Category Archives: Architecture
How high, why and by who?
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. Read the rest of this entry
The former offices of Royal Doulton still stand in Lambeth, although the factory is long gone.
From the 16th century to the mid 20th century, the riverside district of Lambeth was a hub of industry. The old village of Lambeth has existed since at least the 11th century and during the Medieval period was on the outskirts of London. In 1570, two Antwerp potters, Jasper Andries and Jacob Janson settled in Lambeth and started trading. Janson later anglicised his name to Johnson and is believed to be the first maker of what became known as Lambeth Delftware. Many Delft potters followed and settled in Lambeth, as well as Southwark and Vauxhall during the 17th centuries. These small potteries soon helped Lambeth establish its reputation as the centre of the industry, with many springing up on Lambeth High Street – previously known as Back Lane until the late 18th century. The potteries made various designs of earthenware, although pharmaceutical containers and accessories were prevalent. One prominent business was James Stiff & Son’s Pottery, which was established in 1751 and acquired by James in 1840. Located on a two acre site on the High Street, it was one of the largest potteries in London and employed 200 people, had 14 kilns and had its own dock on the River Thames until 1913. Other industries in the area included glassmaking, candlemakers and soap manufacturers.
Turning to the early 19th century, we meet the father of the famous Royal Doulton company, still trading today. Founder John Doulton (1793-1873) started his career as an apprentice to John Dwight’s Fulham Manufacturing Company from 1805-1812. After completing his apprenticeship, he joined widow Martha Jones at her small pottery in Vauxhall Walk. He soon invested his life savings of £100 in the pottery, which traded as Jones, Watts & Doulton from 1815, along with foreman John Watts. After Jones retired in 1820, the pottery continued as Doulton & Watts. The company specialised in salt glaze stoneware, making bottles, jugs and jars. They acquired a large pottery on the High Street in 1826, expanding their business to making glazed sewer pipes. By 1834, they were employing 12 men working across two kilns at 28 Lambeth High Street (see a Lambeth archive sketch of the factory in 1840). Fortunately for Doulton & Watts, demands for glazed pipes rose dramatically in the 1830s-1840s as they were hailed for their safety at the time.
In 1835, Doulton took on his son, the future Sir Henry Doulton (1820-1897) as a teenage apprentice. Within 11 years, his son had set up his own independent Lambeth pottery, Henry Doulton & Co, next door at 63 Lambeth High Street. HD & Co established the world’s first stoneware pipe factory. The Victorians were swiftly embracing better sanitary habits and soon the company had become renowned for its sanitation products. In addition to running his own company, Henry continued to assist his father’s business. Both company’s wares were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851, with both winning prizes. Read the rest of this entry
The history of a Georgian office block in the City of London.
Standing on the corner of Cheapside and King Street in the City of London is a grand piece of Italianate architecture. While much of the road has been significantly altered over the decades with new architecture and changing traffic layouts, this Georgian office block has remained fairly close to its original design.
For over 130 years, Atlas House was the headquarters of the Atlas Assurance Company. The fire and life insurance company was originally founded by a group of merchants and bankers in 1807 at Will’s Coffee House – a popular meeting place for London movers and shakers. Their first office was at Bush Lane (near Cannon Street station), then Coleman Street (near Guildhall), before acquiring the site on the corner of Cheapside and King Street in the mid 1830s. At the time, Cheapside was one of the city’s most busiest roads and renowned for being a hub of business and trade. By choosing it as the location for their head office, it would give the business prestige and good exposure to potential customers.
The Atlas Assurance Company directors enlisted one of the country’s top architects, Thomas Hopper (1776-1856) to design their new headquarters. Kent-born Hopper was popular with King George IV (1762-1830) and had worked on the royal residence, Carlton House. Throughout his career, Hopper was mainly focused on country houses, including Penrhyn Castle and Margam Castle in Wales, Alscot Park in Warwickshire, and Gosford Castle in Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland.
