The house that soap built | The history of Unilever House in Blackfriars’
The neo-classical office block at the Victoria Embankment was built in the 1930s on the site of a popular hotel.
Anyone who crosses the River Thames at Blackfriars Bridge can’t help but notice the imposing, curved façade of Unilever House. The grand structure has been looming over the Victoria Embankment for the past 90 years and is home to one of the biggest FMCG companies in the world.
Unilever House stands on the site of Bridewell Palace, which was originally built for King Henry VIII (1491-1547) in the early 16th century. Erected on the banks of the River Fleet, the Bridewell was used as a royal residence, orphanage, prison and poorhouse during its three centuries of its existence. After the Bridewell buildings were demolished in the 1860s, part of the site was acquired by Belgium hoteliers, the de Keysers. The family’s first hotel, the Royal Hotel, originally stood at No.s 6, 8, 9 and 10 Chatham Place (a row of houses in New Bridge Street), and was founded by patriarch Joost Constant Fidel Armand de Keyser (b.1801) in 1845. His son Sir Polydore de Keyser (1832-1898) took over management of the hotel around 1856 and acquired part of the Bridewell site for a new hotel in the 1870s. Then named De Keyser’s Royal Hotel, the new building featured 300-400 bedrooms and was designed by architect Edward Augustus Gruning (1837-1908), who also designed the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross. When the new, five-storey hotel opened in September 1874, it catered to a first-class, mainly continental clientele. By 1882, a second wing of the hotel had opened, making the hotel the largest in London.
The hotel was acquired by the Crown during World War I in 1916, renamed Adastral House and became the London HQ of the Royal Flying Corps until they moved further down the Embankment to the Hotel Cecil in 1918. The owners of the hotel sought compensation for loss of income during the forces’ occupation, with the government claiming it had prerogative power to take possession of buildings without compensating the owner. In 1919, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the hotel and granted the owners compensation. The battle has become an important case in constitutional law, which is still used today. Read the rest of this entry
Palace, Prison and Poorhouse | The story of Bridewell in the City of London
Originally built as a Tudor palace, the name ‘Bridewell’ has now become synonymous with prisons around the world.
Today, the City of Westminster is associated with royal residences, with Buckingham and St James’s Palaces and Clarence House located in the borough. Although it’s been some time since British monarchs resided in the City of London, there are still reminders of former royal abodes to be found within the Square Mile. While the Tower of London is an obvious historic relic of the royal City, there is also another less noticeable remainder just over a mile away.
Situated on the busy A201 road, leading north from Blackfriars Bridge, is Bridewell Court. It consists of a 19th century gatehouse, which forms an entrance to an office building, currently home to a law firm. If you look above the archway, you’ll spot a clue to the site’s fascinating history: a relief portrait of King Edward VI (1537-1553).
Bridewell Palace was built in the 16th century on the site of St Bride’s Inn, on the banks of the River Fleet. It was a huge site, spanning south from the existing gatehouse towards where the Unilever building on the Embankment stands today. The structure was the main London residence for King Henry VIII (1491-1547) during the early part of his reign in 1515-1523 after acquiring the site from Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530). The palace complex comprised of three-storey royal lodgings surrounding two courtyards. A bridge led from the palace over the Fleet to the Dominican priory of Blackfriars. Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) lodged at Bridewell while the validity of their marriage was being debated at Blackfriars when the King was hoping to re-marry Anne Boleyn. By the 1530s, it was leased to the French Ambassador. Following Henry VIII’s death, the property passed onto the ownership of his son, Edward VI.
During his short reign, Edward VI gave Bridewell to the City authorities in 1553 to be used as a women’s prison, workhouse and orphanage for homeless children. Many of the female prisoners sent to Bridewell were prostitutes. By 1556, the complex also included a hospital. In 1557, Bridewell was paired with Bethlehem Hospital (aka ‘Bedlam’) in Bishopsgate for administrative purposes. However, as with most buildings in the area, the Bridewell complex was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was rebuilt soon after. Read the rest of this entry
The fascinating history of Blackfriars | Norman castles, a priory, theatres and Shakespeare’s home
Why Blackfriars is called Blackfriars and the pre-railway history of the area.
