Category Archives: London
The history of the City’s pioneering, art deco office block and the hotel which came before it.
Standing on the north side of London Bridge, two impressive buildings form the unofficial gateways to the City – Fishmongers Hall on the western side and Adelaide House opposite. While the Hall dates back to 1830s, Adelaide House is a 20th century, Modernist construction. Although Adelaide House has only been standing a little shy of a century, its name has origins dating back to the same period as the current Fishmongers’ Hall.
In 1831, the New London Bridge opened slightly west of the original location of the Old London Bridge. Opening the capital’s iconic crossing were King William IV (1765-1837) and Queen Adelaide (1792-1849), with the monarch honoured with the road approaching the bridge being named King William Street. The old London Bridge Waterworks had been demolished to make way for Adelaide Place and a neo-classical block, the Adelaide Hotel. With four storeys visible on the London Bridge side, the building featured Corinthian pilasters and a ornamental balustrade on the roof level. Looming over the London Bridge Wharf, it was a perfect location for a hotel. The wharf guaranteed a regular hotel clientele as it was busy with cargo and passenger steamships. One company operating out of the Wharf was the New Medway Steam Packet Company, which offered cruises down the Thames to the Essex and Kent coastline. The Adelaide Hotel was open by 1835 and had expansive views over the river, as well as typical amenities such as a restaurant and ladies’ coffee room. The Handbook of London, published in 1849, describes the Adelaide as a “third-class hotel”, although Adams’s Pocket London guide two years later is more complementary: “A spacious establishment in high repute”. Despite the handy location, the Adelaide Hotel wasn’t a huge success and was converted into offices in the 1850s and renamed the Adelaide Buildings.
The Adelaide Buildings were home to various companies over the decades, but one dominant tenant was the Pearl Insurance company. Originally started in the East End in 1857, the company expanded and moved to the Adelaide Buildings in 1878, where it remained until 1914 when it headed west to High Holborn. (See a London Metropolitan Archives photo of the building in 1913). Read the rest of this entry
This City of London road was named after a 13th century religious order.
Prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the City of London was home to several monastic orders. Although a few buildings were preserved in existing churches, others were demolished and their legacy today is often only a street name. After King Henry VIII established the dramatic religious change so he could marry Anne Boleyn, he swiftly closed a succession of London monasteries. Those shuttered include the Bermondsey Abbey, Blackfriars, Charterhouse Priory (Smithfield), Crutched Friars, Grey Friars, Holywell Priory (Shoreditch), St Bartholomew’s Priory, St. Helen’s priory (Bishopsgate), St Martin’s le Grand, Whitefriars (Fleet Street), among others.
One order within the City of London boundaries was Austin Friars – located in between the present stations of Bank and Liverpool Street. The Austin Friars was an Augustinian order, believed to have arrived in England in the 1260s. They acquired land from two older churches, with St Olave Broad Street apparently being demolished to make way for the friary. Over the years, the friary’s wealth grew, allowing them to gain more land, eventually covering 5.5 acres. The complex was surrounded by a high wall, bordering London Wall, Throgmorton Street and Broad Street. Within their boundaries were a church, accommodation, garden and other buildings for dining and studying. The complex was entered by at least three gates, the main entrance being on Throgmorton Street. The friary was home to about 60 friars by the 13th century and was popular with London’s elite.
On the western edge of the friary, courtier Thomas Cromwell, Earl Of Essex (1485-1540) began leasing a home from the friary in the 1520s. It was a three-storey building with 14 rooms and a garden. By 1532, Cromwell’s power and influence at Henry VIII‘s court had grown so he expanded his Austin Friars home to reflect his rising status. He ended up with a huge property covering 2 acres with another 1.5 acres of garden. A few years later, Austin Friars came to an end in November 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester (1483/5-1572), took over the Friars’ house and cloisters and erected a townhouse on the site, which was later demolished in 1844. Two years later, Cromwell’s days at Austin Friars were also over after he was imprisoned and executed for treason and heresy. His house was acquired by the Crown and sold three years later to the Drapers’ Company for their hall, but was burned down in the Great Fire of London of 1666 and rebuilt. Read the rest of this entry
Visitors can safely check out the grounds, Painted Hall, and other buildings of the iconic Greenwich attraction.
