at the time, not everyone was a fan of this Modernist architecture style.
The biggest clock face in the UK
The clock was a big talking point due to its sheer size. At 7.62 metres in diameter, it eclipsed Big Ben’s 7 metre clock faces. It was manufactured by Gillett & Johnson (est.1844) of Croydon. Either side of the clock is a pair of hieratic, marble figures by sculptor William Charles Holland King (1884-1973). The clock was nicknamed by Londoners as ‘Big Benzene’.
Just like the Hotel Cecil before it, Shell Mex House was acquisitioned during World War II and was used by the Ministry of Supply and the Petroleum Board, which controlled the rationing of petroleum. The building was damaged by a bomb in 1940, but soon repaired. Shell-Mex and BP regained use of the building in 1948, although the Minstry of Aviation continued operating out of a few floors until the mid 1970s. Shell-Mex and BP demerged in 1976, with the former retaining ownership of Shell Mex House until the 1990s. Shell Mex House was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1987.
Since Shell relinquished the building in the 1990s, it has traded ownership several times and been home to many big companies over the decades, including Pearson, Vodafone, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Aimia and Omnicom. Although it is familiar to many as Shell Mex House, its official name is now 80 Strand. In 2007, it was sold to US equity firm Westbrook Partners by Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz, David and Simon Reuben and Jack Dellal for £590 million. Today, the building is owned by the German Conley/Conle family, who purchased it for a reported £610 million in 2013. In March 2020, the owners were granted planning permission to refurbish the building, adding a new entrance pavilion. two-store conservatory in the courtyard and new roof terraces.
- Shell Mex House, 80 Strand, Westminster, WC2R 0HS. Nearest stations: Charing Cross, Embankment or Temple.
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