Blackfriars is an area by the southern fringes of the City of London, familiar to many City workers. Now dominated by office blocks, the district used to be a hub for religion and entertainment. Until the early 13th century, the area was home to Norman fortresses Mountfiquet Castle and the original Baynard’s Castle. Mountfiquet was likely named after the Baron of Mountfichet (of the Stansted Mountfichets in Essex), while Baynard’s was built by Ralph Baynard (a sheriff of Essex). Both castles were demolished by King John (1166-1216) in 1213 after their then-residents Robert Montfichet and Robert Fitzwalter took part in the barons’ revolt against the monarchy the previous year.
The name Blackfriars dates back to the 13th century when Dominican Friars established a priory on the site. The Friars first came to the capital in 1221 and established their first London monastery on the outskirts of the City near Lincoln’s Inn at Holborn. However, in 1276 they obtained permission from King Edward I (1239-1307) to move to the area we now know as Blackfriars. The King approved the levelling of the remains of Mountfiquet and Baynard Castle and the demolishing and rebuilding of the Roman City walls to incorporate their priory in 1282. The plot covered around 8 acres and incorporated the main church, a tower and five chapels (the Virgin chapel, a Lady chapel, St John the Baptist chapel, a pardon chapel and the Chapel of St Ann). The name Blackfriars started being used around 1317 to describe the Friars, who were recognised by their black cappas. The City also included Grey Friars (Franciscan), Austin Friars, Crutched Friars, White Friars (Carmelites), and the Holy Trinity and St Helens Priory priories. In 1322, the Blackfriars was the scene of tragedy when a large number of impoverished Londoners were crushed to death in a rush to beg for food and money at the gates.
The old pillars of the former Blackfriars railway bridge
The story behind the red columns in the River Thames.
If you walk along the Thames Path, or perhaps cross the River Thames via foot or train on the two Blackfriars Bridges, you may have noticed these pieces of unusual river furniture. Running from north to south are pairs of red pillars, which used to support the original railway bridge before it was dismantled in the 1980s. Rather confusingly for Londoners, there were two Blackfriars railway bridges and various name changes between the current Blackfriars station and another station south of the Thames which no longer exists.
The red pillars we see today are what remains of Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge, which was built in 1864 by engineer Joseph Cubitt (1811-1872) for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR). The bridge brought trains across the Thames between the original Blackfriars Bridge station (south of the Thames) and Ludgate Hill station (closed in 1929). The original bridge was four tracks wide and supported ornate abutments featuring the LC&DR’s insignia. The original Blackfriars Bridge station was located near the junction of Southwark Street and Blackfriars Road.
It wasn’t long before Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was joined by its sister bridge, the St Paul’s Railway Bridge, which led into the newer St Paul’s train station on the north bank of the Thames, aka the current Blackfriars station. St Paul’s station and the new bridge opened in 1886, the latter designed by civil engineers Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836-1918) and Henry Marc Brunel (1842-1903). Wolfe Barry was the engineer of Tower Bridge and the son of architect Charles Barry, who famously redesigned the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, Brunel was the son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, famous for the Thames Tunnel and Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, amongst many other landmarks.
When the new St Paul’s station opened, LC&DR decided to close Blackfriars Bridge to passengers, but kept the station open as a goods’ yard. It continued in that guise until 3 February 1964, before it was demolished four years later. The only sign of the station today is the cobbled entrance driveway behind an office block.
Meanwhile, St Paul’s station was thriving and continued to serve trains heading through the City. In 1937, the station was renamed Blackfriars to avoid confusion with the tube station St Paul’s, which had been named Post Office since its opening in 1900 due to its proximity to the HQ of the General Post Office. The same year, Post Office tube station was renamed St Paul’s, as it remains today as a stop on the Central Line.
In 1985, it was decided the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was too weak to support modern trains and it was dismantled. However, the red pillars and the southern abutment remained in situ. Originally the pillars were in rows of three, but the eastern columns were absorbed into the rebuilding of Blackfriars station on the younger bridge in 2011, so only pairs are visible to the public now. During the works, the LC&DR’s insignia was restored as a lasting reminder of a bridge and train company of yesteryear.