Hopper’s 1836 design took inspiration from classical Italian architecture. The ground floor is made of Cornish grey granite, while the upper storeys are Portland stone. The upper storeys’ windows feature alternate curved and triangular pediments, with single, Corinthian palisters between. The top of the building was framed with a balustrade. Business was so going so well for the company, the directors splashed out on the new technology of internal gas lighting. They also didn’t seem concerned about paying window tax as the building has many windows.
In 1857, the building was extended northward, and again in 1893-94. Celebrated English architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) designed the late 19th century alterations, including a grand entrance at 1 King Street, topped by a sculpture of Atlas. The piece was carved from Portland Stone by Thomas Tyrrell for Farmer & Brindley. Read the rest of this entry
A small piece of Humphry Repton’s landscaping survives in a south London park.
The leafy, inner London suburb of Dulwich couldn’t be further from the gaudy, neon lights of Las Vegas. However, after seeing the sign for ‘Casino Avenue’ in the district, you may find yourself wondering about the meaning behind the name. Despite the gambling association most of us have with the word ‘casino’, the avenue is named after a former Georgian villa which used to stand in the area, named Casina. Although the house is long gone, its grounds now survive as a small park, while the man who owned it is buried locally in a listed grave.
Before discovering the history of the house, it’s important to know how its building was funded. Lawyer Richard Shawe (1755-1816) was appointed to defend Warren Hastings (1732-1818) in Britain’s longest political trial. Having served as the Governor-General of Bengal following years in India, Hastings was impeached on charges of corruption upon his return to Britain. In 1795, Hastings was acquitted after the seven year trial. He was left financially ruined, with £7,000 in legal fees going to his lawyer. Obviously, Shawe was left quite the opposite from penniless after the trial. He had already married well, to a Miss Esther Croughton (the first of his three wives), with Hastings’ legal bill giving his coffers a huge boost.
Two years after the verdict, Shawe bought 16 acres of land on Dulwich Hill (now Herne Hill) in what was then Surrey. In 1797, he commissioned prominent Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) to design a villa. Completed by 1800, it was named Casina (later Casino), and was Palladian in style with an Italianate influence (see a London Metropolitan Archives sketch of the house from 1810). The grounds were laid out by celebrated landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who was in partnership with Nash for several years before their relationship soured in 1800. Repton’s features included an ornamental canal and fish pond. He later went on to design or extend Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus (basically half the Monopoly board!).
Discover the history of the progressive former Shoreditch Borough Council and its headquarters.
Standing on Old Street amidst the tech companies and hipster coffee shops is a towering monument to civic duty. Shoreditch Town Hall hasn’t had its own council for over 50 years, but was known in the Victorian era for being progressive. Before establishment of Borough Councils in the late 19th century, parishes of London were administered by vestry halls. The ancient parish of Shoreditch had boomed in population during the early Victorian era, with over 129,000 residents by 1861. Before building the Town Hall, the site contained the old Fuller’s Hospital, a collection of almhouses founded in 1605. Shoreditch district surveyor Caesar A Long designed the original town hall, which was smaller than the building you see today (see a 1865 sketch of the building). The façade was made of Portland stone, with five bays across the two-storey building. The exterior features Corinthian columns at the front entrance and allegorical keystones, representing Justice, Labour, Mercury and others. Inside, it impressed many with its Doric columns, stained glass windows, glittering chandeliers and ornate interiors. The entrance hall still features the original Victorian details, such as a triglyph frieze, ceiling roses and red Minton tiled floor. Its grand façade and interiors led to it being described as ‘the grandest Vestry Hall in London’.
When it opened in 1866, there were 120 members of the Shoreditch vestry. As well as being a civic centre for the vestry members, the hall was also a local entertainment centre. It was used for the popular Music Hall style of entertainment, with big names such as Arthur Lloyd (1839-1904), Max Miller (1894-1963), Dan Leno (1860-1904) and George Leybourne (1742-1884) performing there. The vestry’s main hall (now the Council Chamber) hosted the inquest into the last Jack The Ripper victim, Mary Jane Kelly, in November 1888.
