Queen of Hell

Quite why at the age of 70 Elizabeth Gibbons decided to build an enormous house on the north side of Portman Square when she had a second home opposite remains a mystery.

She could certainly afford the luxury of two London houses. Having inherited her father’s Jamaican plantations as his sole surviving child, then to marry one of the Island’s richest men at the age of 16 to become a widow
13 years later.

[N]ine years after her first husband’s death on Christmas Day 1742 she remarried William the Eighth Earl of Home (pronounced Hume). Within eight weeks he left her to pursue men of a similar persuasion and his military career with the Dragoon Guards, later to die in Gibraltar in 1761.

With her inherited wealth from the Jamaican estates and the title of Countess of Home, she lived in a large house on the south side of Portman Square. Described as ’flamboyant, eccentric, given to swearing like a trooper’ with her gambling and drinking she was well known to the Irish chairmen.

These were the predecessors of today’s modern cabbies and were themselves a pretty rough bunch but, even they gave the moniker of ’Queen of Hell’.

She didn’t restrict her rough demeanour to the poor working classes, for she had engaged 26-year-old James Wyatt to design for her a large house on the north side of Portman Square.

Soon they fell out and she replaced Wyatt with his great rival Robert Adams to finish the job.

He produced one of London’s finest houses designed, it was said, to hang two very large full height portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland painted by Gainsborough – they now reside within the Royal Collection.

Home House stairs In Home House Adam produced a series of grand reception rooms leading to the Imperial Staircase which rises through the entire height of the house to a glass dome.

Built at the time when the abolitionist movement to the sugar industry and the slavery needed to produce it was on the rise amongst London intellectuals.

Her neighbour Elizabeth Montagu would hold abolitionist tea parties for up to 700 guests designed to raise the public’s awareness of how their daily sweet fix had been grown – ’As he sweetens his tea, let him consider the bitterness at the bottom of the cup’.

Home House might have been built on the proceeds of slavery but the Queen of Hell has given London one of its finest houses.

The house has recently been restored, having for some years housed the Courtauld Institute, and is now an exclusive Club.

Romancing the Stone

In a few months time the Scots go to the polls to decide if they wish to break with England. Should they make this historic break we can only hope the split is amicable and they let us borrow a chunk of coarse-grained red sandstone to enable us to crown our next Monarch. To be fair the Stone of Destiny was originally theirs kept for safe keeping at Scone Abbey until in 1296 King Edward I stole it and brought it back to England.

[D]ifferent theories of its provenance existed. Was it Pharaoh’s Stone a sacred relic of the Egyptians, or the Tanist Stone, one of the four great treasures used in the coronation of Irish kings?

Far from looking like the touchstone of Scottish nationhood, this lump of stone with iron rings at each end bears an uncanny resemblance to the cover of an ancient cess-pit.

Installed in Westminster Abbey ensconced in an oak throne – King Edward’s Chair – some 30 Royal posteriors have sat upon it for their respective coronations.

For centuries the Scots gave up on having their own Monarch or self-rule and in theory had no need for the Stone of Destiny. But on Christmas Day 1950 a gang of burglars set off from Edinburgh to recapture their national symbol and pride, George Clooney in Ocean’s 11 it was not.

After crow barring their way into Westminster Abbey and forcing the Stone from its resting place they then dropped all 150kg of it and broke the Stone in two.

With the stone out of the building, the ringleader discovered he’d lost his car keys so had to break back into the dark Abbey to hunt for them. By the time he returned, his accomplices and half the stone were nowhere to be seen. Driving off, he found them lugging the lump down a nearby street.

After lying low for a while, despite police roadblocks across the border, the gang smuggled the stone into Scotland. Then on 11th April 1950 draped in a blue and white Saltire it was left it at the ruined Arbroath Abbey. The choice of location was deliberate for it was here that the famous Declaration of Arbroath had been signed in 1320. In it the lords, commons and clergy of Scotland reaffirmed the right of the Scots to live in freedom.

Once the Stone had been found the Scots claimed that the recovered stone was indeed a fake copy made of the original possible fake, or indeed a medieval toilet seat. The damaged stone had been taken to a Glasgow stonemason for repair. Were copies made? To this day one acknowledged copy is on public display at Scone Palace.

For 40 years we retained this symbol of self-rule until 1996 the Stone of Destiny was returned to North of the Border and installed in Edinburgh Castle.