The historic heart of Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College, is reopening to the public this month following lockdown. Implementing safety measures in line with government guidance, the iconic 17th century complex will be opening its doors to its building and grounds from 13 July 2020. Londoners and tourists alike will be able to safely visit the stunning Painted Hall, King William Undercroft and interpretation gallery. The safety of visitors and staff will be prioritised with people advised to book in advance, with limited tickets available daily to ensure social distancing. As well being able to check out some of the college’s famous sights, there will also be special events and entertainment for the remainder of the summer season.
The Old Royal Naval College’s buildings were designed by Sir Christopher Wren and date back to the 17th century and early 18th century. Its glorious Painted Hall, painted by James Thornhill, re-opened late last year following several years of restoration. (Read about Metro Girl’s visit to see the ceiling up close during the project).
Visitors to the Old Royal Naval College can learn about its centuries of history with a new smartphone tour, free on the Smartify app. Families will enjoy the Building Detectives treasure trail tour for children aged 5-12 years.
Kicking off on 28 August – 12 September is the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, with plenty of events taking place within the grounds. This year’s festival will celebrate the heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic – the NHS, along with the strength of community spirit and the environment. Roaming film club Luna Cinema will also be pitching up for alfresco cinema screenings in August. Meanwhile, Amber Markets are also planning to return later this year with global street food.
To mark Black History Month in October, the ORNC will launch a new exhibition exploring the history of the black sailors in the British Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, curated by black British historian S.I. Martin.
- Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, Greenwich, SE10 9NN. Nearest stations: Greenwich, Cutty Sark or Maze Hill. For more information, visit the ORNC website.
- The grounds will be open daily 7am-7pm. The Painted Hall, King William Undercroft, Visitor Centre Shop and Ticket Desk will be open daily from 10am–5pm. The Chapel will be open from 10am–2pm for private prayer. (The Victorian Skittle Alley remains closed). Spaces must be booked in advance for tours and the ORNC recommends visitors bring their own headphones for use with the multimedia guides. Guided tours will be limited to a maximum of five people. Groups larger than 25 will not be permitted to visit the site. No cash payments will be accept: Card and mobile payments preferred.
The history of 17 Fleet Street, a 17th century building that survived the Great Fire of London.
Standing on a Fleet Street is a rare piece of Jacobean London. Thanks to the Great Fire of London of 1666, hardly any buildings originating prior to the mid-17th century exist within the confines of the Square Mile. Among the few exceptions are 41 – 42 Cloth Fair in Smithfield, a handful of City churches, the Tower of London and St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Another one of these survivors is a Jacobean townhouse at 17 Fleet Street.
The site was originally part of an estate owned by the Knights Templar, an order of Catholic soldiers. Following their dissolution in 1312, the land passed to their rivals, the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Among their tenants were lawyers, who established the legal district of Temple which still exists today. With its origins as a Roman route, Fleet Street was named and established as a residential road in the Middle Ages. By the early 16th century, one of the Hospitallers’ tenants was the landlord of an inn called The Hand at 17 Fleet Street. After the Hospitallers was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540, a lot of the Temple district passed into the hands of the Crown and other landowners.
In 1610, the owner of 17 Fleet Street rebuilt the tavern, by then named the Prince’s Arms. Some have claimed the tavern was named in honour of the investiture of Henry Frederick Prince of Wales (1594-1612) – son of King James I of England – while others claim the tavern’s name dates back to before his birth. Another theory suggests No.17 was built for the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall and that first floor had been reserved for Prince Henry’s use. The building features a three feathers motif on the façade – the symbol for the Prince of Wales. This symbolism appears again in the large room on the first floor, which boasts one of London’s best examples of Jacobean ceiling plaster. It contains the three feather motif, along with the initials P.H. Read the rest of this entry
The story behind a Neo-Gothic office building-turned-holiday let on Fleet Street
Fleet Street has its fair share of striking architecture – from the bold Art Deco design of the Express Building to the old Tudor frontage of Prince Henry’s Room. However, one particular building’s design suggests it’s from an earlier age that it actually is – the Mary Queen of Scots House at 143-4 Fleet Street. The building is situated just two doors down from the temple-like Peterborough House and next door to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. The Mary Queen of Scots House has two entrances – the eastern one accessing the upper storeys, while the west is the shop door (currently a Pret a Manger). Just to the left of the shop entrance is Cheshire Court, a small alley previously known as Three Falcon Court.
