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Construction of Senate House revealed in photographic archives


Photographs of the construction of Senate House have been made available, providing a glimpse into pre-war London both from street level – and above

Even if you’ve never heard of Senate House, there’s a good chance you’ll recognise this iconic art deco building at the heart of Bloomsbury as it is one of the capital’s most filmed locations. Movies to feature Senate House include Batman Begins, 1984 and No Time to Die. Its many TV appearances include The Crown, Black Mirror and Bodyguard. 

Construction of Senate House began in 1932, and was completed in 1937, and thanks to the foresight of its owners, photographs of the site were taken each fortnight, meaning every stage was captured for posterity. Now original images of the process have been made available, providing a glimpse into pre-war London both from street level – and above. Indeed, the first photograph, taken from an aeroplane or balloon in 1932, shows the Senate House “footprint.”

Incredibly, under the original plans, Senate House was to form just one part of an enormous development stretching right across Bloomsbury. However, King George V described the design as akin to a battleship, and architect Charles Holden, whose previous work included Acton Town tube station, settled on the 19-storey tower we know so well.

If it hadn’t been for Winston Churchill, Senate House might not have been built in Bloomsbury at all, as the University first rejected the offer of the Duke of Bedford’s estate to move to the site. After having a change of heart, the University sent a delegation to Churchill (then Chancellor) to ask him not to withdraw the offer. Churchill was said to be furious to be mucked about but finally relented.

By 1934, construction was underway. When levelled out Senate House would be the second highest building in London, second only to St Paul’s Cathedral, meaning deep foundations were incredibly important. The British Museum in the background provided a constant reminder that to keep up with the neighbours, Senate House would need to be equally grand.

Within three years (1937), construction was almost complete, and Senate House was recognisable as the building that is so famous today – albeit covered with scary-looking scaffolding. The space that now hosts steps@senatehouse contained worker’s huts and the front was concealed by billboards, on one of which you can see the famous Guinness advert.

The final image was taken from the top of the 210 feet (64m) tower in 1938 – the calm before the storm. The following year saw the start of World War II and London was subject to aerial bombardment during the Blitz. Fortunately, as with St Pauls (clearly visible in the distance), Senate House was left relatively unscathed. However, rumours that this was because Hitler chose the building to become his London HQ after the war are completely unfounded!