In 1899, the Shoreditch Vestry became the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch when London’s local government system was re-organised. The new council adopted the motto, ‘More Light, More Power’, which is seen frequently throughout the building. This referenced the council’s innovative approach to bringing the new technology of electricity to the area. In 1897, the vestry had built the St. Leonard Shoreditch Electric Light Station, (later known as the Shoreditch Borough Refuse Destructor and Generating Station). Revolutionary at the time, it burned rubbish to provided steam for an electricity generator, with the waste heat heating the public swimming baths next door. Today, the generating station is now the National Centre for Circus Arts school. Shoreditch Vestry was the first municipal energy company to generate electricity by burning waste.
Increasing council duties meant more space was required so architect William George Hunt (b.1870) was enlisted to design a western extension at a cost of £30,000. Hunt lived in Kensington and had also worked on an extension for his local town hall in 1898-9, as well as the Harrods Furniture Depository in 1894. Hunt added the large Assembly Hall, a tower, caretaker’s cottage and more offices. A new staircase was added with cast iron balustrades, along with a stained glass window depicting a municipal crest His designs retained the old Vestry chamber to be used as a council hall. The tower united the original and new extension and featured a female sculpture of Progress, which alludes to Shoreditch’s innovative reputation at the time. Progress wears a winged helmet (symbolising speed) and is holding a torch (to shine the light of progress) and an axe (to cut through forest to make way for civilisation). The extension features more allegorical keystone heads just like the original: Labour, Justice and Protection. Meanwhile, the top western pediment features two reclining figures, with a shield in between and the council motto underneath. Read the rest of this entry
Discover the history of the Georgian terrace and the people who lived there.
Number 4 Princelet Street is probably the most Instagrammed house in Spitalfields. With its bold pinkish red colour, its shabby façade and charming shutters, it’s proved the perfect backdrop for many a photoshoot – both professional and candid. Today, the building isn’t a home, but is rented out for events or filming locations. However, like many other Georgian terraces in E1, No.4 has an interesting history.
In the early 18th century, the area we now know today as Spitalfields was the edge of London – with fields spreading out east just beyond Brick Lane. The area had been a hub for industry since the 15th century when it was known for brick and tile manufacturing. Over a century later, a young man named Joseph Truman Senior (d.1719) joined the William Bucknall’s brewery near Brick Lane around 1666. Thirteen years later, entrepreneurial Joseph acquired the brewery’s lease following the death of Bucknall. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the Truman family rapidly grew the Black Eagle Brewery, later known as the Truman Brewery (but more on the Trumans later).
With London’s population rapidly expanding in the early 18th century, housing development on the city’s fringes continued at pace. Two London lawyers Charles Wood and Simon Michell started developing the roads known today as Fournier Street (aka Church St), Wilkes Street (aka Wood St) and Princelet Street between 1718 and 1728. When the latter was built, it was known as ‘Princesse Street’ or ‘Princes Street’. It appears to have renamed Princelet Street in the 1890s. Wood and Michell leased the land to master builders, who built terraces of townhouses for both sale and lease. Although these houses are expensive and sought-after today, at the time they were aimed towards working Londoners and migrants, particularly the Huguenots, who had been fleeing religious persecution in France in waves since the 1680s.
When it was built in 1723, No.4 Princelet Street was actually numbered No.2 Princes Street. Together with No.1 Princes Street (now No.2 Princelet Street), the pair were the last houses to be built on the road. Wood and Michell had granted local carpenter and builder Samuel Worrall 99 year leases to erect the two terraces, as well as No.6 Wilkes Street around the corner. In June 1724, Worrall leased 1 Princes Street and 6 Wilkes Street to a glover for £756 per annum.
Back to the Truman family, whose business was booming in the early 18th century. Joseph Snr’s grandson Sir Benjamin Truman (1699-1780) had joined the family-run Black Eagle brewery and it was under his watch the business saw rapid expansion, becoming one of the biggest breweries in London. He supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was later knighted by King George III (1738-1820). Benjamin moved into 2 Princes Street in 1724, which was a perfect location due to its close proximity to the brewery. Four years later, Benjamin would have a next door neighbour in textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), who moved to 1 Princes Street in 1728 with her sister Mary. Today, a blue plaque commemorates Anna’s residency at the house. Read the rest of this entry
Visit some of London’s most iconic buildings without leaving your sofa.
