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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Cattle used to graze in these central London parks in the 18th and 19th century.
Today, the neighbouring St James’s and Green Park are small pockets of green in the centre of bustling Westminster. Dwarfed in comparison to other royal parks, the pair are a popular cut-through for tourists going between Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace. Standing in either park in the 21st century, you would be hard pressed to imagine of them covered in grazing cows. However, as little as 115 years ago, cows in the park were used to provide fresh milk for Londoners.
St James’s Park is the oldest of the two and was the first royal park in London. Originally set out as a deer park by King Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1532, it was later landscaped by King James I of England (1566-1625). Meanwhile, Green Park originally started life as Upper St James’s Park when the land was surrendered to King Charles II (1630-1685) in 1668, who was also restoring nearby St James’s Palace. By 1746, the park was renamed The Green Park. Queen’s Walk, a pathway along the eastern fringes of the park (leading from Piccadilly to The Mall), was laid out by King George II (1683-1760) for his wife, Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737). Walking down Queen’s Walk, you may notice a small alley off to the east, in between Lancaster House and Stornoway House. Named Milkmaids’ Passage and leading to the Stable Yard of St James’s Palace, the small lane gives a clue to the park’s former life.
Up until the Georgian housing boom, the western fringes of the capital were incredibly rural, covered in fields and dotted with farms. As the London population grew throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th century, so did the number of dairies in the city. In an era before mass transport could bring in milk from the countryside, cows were required to live in and by the city so Londoners could access the calcium-rich drink. Two of these nearby rural-esque areas were St James’s and Green Park, which had grazing cows, accompanied by milkmaids to milk them. As early as 1710, buying milk from the cows at the ‘Lactarian’ in St James’s Park was documented by German traveller Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1734). The main area for buying milk was the Whitehall end of St James’s Park. Milkmaids paid half a crown a week for the right to feed and milk the cattle, rising to three shilling a week in 1772. Generally, the milkmaids tended to be servants of cow-keepers and were given permission to trade in the park by the Home Secretary. The cows would be driven twice a day – at noon and in the evening – towards the Whitehall corner of St James’s, where they would tied up and milked for a penny for a mug. Many of the customers were parents or nannies, buying milk for babies and children, as well as the sick, who had been recommended to get a calcium boost (see this 1790 print of a milkmaid in the park from the V&A collection). Some adults ordered a ‘Syllabub’, milk mixed with wine, sugar and spice. By 1794, the Board of Agriculture estimated there were 8,500 cows being milked in London. This 1801 painting by American artist Benjamin West (1738-1820) gives an idyllic depiction of milkmaid life in St James’s Park.
Between the 17th and 19th century, a host of new roads and large houses were built in the district of St James, which is now a conservation area. Lancaster House (previously known as York House and Stafford House) was completed in 1840, with its neighbour Bridgewater House (now known as Stornoway) following in 1872. With a Portland stone wall separating it from Lancaster House and old paving stones, Milkmaids’ Passage likely dates back to the 18th or 19th century. While not dated exactly, it is recognised as one of the surviving alleys or lanes which are “an integral part of the historic fabric of the area” by Westminster Council. The passage would have provided the perfect access for maids to carry fresh milk from the park’s cows to the dairy of St James’s Palace and the other aristocratic homes of the district. 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
On an ‘island’ in the side streets of Westminster stands an old remainder of a Georgian poor school. Although the pupils have long moved on, the listed building is now home to an upmarket bridal boutique. At the junction of Buckingham Gate and Caxton Street is a 17th century schoolhouse building. Blewcoat School was originally founded in Duck Lane (now known as St Matthew Street) in Tothill Fields, slightly south of its present site, in 1688. It was established as a charity school to educate 50 impoverished boys from the parish of St Margaret’s and St John. Pupils wore a uniform of long blue coats and yellow stockings, the colour blue being associated with charity at the time.
In 1709, local brewer William Greene (d.1732) leased some land from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to build a permanent building for the school. Greene and his brothers had inherited a lot of land in the areas of Chelsea, Kensington and Westminster from their brewer father John. The family had owned the Stag Brewery at Tothill Fields since 1641 and it was rebuilt and enlarged in 1715 by William. In the 19th century, the brewery was taken over by Watney, with the Westminster site eventually closing in 1959. Today, there’s a nod to the former brewery with a road by the school being named Brewer’s Green. William Greene built a school and schoolmaster’s house on Caxton Street, with many of the pupils being sons of his brewery workers. The timing to move locations was good as Duck Lane was swiftly going downhill, with the area dubbed Devil’s Acre by Charles Dickens. Devil’s Acre had become one of the capital’s most notorious slums in the mid 18th century, renowned for its stench, dire sanitation standards, and cheap, dark dwellings.
