The History of Senate House

“Something that could not have been built by any earlier generation than this, and can only be at home in London.”
Sir William Beveridge, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London (1926-1928)

Sir William Beveridge had a vision for the new home of the University of London, that it “gave London at its heart not just more streets and shops, but a great architectural feature” and became known around the world. The University had previously been situated in a number of campuses around London since 1836, each of which it quickly outgrew.

To realise this vision, Beveridge convinced The Rockefeller Foundation to donate £400,000 to build a new site. A large plot of land located behind the British Museum in Bloomsbury was purchased from the Duke of Bedford’s estate.

Charles Holden, who had made his name designing London Underground stations, was commissioned to design the new building. His brief required Senate House to harmonise with the surrounding buildings, including the British Museum, UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Construction began in 1932 and the ceremonial foundation stone was laid by King George V on 26 June 1933. Holden’s Art Deco, Portland Stone-clad building stood at 210 feet high, with 19 floors and was the epitome of 1930s modernity.

The original plan consisted of a single structure stretching from Montague Place to Torrington Street, with a central corridor linked by a series of wings and courtyards – one for each federation member. The scheme was to be topped by two towers; the taller Senate House and a smaller one to the north. However, due to a lack of funds and the onset of WWII, the full design was gradually cut back, and only the Senate House and library were completed in 1937.

Senate House construction site from  1937
Senate House construction site from 1937

World War II

World War II broke out in 1939 and the University’s federation members and students were forced into exile. Senate House was taken over by the new government department, The Ministry of Information, responsible for subterfuge, censorship and propaganda during the war. The roof was transformed into an observation post for the Royal Observer Corps and the Chairman of the Court of the University, Lord MacMillan, was appointed the first Minister of Information.

While situated in Senate House, the Ministry oversaw campaigns such as the Home Publicity campaign, including the famous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster. A press room was set up in Beveridge Hall, with reporters from every London newspaper.

The third Minister for Information, Duff Cooper, reported that Bloomsbury suffered severely in the Blitz, in the autumn of 1940, writing

The Ministry of Information was hit, I think, nine times, but it was a robust modern building and remained upright.

The University Librarian at the time recorded that the Theses Room in the south wing of the tower was completely destroyed by a bomb that impacted both the sixth and seventh floors of the building.

By 1944, the institutes began to return to Senate House and students were able to take their exams in London again. In August 1945, Senate House Library was reopened to the public.

Notoriety and acknowledgement

In 1948, George Orwell wrote one of British Literature’s greatest dystopian novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and used Senate House as the inspiration for the story’s most significant landmark, the Ministry of Truth.

In 1969 the Secretary of State officially acknowledged Senate House as a building of great architectural significance and historical interest and granted it a Grade II listed heritage site.

Senate House interior of Chancellors Hall
Chancellor's Hall

A Multi-million pound makeover

The University completed a £55 million refurbishment of Senate House in 2006. The grand halls and original art deco rooms were transformed into amazing event spaces. The latest equipment and facilities were installed to bring the building into the 21st Century.

Senate Houses’ Art Deco interiors, impressive courtyard and exterior have made it a Hollywood favourite. You can spot the building in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, The Theory of Everything and Dr Who, amongst others.