Most Londoners would agree they often take the city for granted normally, let alone now. As our ongoing lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic continues, many of us are looking lustfully over #throwback photos on social media wondering when we’ll be able to explore the capital again. Or perhaps, you’re a would-be tourist whose trip to London was postponed or cancelled.
During the current Coronavirus crisis, I’ve put a lot of my usual events and ‘what’s on’ content on hiatus and have instead been focusing on London history and architecture. While researching the background of some of the capital’s most iconic buildings, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find how many of their websites provide virtual tours.
So if you’re feeling bored and missing walking around the capital, why not enjoy a virtual stroll around some of these iconic London sights.
Check out Metro Girl’s round-up of 10 art and museum exhibitions you can view online.
Ten virtual tours of London buildings
- Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Explore the striking Victorian government offices of Whitehall, which were built in the 1860s. Gaze at George Gilbert Scott’s designs, such as the Grand Staircase, the Locarno Suite and Durbar Court. Although usually off-limits to the public, you can usually get a peek during Open House London in September.
– For a virtual tour, visit the FCO website.
- Middle Temple Hall
The public rarely gets to step inside the 16th century hall in the Temple legal district. This historic building has an impressive hammerbeam roof and is said to have hosted the first ever performance of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in front of Queen Elizabeth I.
- Sky Garden
The ‘Walkie Talkie’ is the nickname for the City of London skyscraper 20 Fenchurch Street. Its top floors are home to a garden, bar, restaurants and viewing platform, giving wonderful views of the capital.
- Somerset House
The multi-space arts and entertainment venue has a contrasting mix of old and new architectural features inside the 18th century riverside building.
The history of the London home of artist Augustus Charles Pugin and his architect son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.
The name Pugin will be familiar to many as it comprised a dynasty of talented artists and architects. The family name has been immortalised as the creators of many great buildings in the UK, mostly notably the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster (aka Big Ben). While the architects of the family designed many grand structures, their own abodes were rather modest in comparison. One of the Pugin family’s only surviving London homes stands on Great Russell Street on the Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia boundaries.
Great Russell Street was first established around 1670 and followed an old path named Green Lane. The road took its name from the local landowners, the Russell Family and Dukes of Bedford. John Strype’s (1643-1737) ‘Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster’ in 1720 described Great Russell Street as “a very handsome large and well built street, graced with the best buildings, and the best inhabited by the nobility and gentry, especially the north side, as having gardens behind the houses: and the prospect of the pleasant fields up to Hampstead and Highgate. In so much that this place by physicians is esteemed the most healthful of any in London.” One such early resident was the celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), followed by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who designed a row of white stuccoed, terraced houses on the street in 1777-8 and lived at No.66. By the 19th century, the road’s fortunes were somewhat mixed. Although the north side has remained relatively well to do, the south side had become more downmarket and commercial, with the Meux brewery premises nearby.
When it was first built in the late 17th century, 106 Great Russell Street was numbered 105. The three-storey terrace is made of yellow brick, with an attic featuring dormer windows. Today, the ground floor features an early 19th century shopfront with a projecting window, that is currently a showroom for the Italian lighting company Artemide. There are two doors on the ground floor – one on the left providing entrance to the shop and the other providing access to the floors above (what would have been the home of the Pugins).
French artist and writer Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) arrived in Britain in 1798 after leaving France during the revolution and enrolled at the Royal Academy school in London. He soon found work as an architectural draughtsman for John Nash, sketching his buildings such as Carlton House Terrace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. In 1802, Pugin Snr married Catherine Welby (1769-1833), of the wealthy Lincolnshire Welby family. By 1809, the couple were living at 39 Keppel Street (now Store Street) in Bloomsbury, where Pugin Snr also had an office. Their only son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) was born at the home in 1812. Read the rest of this entry
Learn about the history of one of Westminster’s prisons and its only visible remains.