Although there is no record of the architect, there has been speculation it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). The two-storey building was built of brown brick with two tiers of windows on every side. The main entrance on Caxton Street features a Doric porch with a statue of a Blewcoat pupil in the famous blue coat above the door. The interiors feature pilasters, coving, Corinthian columns and fireplaces.
Now established in Caxton Street, the Blewcoat School pupils spent their days learning to read and write and about religion and trades. The school paid for the education of 20 boys for free, alongside fee-paying boys. Around four-five years after the move to Caxton Street, the school started admitting girls, who were also taught needlework and household chores. In 1842, records showed there were 86 poor children enrolled (52 boys and 34 girls). The school educated generations of boys and girls until 1876 when it ceased hosting female pupils. In 1899, the governors obtained an order to close the school and give the land and the buildings to the Vestry of St Margaret’s and St John. The Blewcoat moved premises to another site, with the original building being used for the Infants’ Department of the Christchurch School. The building ceased educating children in 1926.
During World War II, the Blewcoat School building was used by US services as a store. In peacetime, it was utilised for a spell by the Girl Guides. In 1954, the building was Grade I listed by Historic England and bought by the National Trust. The NT used the school as a membership and head office, later being converted into a gift shop. In 2013, fashion designer Ian Stuart gained permission to refurbish the interior and use the building as a boutique for bridal gowns and evening wear. It was opened the following year, and Stuart remains in business today. You may have seen him and the school building in the Channel 4 show The Posh Frock Shop.
- Ian Stewart – Blewcoat, 23 Caxton Street, Westminster, SW1H 0PY. Nearest stations: St James’s Park or Victoria.
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If you’re interested in London history, architecture or its transport network, then check out a Hidden London tour from the London Transport Museum. Run for limited periods, I’ve previously visited the disused Aldywch tube station and the former World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station and found them fascinating. Although the Hidden London group offers visits to other disused platforms and tube stations, my last booking with them saw me remaining above ground. The tour lasts 90 minutes and covered many of the 14 floors of the building.
55 Broadway in St James was London’s first skyscraper because of the way it was built. Standing tall at 53 metres (175ft), the Grade I listed office block is an impressive piece of art deco architecture in Portland stone. The structure was originally built in 1927-1929 to a design by English architect Charles Holden (1875-1960). As well as 55 Broadway, Holden was also responsible for the University of London’s Senate House, Bristol Central Library and many tube stations, such as Acton Town, Balham, Clapham Common and Leicester Square, among others. 55 Broadway was briefly the tallest office block in London, before it was surpassed by Holden’s Senate House in the mid 1930s. It was originally constructed as the headquarters for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited (UERL), on top of St James’s tube station.
In centuries gone by, hundreds of roads in the capital used to be pedestrian only. When the car wasn’t even a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye and not everyone owned a horse, walking was the dominant form of transport. In the past 100 years, war and technological advances (e.g. the motor car) have caused many of these alleys and other pedestrianised lanes and roads to be destroyed or built upon. However, one such road has managed to remain throughout history and is a charming little passage in the bustling West End.
Cecil Court is a 300ft long street linking Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane. While today is it known as Booksellers’ Row, it has a long and varied history dating back to the 17th century. The land encompassing Cecil Court and the surrounding streets were bought by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612) in 1609. He served as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot. He built the family seat, Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire in 1611. The Jacobean mansion continues to be the home for the Cecil family and the current Marquess of Salisbury, who still owns a lot of the land around Cecil Court. The first Earl of Salisbury bought four acres on the west side of St Martin’s Lane, from Newport Street to the south-west corner of the lane. It didn’t take long before the Earl built houses there to lease out. Cecil Court is believed to have been laid out in the 1670s by one of his descendants.