Long before Pret A Manger arrived, and indeed, even the current building was erected, the site had a varied history. In the 1770s, a publisher named Joseph Wenman was operating out of his premises at 144 Fleet Street, producing mostly theatrical reprints. By 1833, No.143-144 was owned by a Sir John Marshall, with one of his tenants being a baker, according to an insurance policy taken out at the time. In the 1840s, wood engraver Edwin Morrett Williams and cutler/hardwareman William Sutton worked on-site. By 1882, 143 had become a restaurant. Nine years later, optician Samuel Poole was operating out of 144.
In the early 20th century, Scottish landowner and liberal politician Sir John Tollemache Sinclair (1825-1912) acquired the land of 143-144 Fleet Street. He commissioned architect Richard Mauleverer Roe (1854-1922) to design an ornate, Neo-Gothic office building in 1905. At the time, Gothic revival was steadily falling out of fashion in architecture, although the new dawn of Modernist design was still a way off. The building has five storeys, one of which being a roof storey. The ground floor is surrounded by a stone arch with zigzag mouldings.
Details of outdoor and drive-in cinemas in and around London, including ticket prices, locations and more
This summer, our social lives have been changed beyond all recognition due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the lockdown is gradually easing in stages, going to the cinema is a more complex activity as we practice social distancing. However, film fans missing their big screen experience can now book a ticket for one of London’s outdoor or drive-in cinemas, there’s even a floating film experience for those interested in hiring a boat. For those with a car and don’t mind travelling a bit further, there are also drive-ins appearing outside the capital in the home counties. Some cinemas are even extending their usual summer season until late October.
Key: 🧘 Seated viewings only (you may need to bring a blanket/cushion)
🚗 Can only attend in a car
- 3 – 19 July : Celestial Drive-In Cinema
Boasting London’s largest LED screen, Celestial Cinema are screening classic and modern favourites for drive-in audiences. Food and drink available. Daytime and evening screenings available. Tickets start from £29.50 for one car with two people. Flamingo Park, Sidcup By-Pass Road, Chislehurst, Kent BR7 6HL. For more information, visit the Celestial Cinema website. 🚗
- 4 July – 23 September : The Drive In
A new drive-in cinema offers 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. 🚗
- 4 July – 31 October : Rooftop Film Club presents Drive In Film Club
This summer, the Rooftop Film Club are launching a drive-in experience for those with cars while their usual rooftop experience is on hold. Food and drink will be available, delivered to your car by roller-skating servers. Daytime and evening screenings available. Tickets: One vehicle £27.50-£29 (depending on screening time). Alexandra Palace, Alexandra Palace Way, N22 7AY. For more information, visit the Rooftop Film Club website. 🚗
- 5 July – 20 September : Sunset Cinema
Enjoy a US-style, vintage drive-in experience. Food and drink available to pre-order, as well as on the night. Movies include Rocketman, Dirty Dancing, La La Land, Mamma Mia!, Grease, Knives Out, Back To The Future, and more. Tickets: £50 (1 car and 2 passengers), £15 for each additional passenger. Twyford Avenue Sports Ground, Twyford Avenue, Acton, W3 9QA. For more information, visit the Sunset Cinema website. 🚗
- 5 July – 31 August : The Drive-In (from Secret Cinema and Goodwood)
Enjoy a drive in experience in Chichester, West Sussex (80 miles from London). The famous Goodwood Motor Circuit is teaming up with Secret Cinema and Häagen-Dazs to host screenings of classics and family favourites, such as Toy Story, Pretty Woman, Dirty Dancing, The Incredibles and more. Tickets: £50-£57.50 (1 car and up to 5 passengers). Discounts available for NHS workers. Goodwood Motor Circuit, Chichester, West Sussex, PO18 0PX. For more information, visit the Secret Cinema website. 🚗
- 6 – 12 July and 16 – 21 September : @TheDriveIn
Suzuki presents @TheDriveIn is a new experience offering film screenings, as well as stand-up comedy, bingo and silent car discos. The experience will be travelling around UK cities, but will be making stops in London at Circus Field in Blackheath (6-12 July) and Pudding Mill Lane car park in Stratford (16-21 September). Tickets: £38.50 (per car). For more information, visit the @TheDriveIn website. 🚗
- 21 July – 10 October : Luna Cinema
