Queen’s Tower 130th Anniversary

The Queen’s Tower, designed by Thomas Collcutt, celebrates 130 years since its inception. (The Imperial Institute too was conceived on this day, an anniversary no one seems to have noticed – except me!) I visited Imperial College today and certainly nothing was happening, just a day like any other 🙂

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The Imperial Institute began life 130 years today when Queen Victoria laid its first stone on 4 July 1887. This granite stone foundation can still be seen at the base of the Queen’s Tower, usually its part hidden, thus preventing many realising its full significance.

“The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria in the presence of more than 10,000 specially invited spectators. This stone was a huge block of granite from Cape Colony and it stands in a pedestal of Indian bricks. In their turn, these bricks covered a specially prepared cavity containing coins of the realm and a number of public documents.” Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

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The Queen’s Tower.

The foundation stone ceremony marked the start of the lengthy building the Imperial Institute which was finally officially opened by Queen Victoria, still uncompleted, in 1893. Because of the institute’s incompleteness, the opening ceremony had to take place in temporary accommodation!

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The Royal Ceremony – Victoria opens the Imperial Institute 10 May 1893.

Throughout its life the Imperial Institute was much maligned and many of its rooms, halls, dark places where the sun did not reach, stood empty and cold.They were simply too large to be of any real use. No-one seemed to know what it could be used for – or even what the aspirations of its many temporary occupants were. The only successful long term occupants seemed to be the birds that happily nested in the building’s lofty rafters!

“May I say, again with diffidence, that probably I am one of the very few members of this House to-day who worked in the Collcutt building thirty years ago when I was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. I will not say much of the somewhat bizarre experience of working there in the best room, twenty feet high and twenty-six feet wide, with no sunlight in it at any time. That was the room that Collcutt had provided for me.” Lord Beveridge. Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

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People sitting on the bench by the foundation stone 4 July 2017. I asked the chemistry student on the left if she knew the significance of the stone. She didnt and said the college should have rung the tower’s bells to commemorate the occasion.

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The Tower on 4 July 2017 – Everyone’s having a great time on the lawn by the farmer’s market. ‘Tower anniversary? Wassat?’

I met one of the college’s staff outside the Skempton Block and asked whether he knew that this was the anniversary of the laying of the first stone of the Institute and tower. He admitted he knew nothing and suggested I enquired at the general office inside the Skempton block.

So I went in there, three ladies, I asked the receptionist about the laying of the foundation stone exactly 130 years ago and this being an anniversary for the Queen’s Tower. The three looked at each other, puzzled then admitted nothing was known about it and most clearly there would be no sort of celebration.

Dont worry Imperial College, you missed it in the blink of an eye 🙂

“The Institute does valuable work and is unique in London…. I should say that it is as good an exhibition as one could hope to get. If there were more space, and if it were, perhaps, a little tidier, with the galleries rather nearer together, one might get a better exhibition, but I think most of us would agree that it is a good exhibition.” Lord Ogmore. Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

The Institute was at one time used as a place of learning by the University of London but was totally unsuited for that purpose. Even the Ministry of Information declined use of the Institute on 3 July 1939. It was actually very difficult to make the whole place a coherent and successful venture because the establishment debated endlessly what the buildings should be used for. In the end the powers that be decreed it just had to go and a proper university built in its place.

“I have said that I did not like the Collcutt building and did not think it could be much improved as a place in which to work. Let me just bring to your Lordships’ minds a few features of the building: first, the height of the passages and all the rest of it means that more than one-third of the total capacity is not used and is wasted. The height of the storeys—21 feet, 20 feet, 15 feet—means that the rooms cannot be subdivided. This is a gloriously solid building and it is impossible to change the floors without terrific expense, and probably not without using dynamite.” Lord Beveridge. Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

“The tower is especially admired and was recently described as one of the most beautiful of its kind in existence.” Lord Ogmore. Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

There was huge outrage at the notion anyone would demolish the institute, and poet laurate John Betjeman led the protests. The Queen’s Tower was the one thing the powers that be decided to leave alone. Even to save it, a good third of the tower had to be rebuilt as its foundations and lower section were irrevocably intertwined with those of the Institute. Take away the Institute’s foundations – and the Queen’s Tower would probably have collapsed. Thus the tower is part original and part 1960s rebuild.