Today, London prisons are few and far between. While today, prisons tend to be extensive and house large populations of prisoners, in previous centuries, houses of punishment were quite different in more ways than one.
In past centuries, Westminster only had a couple of prisons in comparison to many in the City of London. There was the substantial Millbank Prison (on the site of the Tate Britain) and Tothill Fields Bridewell. During its over two century history, the latter was known by various names, including Westminster House of Correction (Tothill Fields), Westminster Bridewell, Westminster Prison or Westminster County Gaol.
The location was Tothill Fields, a marshy section of land in between Westminster Abbey and Millbank. When it first opened, it was originally named Bridewell after Bridewell Palace and Prison in the City. Formerly a royal residence, the original Bridewell (on the current site of New Bridge Street near Blackfriars) became a prison, hospital and workrooms in the 16th century. When the Westminster prison first opened in 1618, it was deigned as ‘house of correction’ for paupers. It was relatively small and was built near the site of the House of Fraser store on Victoria Street. It was enlarged in 1655 as its population grew. During Queen Anne’s (1665-1714) reign in the early 18th century, Bridewell started to incarcerate criminals.
The 17th century prison was demolished in 1836, two years after a new prison opened. The new larger prison was built on an eight-acre site near Vauxhall Bridge Road. Designed by English architect Robert Abraham (1773-1850) at a cost of £186,000, the new prison was in the shape of an ace of clubs. This was inspired by social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) Panopticon design, which meant guards could keep an eye on a large body of prisoners from a central point. Each ‘leaf’ featured a separate cell block, which collectively held 900 inmates. The centre of the leaves included a courtyard, with exercise yards located between each cell block. The main entrance was located on Francis Street. Aside from the main prison buildings, there was also a chapel and governor’s house within the complex (see the original ground floor plan of the new prison). When the new prison opened, it had one block for untried male prisoners and debtors, one of male convicted criminals and the last of female convicts. Inmates were put to work, usually oakum picking (here’s an image of women picking oakum in 1906), carpentry, mending clothes and the exhausting treadmill. Among the noted prisoners were Scottish soldier and trickster Gregor MacGregor (1776-1845), tea broker and schizophrenic James Tilly Matthews (1770-1815), and revolutionary war veteran and artist John Trumbull (1756-1843). Read the rest of this entry
The history of Ludgate in the City of London… and does a part of the old gate still exist?
Centuries ago, when London was significantly smaller, the City was enclosed by a wall with several gates providing entrance to the Square Mile. After the population boomed in the Georgian and Victorian era, the capital spilled over the boundaries of the City, spreading east, west, north and south.
One of these City gates was Ludgate – or the Lud Gate – situated on Ludgate Hill. The latter was one of three ancient hills in London, the others being Tower Hill and Cornhill. There have been a few theories about the origins of the name Ludgate. The idea that the gate was named after King Lud (who is claimed to have founded London before the Romans arrived) has been widely discounted. Many historians believe the word derives from the Saxon term ‘hlid-geat’, which means swinging gateway into a city. Another popular theory is Ludgate evolved from Flud-gate – a potential barrier to the flood waters of the nearby Rivers Fleet and Thames.
The first Lud Gate was built around 200AD as an entrance into the fortified Roman settlement of Londinium. It was the most western of all the gates into the city. After the Romans abandoned Londinium in the 5th century, the city was largely uninhabited for several centuries. However, it started being used a settlement again around the 8th century as the old Roman walls provided perfect protection from the frequent Viking invasions.
By the 12th century, the area of Lud Gate has become known as Lutgatestrate. Around 1215, the old Lud Gate was repaired or rebuilt when the wealthy rebel barons captured London and strengthened the walls and gates of the city as they battled King John (1166-1216). In 1260, the gate was apparently repaired again under King Henry III’s (1207-1272) reign, with statues of King Lud and other monarchs added to the façade. Read the rest of this entry