By the 18th century, Cecil Court housed some pretty unsavoury characters with residents appearing in court for various crimes. One particular character was an Irish, Catholic woman, Mrs Elizabeth Calloway, who ran a brandy shop and alleged brothel in Cecil Court. In early 1735, she had taken out a £150 fire insurance policy with the Royal Exchange Assurance. One night in June 1735, she bought kindling, emptied her brandy barrels and was drinking locally with friends when a fire broke out at her shop. The blaze spread quickly and damaged 16 houses in neighbouring St Martin’s Court and four in Cecil Court. Mrs Calloway was charged with arson, but was later acquitted because she appeared to have genuine reasons for insuring her property. She testified at the Old Bailey: “The cook’s shop joining to mine, the wainscot of my closet was often so very hot that I was afraid it would some time or other be set on fire and for that reason I insured my house.” Witnesses also testified that Mrs Calloway was often concerned her drunken lodgers could set the house on fire with their candles. The fire inadvertently resulted in the death of local resident Anne Hogarth, the mother of famous satirical artist William Hogarth, who lived in nearby Cranbourn Alley. Her cause of death was deemed to be ‘shock’ from the fire.
Cecil Court quickly recovered with new properties being erected on-site. In 1764, a young child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and his family lodged with barber John Couzin at 9 Cecil Court. Tickets for Mozart’s first London concerts were sold at Couzin’s shop. During his time there, the eight-year-old composer played twice for King George III. In 2011, a plaque was unveiled at the site to commemorate Mozart’s time in the capital. Read the rest of this entry
The history of the 14th century tower opposite the Houses of Parliament.
When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.
Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.
The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.
For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.
By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use. Read the rest of this entry
Now I don’t like to make assumptions about my readers, but I reckon I could make a fairly good guess that most of you haven’t visited No.10 Downing Street. Located behind iron gates and a wall of police, it’s one of the most heavily guarded addresses in the United Kingdom. It’s pretty unlikely that many of us will get close to the iconic address.
However, during a quiet side street off the Strand is a building that is a bit of a doppelgänger to the Prime Minister’s residence. Walking past No.10 Adam Street you could be forgiven for looking twice. The entrance to the Georgian building features a familiar black door. Both have the fan window above the door, white stucco frame and a brass door knob. While Downing Street has a black lion door knocker, Adam Street has a simple brass one.
No.10 Adam Street was designed by architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) – part of the Adam architectural dynasty. The surrounding area is known as Adelphi – named after the former Adelphi Terrace which was built between 1768-1792 and designed by Robert, James and William Adam. The Adelphi was London’s first neoclassical building and featured 11 large houses and a vaulted terrace with fine views over the Thames.
Although the Adelphi Terrace was demolished in the 1930s, the name lives on with the nearby Adelphi Theatre and the new Adelphi building, a striking Art Deco creation. The surrounding roads – Adam Street, John Adam Street and Robert Street – are named after the architects.
- 10 Adam Street, Westminster, WC2N 6AA. Nearest station: Charing Cross, Embankment or Temple.
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The history of a Medieval remnant of the old Palace of Westminster.
Whatever your taste in architecture, few Brits would deny the Palace Of Westminster is one of our greatest architectural treasures. While the current buildings mostly date back to the mid 1800s during Sir Charles Barry‘s reconstruction, the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, has been there since Medieval times. There has been a palace on the site since the 11th century, although the royals have chosen other properties as their main residences from around the 16th century.
The Hall was first built in 1097 under King William II (1056-1100) and was the biggest hall in England, measuring 73 by 20 metres. However, the stunning hammer-beam roof you see today wasn’t added until 1393. Commissioned by King Richard II (1367-1400) in 1393, it was created by Chief Mason Henry Yevele and carpenter Hugh Herland. The roof is made of oak farmed in Surrey and weighs an impressive 600 tons. Aside from its practical use, the roof also featured decorative angels, with 13 statues of kings dating from Richard back to Edward The Confessor placed in niches along the walls. Six years later, it was under the very roof he commissioned that King Richard was deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, who went on to become King Henry IV (1367-1413). The deposition went on to be immortalised in Act IV of Shakespeare’s play Richard II. King Richard later died in prison.
Over the centuries, the Hall was primarily used for early Parliament, legal matters and court cases, with Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery based there. The 1875, these courts merged to become the High Court of Justice and met at the Hall until moving to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882. Notable historical figures to have undergone trial in Westminster Hall included King Charles I, William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Thomas More. The building has also hosted the lyings-in-state for members of the royal family, such as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002, but also a few notable state figures such as Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
However, the Hall wasn’t just the location for serious functions, many monarchs’ coronation banquets took place between the 12th and 19th century. Addresses during the monarch’s jubilees and during foreign leader’s visits, such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, have also been heard within the Hall.