Luna Cinema are hosting their usual outdoor summer screens, as well as drive-in experiences for those Londoners who are fortunate enough to have a car. Among the venues for their pop-up alfresco screenings include Morden Hall Park, Hampton Court Palace, Tooting Bec Common, Dulwich Park, Brockwell Lido, Marble Hill, Wimbledon Park, Wandsworth Park, Chiswick House & Gardens, Gunnersby Park, Walpole Park, Holland Park, Kensington Park, Regents Park, Kenwood House, Alexandra Palace, Old Royal Naval College (Greenwich), Danson House, Swanley Park, Royal Hospital Chelsea, Victoria Tower Gardens, Victoria Embankment Gardens. Meanwhile, the Luna Drive in Cinema will be popping up at Allianz Park in Hendon and Printworks in Rotherhithe. Films include a mix of classic and newer releases. Tickets: Adults £16-£18, Children £13.50. Drive-in tickets: £29.50-£39.50 (depending on car size, capacity and position to screen). For more information on the Luna’s outdoor cinema, visit their website, or for the drive-in cinema, click here. 🚗🧘
- 21 August – 20 September : Summer Showtime on the Coaling Jetty @ Battersea Power Station
Arclight Cinema and The Turbine Theatre are teaming up to present film screenings (and other entertainment) on its Coaling Jetty by Battersea Power Station. Screening a range of classic and more recent releases. Tickets range from £27-£45 for pallets and pitches. The Coaling Jetty, Battersea Power Station, SW11 8AB. Nearest stations: Battersea Park, Queenstown Road Battersea or Sloane Square. For booking, visit the Arclight Cinema website. 🧘
- 2 – 27 September : Openaire Float-In Cinema
A pop-up cinema with a difference! Enjoy a classic or recent popular film while sitting in a boat or a deckchair by the canal. You can pick up a GoBoat from Little Venice and enjoy a trip down the canal to Paddington, or grab a waterside deckchair. Tickets: Boat hire + up to 6 people £215 or deckchair £16.50pp. Paddington Basin Canal (by Merchant Square), Paddington, W2 1AS. Nearest station: Edgware Road or Paddington. For booking and more information, visit the Openaire website. 🧘⛵️
29 July – 30 August : Free Range Film ClubCANCELLED
Roaming outdoor cinema travels to three (and more to come) alfresco spaces around the capital, showcasing new and classic films. Bring a blanket (no furniture) and you will be given an allocated space, socially distanced from others for your safety. Street food and licensed bar available. Tickets: £20 (+ booking fee). For more information on the Free Range Film Club, visit their website.
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More articles to entertain you during lockdown
Long demolished, this West End venue was home to a museum, art exhibitions, Victorian ‘freak shows’ and magic shows.
Over the centuries, many London landmarks have come and gone. Sometimes bombs or fire were to blame, but others have fallen victim to changing tastes. One these lost London buildings was the Egyptian Hall, a piece of architectural pastiche that was home to many attractions and exhibitions during its 93 year history.
The Egyptian hall was originally a museum on Piccadilly, built in 1811-1812 on the site of the original Hatchards book shop (now at 187 Piccadilly) and the White Horse Inn. Following Horatio Nelson’s (1758-1805) victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1799, public interest in Egypt began to grow. By the early 19th century, wealthy Europeans were desperate for a genuine piece of Egyptian history. For those who couldn’t afford it, seeing millennia-old antiquities in an exhibition would have to suffice. English traveller and naturalist William Bullock (1773-1849) commissioned architect Peter Fredrick Robinson (1776-1858) to design a museum to house his collection. Erected on a budget of £16,000, the Egyptian Hall was the first English building to be influenced by Egypt architecture. It took inspiration from the Egyptian room at collector Thomas Hope’s (1769-1831) house in Marylebone. He filled his Georgian terrace in Duchess Street with antiquities from ancient Greece, Egypt, Italy and Turkey and opened it to the public.
The hall’s grand façade outshone the simple Georgian terraces surrounding it. Many of its details were copied from the Dendera Temple complex in Egypt, such as the winged mundus, scarabreus, columns and hieroglyphics. Above the entrance were two huge Coade stone figures of Isis and Osiris by either sculptor Lawrence Gahagan or his son Sebastian (1778-1838). Inside, was a Grand Hall, lecture rooms, a bazaar and a large central room called ‘the Waterloo Gallery’. Over its lifetime, the hall was also known as Bullock’s Museum or the London Museum. In 1816, an exhibition of Napoleonic relics was a big success. Bullock made £35,000 from the 220,000 visitors to the display, which included Napoleon’s field carriage from the Battle of Waterloo. In 1819, Bullock sold off his collection of objects in an auction lasting 26 days and embarked on more adventures.
