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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.

Unilever House overlooks the Thames embankment

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.

'Controlled Energy' by Sir William Reid Dick on Unilever House

‘Controlled Energy’ by Sir William Reid Dick looms over a side door

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.

De Keyser’s Royal Hotel circa 1900
(Postcard print from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Bridewell Palace 14 New Bridge Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Office block 14 New Bridge Street incorporates the rebuilt gatehouse

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.

A relief portrait of King Edward VI

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.

British Library via Wikimedia Commons

Bridewell Palace, 1666.
(From Old and New London, Illustrated, by Walter Thornbury)

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