- The original Blackfriars Railway Bridge abutments can be viewed from the Thames Path (south side) and the embankment running alongside Blackfriars Underpass (north side). Nearest station: Blackfriars.
For the history of the Blackfriars area, click here.
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Rain never stopped play | Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant Flotilla
My experience of watching the Queen’s Flotilla on a wet day in June 2012.
Ahead of the Queen Elizabeth II‘s Jubilee Weekend, I wrote a last-minute blog with ideas of where to celebrate it. But when it came for me to make a decision, I was torn for choice. As I was flying out to Italy on the Bank Holiday Monday morning for a last-minute holiday, I decided to hit the Thames to watch the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant.
As a South Londoner and having spent a lot of my childhood playing on the South Bank, I was drawn to trying to find a spot to watch the flotilla from that side of the river. We arrived at London Bridge station armed with umbrellas, camera, Union Jacks and some cans of Pimm’s Cups. The forecast was dim, but, like all Londoners, we are used to rain and pressed ahead with our plans to watch it al fresco.
Rather ignorantly, we were hoping the rain may have put off some people and arrived about 90 minutes ahead of the flotilla starting. As we walked past viewpoint after viewpoint – which were closed off by police due to crowd control – it soon started to look hopeless that we were going to see the flotilla at all. We got as far as Southwark Bridge (not very far at all, but took ages due to the sheer volume of people) and after being told that most bridges were being closed off (although my official flotilla map said otherwise…), I had the brainwave to walk to Borough tube and get the Underground ‘over’ the river since going by foot looked increasingly difficult.
After riding to Bank, we then headed down to Mansion House and kept looking for viewing areas along Lower Thames Street Embankment – still to no avail. Some people had stood on flights of stairs to get literally a 10ft by 10ft view through a small gap in the buildings. I was determined I wouldn’t be that desperate to put up with a view that poor.
Finally we reached Blackfriars Bridge about 90 minutes after setting off from London Bridge. Our timing was perfect because there just happened to be a few ‘viewing spots’ left on one of the flower beds on a traffic island in front of Unilever House. Now I’m not a vandle and like to respect my city, but needs must, so myself and my group climbed onto the bed – making sure we didn’t crush the plants in the process before anyone accuses me of vandalising them! Finally we could see the Thames – albeit over a sea of heads and flags – but we had a decent wide view on the river bend and Waterloo Bridge. There was also a large TV screen erected on the actual bridge so we could see the action on the Queen’s Barge too.
It might have been raining and it was a lot of standing around waiting, but the atmosphere was amazing. It was London in all its glory – looking around I could see a true representation of London (and the other Brits visiting from out of town). There were people from different classes, races and religion all coming together to celebrate the country and our Queen. I was feeling very patriotic and wore my Union Jack flag as a cape, a style choice many had made that day. One man had gone to extra patriotic lengths and painted the Union Jack on his face – a true ‘Diamond (Jubilee) Geezer’.
Finally when the Spirit Of Chartwell reached the bridge, there was a massive audio Mexican wave of cheers and whoops. The Queen’s barge was sailing particularly close to the north bank of the river, so I ended up climbing onto a pedestrian crossing light and balancing on the button box to get a better view! The barge’s passing under Blackfriars happened to coincide with the heaviest rain since we’d been outside, but the atmosphere was so jubilant, I was past caring.
After finally seeing the Queen – albeit from a distance – and experiencing the Jubilee atmosphere, we were ready to hit home to watch the highlights from the comfort of the sofa – with a detour to a hot drinks establishment first.
Later reports estimated 1.2million had been by the river to watch the flotilla, which I could easily believe. Walking on some of the City Of London’s busiest roads, where there is usually vehicles, was a surreal experience. As dismal as the weather was, the sea of people wearing red, white and blue raised your spirits.
With the Queen being 86, its unlikely we will see her Platinum (70th) Jubilee, so I felt it was important to be a part of it and was proud to see London on the world stage – for the first of two times this year with the Olympics coming up. I was at the Thames for her Golden Jubilee, but don’t remember it being as big a spectacle as the Diamond. I’ve always associated myself more as a Londoner than a Brit or Englishwoman, but felt very proud to be British on that day.
Gallery: Floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth II in Green Park
Photographs of the tributes left by the British people and visitors at Green Park.