Site Unseen: Norman Shaw Building

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

The Norman Shaw building is now hidden in plain sight, bookended, as it is, by two modern counterparts – Portcullis House and the new New Scotland Yard.

[T]he name New Scotland Yard derives from the location of the original Metropolitan Police headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place, which had a rear entrance on a street called Great Scotland Yard. The Scotland Yard entrance became the public entrance to the police station, and over time the street and the Metropolitan Police became synonymous.

The Baby Boomers Generation probably remember the ‘old’ New Scotland Yard (now renamed the Norman Shaw Buildings) from the opening credits of Mo Hiding Place, one of the earliest police television dramas of the late 1950s. Tracking down criminals (who never got away), Detective Chief Super Tom Lockhart would speed out of the building in a chauffeured Humber Super Snipe, driving along the Victoria Embankment which was built over a sewer. Could that have been a metaphor for police detective work?

The pair of Victorian Romanesque buildings were built in the last years of Victoria’s reign, the North Building designed as the replacement for the Met’s headquarters.

The National Opera House was originally to be built on the site, land reclaimed when the Victoria Embankment was constructed. Whilst digging the foundations, for what was to be the third largest opera house in Europe, many items of historic importance were found, including various swords, gold and jewellery.

The proximity of the Thames and the unstable ground would cost nearly seven times the original estimate to dig the foundations. With the opera house half-built, the project was abandoned and the government took control of the site to build a new headquarters for the Metropolitan Police Force. The architect Norman Shaw was commissioned to design a building fit for a modern, efficient police force.

With exquisite irony, while the Force’s finest were running around East London in a vain attempt to catch Jack The Ripper, a woman’s torso appears to have been dumped on the building site.

The Pall Mall Gazette reported on the 3rd October 1888:

About twenty minutes past three o’clock yesterday afternoon Frederick Wildborn, a carpenter employed by Messrs. J. Grover and Sons, builders, of Pimlico, who are the contractors for the new Metropolitan Police headquarters on the Thames Embankment, was working on the foundations when he came across a neatly done up parcel in one of the cellars. It was opened, and the body of a woman, very much decomposed, was found carefully wrapped in a piece of what is supposed to be a black petticoat. The front was without head, arms, or legs, and presented a horrific spectacle. Dr Bond, the divisional surgeon, and several other medical gentlemen were communicated with, and from what can be ascertained the conclusion has been arrived at by them that these remains are those of a woman whose arms have recently been discovered in different parts of the metropolis. Dr Nevill, who examined the arm of a woman found a few weeks ago in the Thames, off Ebury Bridge, said on that occasion that he did not think that it had been skilfully taken from the body. This fact would appear to favour the theory that that arm, together with the one found in the grounds of the Blind Asylum in the Lambeth-road last week, belong to the trunk discovered yesterday, for it is stated that the limbs appear to have been taken from it in anything but a skilful manner.

. . . The builders have been working on the site for some time now, but have only just completed the foundation [the building] extends from the Thames Embankment through Cannon row, Parliament-street, at the back of St. Stephen’s Club and the Westminster Bridge station on the District Railway. The prevailing opinion is that to place the body where it was found the person conveying it must have scaled the 8ft. hoarding, which encloses the works, and, carefully avoiding the watch-men, who do duty by night, must have dropped it where it was found. The body could not have been where it was found above two or three days, because men are frequently passing the spot. One of the workmen says that it was not there last Friday, because they had occasion to do some-thing at that very spot. It is thought that the person who put the bundle there could not very well have got into the enclosure from the Embankment side, as not only would the risk of detection be very great, but he would stand a good chance of breaking his neck. The parcel must have been got in from the Cannon-row side, a very dark and lonely spot, although within twenty yards of the main thoroughfare. The body is pronounced by medical men to have been that of a remarkably fine young woman. The lower portion from the ribs has been removed. The postmortem examination was held this morning and the result will be made known at the inquest.

So, there you have it, a sewer system, abandoned opera house, a dead body, a failed investigation and now home to our Honourable Members.

Featured image: Gate and piers between Norman Shaw Buildings North and South by N. Chadwick (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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