The building was then converted into an exhibition hall. Italian adventurer and strongman Giovanni Battista Belzoni, aka ‘The Great Belzoni’, (1778-1823) showcased his collection from May 1821, acquired from his extensive travels. Four years previously he had taken the white sarcophagus of Seti I from his tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. A year later, Belzoni put up his collection for auction. English architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) bought the sarcophagus (now found in the Sir John Soane Museum) for £2,000 – the most expensive item in his collection. Over the next few years, the hall was used for exhibiting art by the Old Water-Colour Society and the Society of Painters in Water Colours, costing only a shilling to enter. Paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) were among those displayed in the early 1820s. Read the rest of this entry
Contemporary artists Robert Sample, Joseph Loughborough and Bael feature in the June 2020 exhibition.
Lockdown may be easing in some areas, but art lovers are still patiently waiting to return to London’s galleries. While you may not be able to visit art displays in person, the Ben Oakley Gallery have just launched a new 3D art exhibition to enjoy in lockdown.
Contemporary artists Robert Sample, Joseph Loughborough and Bael will showcase their drawings and paintings in the new exhibition, Triptych. Having launched on 12 June, the three-man exhibition is available to view in 3D, along with the new virtual reality gallery space. These three artists have very different styles, but each explores the human figure in this new exhibition.
Sample’s signature gritty style is on show, with his latest work depicting monochromatic figures in oil paint. Meanwhile, Bael focuses on stillness and simplicity with delicate lines and hints of colour. Finally, Loughborough’s dreamy work brings the viewer to another dimension.
- The Triptych exhibition is on virtually until 28 June 2020. To book your time slot, email the gallery. For more information, please visit BenOakleyGallery.com.
For more of Metro Girl’s art posts, click here.
The history of one of Roman London’s first gates.
Today, the City of London covers the area of the original Roman settlement of Londinium. Although the capital’s population spread out far beyond these boundaries in more recent centuries, the City gates remained until the mid 18th century.
One of the four original gates of London was Aldersgate, located in the north corner. It’s believed it was built by the Romans in the late 4th century to replace an older gate to the nearby Cripplegate Fort. It was built into the defensive City wall, which had been erected between 190-220 AD. The gates were designed to control traffic in and out of Londinium so taxes could be imposed on incoming goods. The first Aldersgate is believed to have had semi-circular towers with a pair of roadways and a platform for catapults.
After the Romans abandoned the City in the early 5th century, Londinium rapidly deteriorated over the years. It wasn’t until the 9th century that the Saxons began to resettle the area under Alfred the Great (847/9-899 AD). At some point in the Medieval period, the gate was named Ealdredesgate (AEldresgate). When it comes to what inspired the name, there has been much debate. In his 1603 Survey of London, John Stow (1524/5-1605) wrote some Londoners claimed it was named after a Saxon man Aldrich, while others believed it was after the alder trees which grew nearby. However, Stow theorised it was called so due to its age, writing: “The next is AEldresgate, or Aldersgate, so-called not of Aldrich, or of Elders, that is to say, ancient men, builders therefore, nor of Eldarne trees, growing there more abundantly than in other places as some have fabuled, but for the very antiquity of the gate itself, as being one of the first 4 gates of the city and serving for the Northerne parts, as Aldegate for the East.” The Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’ was used to describe the type of tree or an older person. Another suggestion is the gate may have been named after Ealdrād, Archbishop of York (d.1069), who crowned King William I (1028-1087) in 1066. It’s likely we’ll never know for sure which theory is correct.
Throughout the early centuries of the second millennium, the gate was frequently used by Londoners heading to nearby Smithfield, known for its fairs, markets, executions and jousting competitions, as well as St Bartholomew’s Priory. During the mid 16th century, the gate was home to Protestant printer John Day (1522-1584), who printed the Bible dedicated to the young King Edward VI (1537-1553) from the building in May 1551. His work was forced underground during Catholic Queen Mary I’s (1516-1558) reign and he was arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London in 1554. He was later released and returned to live at Aldersgate during the reign of Mary’s Protestant sister Queen Elizabeth I (1553-1603). Read the rest of this entry
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. 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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