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The History Of Senate House

27th October 2015
Looking up at Senate House

As all great stories should, the history of Senate House is one that always arouses passion, and sometimes, controversy. There is perhaps no other building in the city that is a better reflection of the times and culture in which it was built.

At 210ft high Senate House was London’s first skyscraper and one of the most beautiful, distinctive and formidable buildings of the 1930s.

This is its history...

Where IS the University of London?

One morning in 1919 Sir William Beveridge gets into a taxi and asks to be taken to the University. The cab driver looks back at him blankly. 

In 1919, the University is obscured and overlooked, and the building is so unremarkable you can only read the sign on the building in ‘good light’.

But soon, every cabbie, every Londoner and most of the world would know the exact location of Senate House.

ORIGINS

A Man With A Vision

Spurred on by the incident in the taxi, Sir William Beveridge is determined to make sure the University is known around the world. He convinces the Rockefeller Foundation to donate £400,000 to the building of a new site.

He has big aspirations for the University as center of learning for the world and grand plans for the new headquarters too. Wanting “to give London at its heart not just more streets and shops…but a great architectural feature”

A sketch of Charles Holden's original plans for Senate House

Holden’s first sketch of the new Senate House RIBA Journal 9 May 1938

Big Plans Are Made

After making a name for himself with the London Underground stations, Charles Holden is appointed as the University’s official architect in February 1931. Designing Senate House is to be his life’s work.

A City Giant Is Born

In June 1933 King George V lays the foundation stone for Senate House.

Unexpected Tragedy

28th November 1936, a skip accidently falls and hits a group of University officials. The Principal, Sir Edwin Deller dies of his injuries two days later in hospital. It is said that his ghost has haunted the lift in the tower ever since.

A Painting of Senate House in 1943

The University of London 1943, by Sir Henry Rushbury RA, presented to Lord Macmillan. Private collection.

The Most Famous Building In All Of England

In 1937 building work on Senate House and the library is completed. The site loses its scaffolding and the University staff move in.

From its radically unadorned Portland Stone-clad exterior to its classical interiors and it’s innovative use of electricity the building is celebrated as the epitome of 1930s modernity.

Sir William Beveridge, describes it as ‘something that could not have been built by any earlier generation than this, and can only be at home in London.’ And Lord Macmillan (First Chairman of the University) says ‘Future generations will pronounce it to be one of the finest examples of 20th century architecture.’

DEVELOPMENT

The Main Press Office of the Ministry of Information in Beveridge Hall

Beveridge Hall became the main press office for the Ministry of Information. From the Henry Heydmann collection: University of London Collection ULC/PC.6/14.

Senate House Goes to War

In 1939, Europe is at war, and the University’s Colleges and students are forced into exile. Senate House is taken over by the Ministry of Information – a controversial Government department responsible for subterfuge, censorship and propaganda during the war.

Senate House Library Suffered Significant damage during the war

Damage to the library following the ‘Blitz’ 7-8th November 1940. University of London Library archive UL12/45

Surviving The Blitz

On the night of 7th November 1940 Senate House withstands five brutal attacks from Nazi bombs dropped during the Blitz. Remarkably not a single soul inside was harmed and the defiant building proudly remains upright.

Later, Duff Cooper’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Harold Nicolson describes the night of 7-8th November in a letter to his wife:

‘…So I sat drafting away as if I were back in the Foreign Office twenty years ago. Then I got to bed and cured up on my rubber mattresses and went fast asleep. Splaaassh! Craash! Tinkle! Tinkle! Oh I was no longer in my bed but on the floor. Charles Peake burst in, “Are you alright, Harold?” “Yes”, I said. “We’ve had another direct hit: a bad one this time”  Well, up I got,…The passage outside was filled with a red fog which was just dust. There were air-raid wardens rushing about in steel helmets. And would you believe it? We really had been struck on the boko by the Luftwaffe…A bomb had hit us on the shoulder. It had broken through one floor and exploded on the floor below. It had done in the University library. Our windows on the courtyard side had been twisted out into shreds. The courtyard is full of masonry. But not a single soul even scratched. It was all great fun…’

Harold Nicolson’s Diaries vol.2 (1967)

An Unwelcome Urban Legend

During the war a rumour spreads in London that Hitler admires the beauty of Senate House so much he plans to have the building as his British headquarters if he wins the war. 

The Return To Education

By 1944, University Colleges begin to return to Senate House and students are able to take their exams in the capitol city again. By August the following year the library is reopened to the public. Over the next few decades the number of students doubled and the University’s library continued to build its reputation as one of the finest in the world.

Immortalized In Literature

In 1948 George Orwell pens British literature’s greatest dystopian novel Nineteen Eight Four and uses Senate House as the inspiration as the story’s most significant landmark, the Ministry of Truth.

Senate House on a clear day

An Architectural Gem

In 1969 the Secretary of State officially acknowledges Senate House as a building of great architectural significance and historical interest. It becomes a Grade II* listed heritage site.

REBIRTH

Hollywood Comes Knocking

Senate House’s art deco interiors, impressive courtyard and exterior make it a Hollywood favourite. After Tony Scott’s The Hunger in 1983 it becomes a regular star on the silver screen and television. You can spot the building in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, The Theory Of Everything and Dr Who.

A view from inside Senate House

A Multi-Million £££ Makeover

The University completes a £55 million refurbishment of Senate House in 2006. Transforming the grand halls and original Art Deco rooms into amazing event spaces and installing the latest equipment and facilities to bring the building into 21st century.

Today, Senate House is a destination venue for everyone from business professionals to newly-weds around the world. Hosting some of the biggest events in London as well as intimate meetings and glamorous parties.

Join The Legacy

Walk through the entrance of Senate House and feel the waves of history wash over you. Senate House is London in World War II, it is Gotham City and much much more. If you wish to discover this unique power, enquire about hiring Senate House for an event today.

Posted by
Charlie Vernon
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