As part of the agreement the Stone – or the toilet seat lid – will be returned on loan to Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of the next British monarch. Or will an independent Nation keep a promise made when they were part of the Union, or will they wish to crown the first king of Scotland for over 300 years?

London has no edges

For a building built 50 years ago the BT Tower looks remarkably modern, entering the generous foyer it could be any number of offices that proliferate in this corner of Fitzrovia.

It’s only when reaching the central core you realise the structure’s uniqueness. For running up its centre is that only means of reaching the viewing platform, and the only viable way of escaping in the event of a fire.

[S]eldom seen outside expensive hotels and department stores a lift attendant is on duty as you rise silently at 1,400 ft. per minute as the counter proudly shows. He is also there to help evacuate the building, the only structure in Great Britain allowed using the lift as a fire escape

Lift-speed_thumb The reason I am ascending up the most iconic building in London is as a guest of Secret Spaces. It is the sort of access that Google give to their Google City Experts encouraging members to write high-quality local business ratings and reviews on Google+ rewarding members who have left at least 50 reviews to date, and who produce at least five new reviews each month. ­

The program takes advantage of an old Internet rule which states that only a small group of so-called ‘creators’ generate most of the content on the web, while the majority just consumes what others have produced. These requirements are meant to guard against spammers, and others who may be encouraged to write a few reviews in return for free stuff.

BT Tower-2 After a welcome drink we were given a talk about the changing cities by Leo Hollis, who stated that at the beginning of the century we became 50 per cent urban as a global population, by 2050 Hollis reckons urban population will be up to 70 per cent. From that he extrapolates that by the end of the century virtually the entire world’s population will be urban. So up is the only way to develop our urban living and what better place to present those views that at the BT Tower?

This was followed by a short talk of the Tower’s construction and history by BT’s archivist David Hay, who explained that the Tower is now redundant and used only for promotional work. An amazing image of London taken from the top of the BT Tower has set a new record for the world’s largest panoramic photo. The image shows a full 360 degree view of London in incredible detail.

We arrived at the famous revolving restaurant platform which takes 22 minutes to complete its circuit. It was closed in 1980 due to security fears. At the time many diners said that eating while being spun round was disconcerting. Being the highest building in Fitzrovia it has unrestricted views across London, from Crystal Palace in the south to beyond Wembley Stadium in the north.

As a so-called ‘City Expert’ much of London looks so different from 600ft. in fact I needed help identifying many buildings that I only known from the vantage point of my cab. From the BT Tower London has no edges for, as Leo Hollis predicts, urbanisation stretches for as far as they eye can see.

Pictures: Aiming At The Sky – London BT Tower; BT Tower (Post Office Tower) – London Skyline by Simon and his Camera (CC BY-ND 3.0)

Secret Spaces

When Google chose a location to launch Secret Spaces, an opportunity to allow access to their favourite places on Google Maps throughout London, they couldn’t have selected a more iconic – or secret – space than the BT Tower.

For if I had written this post 21 years ago
it is quite possible, but in all likelihood
not probable, that MI5 would want to talk to me.

[I]t is hardly the stuff of John le Carré but from the day it was built the Post Office Tower, as it was then, was deemed a State secret. That was until Kate Howie MP, speaking in Parliament on 19th February 1993 spilt the beans about its existence by announcing to the public, and I quote:

Hon. Members have given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret. An example that has not been mentioned, but which is so trivial that it is worth mentioning, is the absence of the British Telecom tower from Ordnance Survey maps. I hope that I am covered by parliamentary privilege when I reveal that the British Telecom tower does exist and that its address is 60 Cleveland Street, London (Hansard col.632).

Although the core is only 3 metres at its widest point the structure stands 189 metres high – the same as 20 double decker buses parked end to end and unsurprisingly was Britain’s most poorly kept secret.

Londoners were expected not to notice its presence, in fact for many years it did not appear on any map as its location was protected by the Official Secrets Act, even the taking and storing photographs of the building was forbidden.

In a further secret twist Londoners seem to have been unaware of the changes that have been undertaken above their heads as engineers removed the 31 microwave dishes, once used to transmit top secret data across a nationwide network of similar towers.

Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data – some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretching across the United Kingdom from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).

Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, ’Backbone’ and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.

The BT Tower is mostly circular because the designers noted that the only buildings that survived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were round, with the shape allowing the enormous blast wave to surge round them.

Considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing.

The tower was conceived in the 1950s when broadband microwave technology seemed the best way serve the growing communication needs of the nation. It was designed to exchange microwave radio signals with other similar towers in locations such as Birmingham, Bristol and Portsmouth.

