The building of Senate House

The building of Senate House was a seminal event in the history of the University of London and hugely significant in terms of Bloomsbury and, indeed, London. When completed, Senate House was the tallest secular building in the capital, slightly shorter than St. Paul’s cathedral. Up until that the point, the University had led a nomadic existence. The University was initially based in some rooms in Somerset House, before moving to Burlington House and then the Imperial Institute. The choice of the architect, Charles Holden, was made after William Beveridge, the Director of the London School of Economics, and Edwin Deller, the Principal of the University of London, toured the country to see buildings. Four architects were then invited to the Athenaeum to discuss the project. Holden, whose previous buildings included Acton Town tube station, emerged as the winner from this process.  

A building site during the construction of Senate House
Laying the foundations of the Senate House building

The University of London archive includes the contracts for the Senate House building. Amongst these is contract no.2, “The Superstructure of the Senate House Block”, which dates from 1934. The contract is extremely detailed, running to over 300 pages (excluding the plans, which comprise the other half of the volume). This huge volume therefore includes a wealth of detail about the building. Lists of allocated space for each floor give us a detailed idea of how the University functioned, but also emphasise how much things have changed since 1934. For example, there were abrupt distinctions between the sexes in terms of provision for male and female employees. On the third floor there were “women’s lockers” and a “waitresses’ changing room”. There was also a women-only common room for the administrative staff.  

The Senate House tower being built
The Senate House tower begins to take shape

The index to the contract comprises nearly ten pages, covering everything from “anti-syphonage” pipes to bronze counter grilles. Nothing was left to chance in terms of the specifications of the building. There were 447 clauses in the agreement, the first of which stipulated that the “materials throughout to be supplied wholly from and manufactured entirely within the British Empire”. These materials were to be of the finest quality: the timber had to be “of the best quality…obtainable” and “free from all saps, shakes, large, loose and dead knots”. The cost of each component of the construction process was calculated in minute detail: labour costs “to groove for turn in of asphalte (sic), skirting and point in cement” amounted to £71 8s 6d, for instance.  “Metal windows, fanlights, borrowed lights and doors delivered glazed and fixed complete”, on the other hand, set the University back the sum of £14,000. The total cost of the contract was £362,579. The equivalent in today’s money would be £23.5 million.

Holden’s original plan envisaged a huge building, which would have stretched as far north as the modern day Student Central. Financial pressures forced these plans to be scaled back in 1937. Tragedy had already struck, however, when Edwin Deller, who was showing visitors around the site, was hit by builder’s truck. He died shortly afterwards. Deller’s influence on the University in this era was profound and his calm, incisive leadership was much missed. He is commemorated by the Deller Hall on the lower ground floor. Senate House was in use as an administrative building by 1936, although the University was soon forced to vacate the premises by the outbreak of the Second World War. Instead Holden’s masterpiece became the headquarters of the Ministry of Information. This period in the building’s history has been celebrated in poetry and prose ever since.

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