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
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.
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
The history behind Horace Walpole’s unique 18th century home.
Without a doubt, Strawberry Hill is one of the most unique houses in the capital. I was first introduced to it when I saw an Instagram photo of the building’s stunning Gallery and wanted to find out more. Built as a private home, it stands in Twickenham, south-west London, a short walk from the Thames and is now open to the public as a museum.
Strawberry Hill was built in stages from 1749 to 1776 as a home for Horace Walpole (1717-1797), a politician and the son of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Horace was under pressure to find himself a country seat (18th century Twickenham was countryside) and found one of the last sites available in the very fashionable area. The original house on the site was called Chopp’d Straw Hall, which Horace wasn’t too impressed with and renamed his new build Strawberry Hill after finding the name on an old lease.
Work on the house started in 1749 with Horace conceiving a vision of a Gothic castle. His inspiration from Medieval architecture predated the Victorian architectural fashion for Gothic revival many decades later. Horace and his team of amateur architectures looked at the Henry VII chapel and tombs at Westminster Abbey, as well as tombs from Canterbury Cathedral for ideas. The resulting building looks like a cross between castles and Gothic cathedrals. The first stage of construction was complete by 1753, with a second stage of alterations taking place in 1760, a third in 1772, with work finally being completed in 1776, costing £20,720 – a rather hefty sum in the 18th century. Read the rest of this entry
Like many Londoners, and visitors to the capital too I’m sure, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and train station is one of my favourite buildings in the capital. Designed by Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, the Gothic Revival masterpiece was originally opened in 1873 as the Midland Grand Hotel. Although impressive when it first opened with its grand staircase, fireplaces in every room and striking architectural features, decades later it started falling out of favour due to the lack of ensuite bedrooms and closed to guests in 1935. After 76 years as railway offices, the building was finally restored to its original intended use and opened as the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in 2011.
Given how long I have loved the building, I’m surprised I haven’t visited one of the restaurants or bars inside the hotel sooner. So when I was eyeing possible venues for afternoon tea for my birthday last week, I was thrilled to see The Gilbert Scott featured it on their menu. Booking the afternoon tea option through their website, I opted for a 2pm slot on a Friday. We entered through the main St Pancras Renaissance Hotel entrance so walked through some of the stone Neo-Gothic arched doorways, passing by the red and gold leaf Medieval-style wallpapers and, the pièce de résistance, the grand staircase.
We were seated inside The Gilbert Scott bar – next to the adjoining restaurant of the same name. We entered from a hotel hallway through twin arches featuring golf leaf detailing and polished limestone columns. The bar was absolutely stunning, with equilateral arch windows letting in lots of light through its three exterior walls. On the ceiling was ornate, tapestry-like patterns of predominantly red, blue and green, with huge bells hanging from the ceiling as chandeliers. The bar used to the ‘coffee room’ in the former Midland Grand Hotel.
Seated at our table, we were greeted by an attentive and friendly waiter. After being presented with the menu, there are various afternoon tea options – the standard at £25 or with a glass of Moët & Chandon champagne for an extra £8 – which we opted for as we were celebrating my birthday. Alternatively, there is also a Ruinart afternoon tea with a glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV for £36.00.
We started with a flute of Moët each before we were presented with our three-tier cake stand. A selection of savoury treats – cucumber rolls, sausage rolls, egg mayonnaise and coronation chicken sandwiches on the lower tier. The middle featured a selection of mini desserts – Eton Mess, lemon cupcakes, Eccles cakes and praline mousse. Then finally on the top-tier were quite possibly two of the biggest scones – handmade of course – I have ever seen in my life with clotted cream and jam. The food was all delicious and despite forfeiting lunch or a decent sized breakfast, my sister and I struggled to finish all our food. We had the options of refilling the savoury platter, but honestly couldn’t eat any more. After finishing our bubbly, we were served individual pots of tea. As an extra, surprise treat, I was presented with two chef-made chocolate truffles with ‘happy birthday’ written in chocolate sauce and a candle, which was a lovely thought by the waiter.
Overall, the whole experience was brilliant. The service was attentive and friendly, the food was delicious and incredibly filling – the mini desserts were a lovely alternative to the usual afternoon tea experience. Finally, the striking setting – along with the opportunity to check out some of the hotel’s halls and staircase – completed a perfect afternoon. I would highly recommend booking an afternoon tea at The Gilbert Scott. I can’t wait to come back and try the menu at the restaurant next door.
- The Gilbert Scott, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, NW1 2AR. Afternoon tea is served between 12-4pm. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras. For more information and bookings, visit The Gilbert Scott website.
To read Metro Girl’s other restaurant and pub reviews, click here for the contents page.
For another Metro Girl blog posts on a George Gilbert Scott creation, read about the Albert Memorial, or his grandson Giles Gilbert Scott’s creations Battersea Power Station or the red London phonebox
A monument to the abolition of slavery.
Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge to gaze upon Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. However, the pedestrian traffic flowing to the west of the iconic building shrinks considerably in comparison to the east. With the Elizabeth Tower containing Big Ben (actually the name of the bell, not the actual clock and tower as is often believed) being the main draw, the Victoria Tower and its adjacent eponymous gardens often get ignored.
Victoria Tower Gardens is a small area to the west of the Houses Of Parliament containing greenery, memorials and a good view of the River Thames. Having rode on a bus past the Gardens many times over the years, I have often found my eyes drawn to the Buxton Memorial Foundation in the gardens. After decades of not seeing it up close or knowing what it was about, in recent years I finally started walking through the Gardens and checked out the fountain up close.
Although the fountain is mid-19th century, it has only been in Victoria Tower Gardens since 1957 when it was relocated from nearby Parliament Square following a redesign. The colourful and ornate monument is to commemorate one of Westminster’s most important laws – the emancipation of slaves following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Although Parliament had passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, making slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire, some still held slaves that were traded before the act. The 1833 Act went a step further and gave all existing slaves emancipation.
It wasn’t until another 33 years later that the lawmakers and campaigners involved in making the 1833 act happen were commemorated for their efforts. MP Charles Buxton funded the fountain and dedicated it to his late father, the abolitionist and MP Sir Thomas Buxton, along with William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry Brougham and Stephen Lushington. Charles commissioned London architect Samuel Sanders Teulon to create the fountain in his Gothic revival style for the price of £1,200.
The fountain is covered with a timber-framed spire and clad in enamelled sheet steel. The entire structure is made with a wide range of materials, including limestone, grey and red sandstone, wrought iron, rosso marble enamelled metalwork, grey and pink granite, mosaic and terracotta. Originally unveiled in Parliament Square in 1865 – coincidentally the same year the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, abolishing slavery.
The ornate memorial commemorating the end of a horrific part of human history remained in Parliament Square until 1949 when the area was given a post-war makeover. It was finally reinstated in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1957. However, by 1971 all eight of the decorative figures of British rulers, including Queen Victoria and William the Conqueror, on the pinnacles had been stolen. These were replaced with fibreglass ones in 1980. Over the years, the fountain fell into disrepair until it was restored in 2006-2007 – just in time for the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act.
Along with the Buxton Memorial Fountain, there is also a monument to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and a reproduction of the sculpture The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. There is also a children’s play park, which is currently closed for refurbishment.
- Victoria Tower Gardens is accessed from Abingdon Street/Millbank on the north bank of the River Thames. Nearest station: Westminster.
To read Metro Girl’s blog on the memorial to Emmeline Pankhurt in Victoria Tower Gardens, click here.
Or to find out the history of nearby Parliament Square, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.