Built in a yard off an existing telephone exchange, it was quite a neat engineering feat. A borehole survey revealed the hard chalk suitable for supporting foundations was 174 feet down, too far to be practically used. Instead an
27 metre square concrete ’raft’ was placed some 8 metres below street level, supporting a 7 metre tall flat topped concrete pyramid, which in turn supported a hollow concrete shaft that forms the core of the tower. Even in 100mph winds it will not sway more than 0.188 metres. Swaying isn’t good for microwave transmission especially in a nuclear holocaust.

In 1962 the GPO Tower (as it was then known) overtook St. Pauls Cathedral as London’s tallest building, that title was briefly snatched away by the newly constructed Millbank Tower which took less time to build, but the title was regained when completed. It held that record until 1980 when the NatWest Tower (now renamed Tower 42) rose above the City skyline.

Known formerly as the General Post Office Tower its presence (or at least its purpose) might have remained a secret but for the fact that a restaurant which revolved every 22 minutes on the 34th floor and operated by the holiday camp king Billy Butin was, at the time, the most fashionable place to dine.

On its opening year in 1963 the Tower attracted 1.5 million visitors and by 1971 had been visited by over 5 million people, it only closed in 1980 amid security fears after a bomb exploded in the gent’s toilet one night causing extensive damage which took two years to repair.

In defiance of the prohibitions placed upon acknowledging its presence it has appeared in BBC’s Doctor Who ’The War Machines’ which curiously does have a ’D’ Notice slapped on it as the YouTube clip has now been withdrawn by the BBC.

A popular backdrop to science fiction films among others V for Vendetta, The Fog, The New Avengers episode Sleeper, The Day of the Triffids and Harry Potter flies over it in a Ford Anglia.

But the all time favourite the Tower is featured in the most famous scene in The Goodies when it is toppled over by Twinkle the Giant Kitten in the episode Kitten Kong.

This iconic location in London now has functions that go beyond it as a building, a restaurant or even a nuclear fallout shelter – it filters broadcast traffic so necessary with today’s need for communication.

This post is based on an article that originally appeared on CabbieBlog in December 2011. Photo: View of the Post Office Tower from London’s Rathbone Street, 1969, JISC Content CC BY-NC-SA.

The London Grill: David Long

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.


[A] writer and journalist since graduating with a second class degree from a first class university, David Long is the author of more than a dozen books, mostly on London and with titles titles reflecting an unquenchable thirst for the quirkier, lesser known aspects of its long history, continually changing streetscape and hugely diverse architecture. His latest book Bizarre London takes a look at the city’s colourful stories and historical tit bits.

What’s your secret London tip?
The Monument. I frequently climb up it with the children, but hardly ever meet anyone British on the way up or down, and can’t believe that such an historic building and such a fine view can be had so cheaply yet still be ignored by the locals.

Bizarre-London What’s your secret London place?

Trinity Buoy Wharf. It’s on my way into and out of London – I drive up from Suffolk – a good place for a picnic, there’s always something odd going on there and I love the ever changing view of the river.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Too many people, as a consequence of which I will happily miss the show of the month (whatever it is it will be rammed) in favour of something a bit more offbeat which I might have to myself.

What’s your favourite building?
That’s a tough one, too tough, which is probably why when I wrote my book about strange buildings in London it ran to two volumes and 200 favourites. Let’s just say York Watergate for today, but I’ll change my mind again tomorrow.

What’s your most hated building?
Tower 42 because it displaced the Post Office Tower as Britain’s tallest but doesn’t look anywhere near as remarkable.

What’s the best view in London?
The one you get flying up the Thames in a 1930s biplane, which I’d love to do again. From ground level it has to be that from the Isle of Dogs looking towards Royal Greenwich.

What’s your personal London landmark?
I can walk around St James’s all day, and never get bored.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
It’s not perfect, but I’ve been addicted to the late Ben Weinreb’s Encyclopaedia since the first edition appeared 30 years ago and must have read it in its entirety at least half a dozen times.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
An early breakfast in the sun-lit Yellow Drawing Room at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a private tour of St James’s Palace followed by a long lunch at Wilton’s with three friends. After 10 minutes alone in front of Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump at the National Gallery, what remained of the afternoon I’d happily spend at Kenwood – my grandmother lived in Hampstead so we were frequent visitors – and then back into the West End for jugged hare at Rule’s but with the old dress code restored and fewer tables than they now have.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.