By the early 19th century, the ageing Hall wasn’t looking too great so architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) oversaw the dilapidated north façade being completely rebuilt between 1819-1822. Over a decade later, there was more work needed to maintain the crumbling building under Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867), who replaced the wall facings with a layer of Huddlestone stone and lowered the floor between 1834-1837. During the building works in October 1834, a fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster’s House of Lords Chamber due to an overheated stove. A majority of the 11th century palace complex was destroyed, but the Hall was fortunately saved thanks to a change of direction in the wind and fire-fighting efforts.
After much discussion, a Royal Commission settled on Sir Charles Barry’s (1795-1860) Neo-Gothic design in 1836. The designs incorporated Westminster Hall, with the Palace eventually completed in 1870 – 10 years after Barry died. Under his plans, the grand south window was removed and was replaced by an arch and stairs to St Stephen’s Hall, which remain today. Between 1914-23, the roof was in dire need of repair after the discovery of damage by death-watch beetle, with many trusses replaced and the structure strengthened by hidden steelwork.
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The history of the small cottage in one of London’s Royal Parks.
Entering St James’s Park from the Whitehall side, it’s likely you will have come across Duck Island Cottage. Situated on the eastern end of the park’s lake stands a 19th century cottage – quite a contrast with the nearby neo-classical, imposing grey stone government buildings and Buckingham Palace. Situated by the lakeside with a small stream running under a bridge linking the cottage’s two sections, it also includes a sweet little garden. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Mr McGregor’s garden in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales.
As part a chain of royal parks (which are separated by roads), St James’s Park stands out from the others because of its birdlife. Established in 1603 under King James I (1566-1625), the park was named after a women’s leper hospital dedicated to St James the Less. After being landscaped, the park became home to exotic animals, including camels, crocodiles and an elephant! It wasn’t until 1664, the famous pelicans arrived as a gift by the Russian ambassador, and they still remain today. At the time, a long canal ran nearly the length of the whole park, with a duck decoy in the south-east corner to capture ducks for the royal dining table. The island in the middle of the decoy was given the name Duck Island, which was entrusted to the appointed Governor of Duck Island to oversee. The first cottage on the site wasn’t built until King William III’s (1650-1702) reign in the late 17th century, initially as a tea house. By the 18th century, Duck Island was removed due to the stench of stagnant ponds and replaced by grass.
Over the centuries, the park was re-landscaped many times, with the body of water changing shape between a stream, channels, smaller ponds and now the lake as we see today. The landscape of the park today is mostly down to the Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who remodelled the straight canal of water into a more natural looking curved lake in the late 1820s. He also reintroduced Duck Island, which had been missing for several decades at this point. With new trees and shrubs surrounding the cottage, birdlife returned to the park.
In 1837, the Ornithological Society of London was founded with the aim to protect the birds and three years later, work started on plans for a cottage to house a bird keeper. Architect John Burges Watson (1803-1881) designed the cottage comprising of two buildings – a dwelling for the bird keeper and a clubroom for the Society – which were completed in April 1841. The two buildings were connected by a small covered bridge, offering views across the lake and garden. The romantic design appears to be Swiss inspired and wouldn’t look out of place in the countryside. (See a 1844 sketch of the cottage on the London Metropolitan Archives).
From 1900 to 1953, Duck Island Cottage was home to bird keeper Thomas Hinton. The cottage was damaged during the Blitz in 1940 and by 1953, following Hinton’s death, the cottage was abandoned after it was considered unfit for habitation. Today, the cottage features water treatment facilities and pumps for the lake and fountain, while the garden is maintained by the Royal Parks. Duck Island is a nature reserve as a sanctuary and breeding ground for the park’s birds, including herons, mute swans and eastern or great white pelicans. If you want to see the pelicans being fed, head to the grassy bank adjacent to the cottage between 2.30pm-3pm every day.
- Duck Island Cottage, St James’s Park, Westminster, SW1A 2BJ. Nearest stations: Westminster or St James’s Park. Park is open daily from 5am-midnight. For more information, visit the Royal Parks website.
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