“How has it come about that this building has been put up for sale without our knowing it? If, indeed, it is to be a sale, not just a ‘smash and grab’; or rather, in this case, it seems ‘grab’ first and then ‘smash.’ ” Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

It is said that retaining the Queen’s Tower was ‘an unsatisfactory compromise.’ Its meant to form the centrepiece of the present Imperial College, however a student of the new college claimed ‘as time passes, no doubt we shall come to value the incongruous phallic symbol of bygone Victoriana that Mr. Betjeman has forced into our lap.’

“I would warn the Government that the feeling in the country upon this subject is stronger than I believe they realise. The Imperial Institute is not merely a landmark in Kensington and London. Not only has it an interesting historical background, but, as Professor Hitchcock said last night when he addressed the meeting which has been mentioned, there are not many fine buildings of this period. He speaks with authority on Victorian architecture and he has written about it. He is, by the way, an American. He said that there is only one really fine building in England of this period, and that is the Imperial Institute.” Lord Meuthen. Parliament debate on the Institute, 13 March 1956.

What we see today is the original tower plus the 1966-68 rebuild of the lower quarter of the tower from the ground as far as the surrounding balcony part way up. To be honest there wasn’t even a balcony in the first place even though the doorways and cherubs were there, accessed from the upper floors of the Institute. The balcony was needed to give the aesthetics the tower needed if it was to stand alone and please the eye.

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The balcony is clearly of modern 1960s construction.

If one looks carefully at the tower, the balcony is without a doubt of recent construction. From this right down to the foundations its all 1960s stuff. Its not to say there’s no sort of architectural merit to the tower – I think it’s a lovely building in fact otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, nor standing at its base looking up, taking photographs and admiring it in greater detail. This is my third post on the tower in the short space of a few months. See here and here.

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Lamp posts rescued from the Institute’s demolition are reused at the base of the tower. These wooden panels are needed to make things look aesthetically correct as the posts were originally placed on more substantial plinths.

The fact the tower stands to this day, a melancholy of sorts from a Victorian age of vision and creativity which does seem somewhat lost in the modern context of the Imperial College. Even at this time of writing it has been acknowledged the college, despite being only 55 years old or so, is too ironically outdated for the modern needs required of it, including facilities for the latest technologies and sciences. As a result the Imperial College is now undergoing many changes plus reconstruction to try and bring it more up to date.

In terms of creativity the Imperial Institute was a place whose architecture had been taken from the pages of a fantasy book. That perhaps was the building’s very downfall. Its spaces were too stupendous to be used properly. Take the Grand Staircase for example:

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Source: Kensington & Chelsea Archives Centre – The Library Time Machine.

The Grand Staircase was the one and only such in the entire complex. It linked to every dark, sunless, corridor than ran the entire length of the building. There were no other staircases save for those that ascended the towers.

Even the Queen’s Tower has notions of Collcutt’s architectural confusion, its stairs are an unusual sweep up as far as balcony level. Instead of continuing beyond this point it then switches to a narrow cast iron spiral staircase up to the bell ringing platform. The ascent continues further as a series of wooden staircases to the upper viewing balconies. Its a sort of weird mix, as if uncertain of how it should proceed, and it somewhat epitomises what Collcutt’s Institute was all about – grandiose and unsure of its real purpose.

The following pictures are all I can find of my visit to the Queen’s Tower on 15th August 1986. Certainly I took more – including views from the top – they’re probably stacked somewhere I haven’t yet looked 🙁

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These photos show the lower part of the tower leading to the bell ringer’s floor. Despite being somewhat poor scans, they do show the flight of stairs that form the first part of the ascent and then the spiral staircase – clad within a cage to stop people falling off since there’s a mighty good drop straight down.

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The Queen’s Tower used to be open on Wednesday and Friday afternoons (if I remember rightly.) There were great views to be had from the top. One of the biggest surprises is how the Albert Memorial seems to become part of the Royal Festival Hall, as if that is actually a spire atop the hall 🙂 The lack of tall structures in this part of London also make the views so much better than from the other many vantage points in London.

There have been no public openings for many years. Major changes would be needed now if people were once again able to freely walk up the tower. The Imperial College does occasional tours under supervision and even for these there are very strict rules in terms of safety and numbers.

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