Tag Archives: London’s buildings

London’s top secret tower

[I]f I had written this post 18 years ago it is quite possible that MI5 would want to talk to me. It’s hardly the stuff of John le Carré but from the day it was built until Kate Howie MP, speaking in Parliament on 19th February 1993 spilt the beans 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).

The 621 foot high BT Tower was Britain’s most poorly kept secret. Londoners were expected to not 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 recently 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, stretched 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 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. But 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 88 foot square concrete “raft” was placed some 26 feet below street level, supporting a seven 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 7.4 inches. 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 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 of a restaurant which revolved every 22 minutes on the 34th floor which was operated by the holiday camp king Billy Butin. By 1971 the tower had been visited by over 5 million people, it only closed in 1980 amid security fears after a bomb had 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. The tower has been 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.

London’s secret tower is based upon an original post by Charlie on Cold War London.

Staying Erect

Big Ben

Samuel Johnson’s friend James Boswell had an interesting experience on Westminster Bridge. He recalled: “I picked up a strong jolly young damsel and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and there in amour complete did I engage up in this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much.”

Boswell might not have had trouble in staying erect but for Big Ben it seems a case of erectile dysfunction. I have looked at it through one eye, aligned it with a lamppost, I’ve even tried viewing it upside down, but try as I might I just cannot see the list, but according to a report by London Underground Big Ben is leaning to such an extent that the tilt can now be clocked with the naked eye. The 316 ft. tower on the north side of the Houses of Parliament correctly is called St. Stephen’s Tower but is known colloquially as Big Ben – the name given to the great bell that it houses, the clock is the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and surmounts the tower which is founded on a 49 ft. square 9.8 ft. thick concrete raft sunk to a depth of 13 ft. below ground level.

[Y]ou would have thought with foundations like that the tower would be stable but it is sinking unevenly into the ground, causing it to lean toward the northwest, and as a consequence the movement has resulted in the formation of cracks in the walls and ceilings of parts of the House of Commons.

The engineers claim that if you stand on Parliament Square and look east, toward the river, you can see that the tower is not vertical. As with so many things it’s the MPs that are to blame, the construction of their underground car park in the early 70s started it and an extension of the London Underground Jubilee Line didn’t help matters either. But what has accelerated the movement to 0.9mm per year was the digging of the deepest hole in Britain during the construction of the new Parliament Square tube station and the construction above it of Portcullis House, again building work for the benefit of our MPs.

If the tower continues its slide towards the river in about 4,000 years it will compete with the Leaning Tower of Pisa which lurches 12ft from the vertical. By then anyone who should feel the desire to follow James Boswell’s example of amorous exploits upon Westminster Bridge would be well advised to find an alternative hunting ground.

Spooked on Millbank


I think I must be getting like my mother, she would only watch a television programme if she could recognise the locations. I now find myself watching Spooks on the BBC trying to guess where it was in London that particular scene was shot.

My mother once told me she worked at Thames House during the war as a secretary – she certainly didn’t look like a Mata Hari – and would, as a consequence of the bombing, have to struggle home on a disrupted tube network every night back to north London – a bit like today.

Anyway while watching Spooks they kept showing a front door with the caption Thames House SW1, now I’m pretty certain that the building featured is the headquarters for various news organisations, and not our ultra secret service. I might be wrong, we didn’t learn on the Knowledge where it was, they were hardly likely to ask us the location of Smiley’s organisation.

[S]o on impulse I googled MI5 and they have their own website which shows potential suicide bombers the front door should they choose to pay MI5 a visit. Not only that, to my surprise they have a recruitment section giving details of their requirements for a variety of jobs within the service.

They are recruiting what they euphemistically describe as “Mobile Surveillance Officers” that’s spies to you and me. Now I’m old enough to remember the Burgess/Phil by/Maclean debacle and rather assumed recruitment was through an old boys’ network with links to an Oxbridge College, and a prelicton to, shall we say? – unusual sexual appetites.

There is great deal on the MI5 site about extended working hours, multitasking, thinking on your feet and the need not to have facial tattoos (they make you too noticeable, apparently!), but nothing about getting shot at, being stabbed with trick umbrellas or being irradiated. Should MI5 not be your cup of tea (or vodka martini), there are links to the sites of MI6 and GCHQ, so surely there is something in there for everyone?

I’m not surprised that they are recruiting if [Spooks] – why is the title always in brackets? – is anything to go by. Only six people seem to work out of Thames House and have to do everything: surveillance; computer checks and tracking; chasing around London in a top of the range car (another chance for me to spot the landmark); and be the only person who tails a suspect and finally eliminates him. I’m surprised the series isn’t sponsored by our security services and it all looks such great fun that I’m thinking of applying myself.

Oh dear! I think I’ve just blown my chance to have an alternative, if potentially short, new career from being a cabbie. The small print reads: “Owing to the sensitivity of our work, we do not publicly disclose the identities of our staff. Discretion is vital. You should not discuss your application, other than with your partner or a close family member”

The whole world now know that I’m considering applying . . . but at least the super sleuth in me can track down MI5’s front door.

Some of this information was based upon an original post by Malcolm Edwards at London Ramblings.

Kilroy was here

With the Blitz at its height in 1940 and the need to find safe accommodation for Londoners the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison at the time announced the decision to construct a series of Deep Level Shelters to be dug under the existing tube network. The idea being that after the war these tunnels could then be utilised as railway tunnels and linked up to form a new express underground system.

[T]en sites were chosen which were completed in 1942. Four sites were given over for civilian use while the remainder to house military and civil authorities, each could accommodate up to 8,000 individuals on two separate levels and were built at a cost of £40 per head. One at the Oval was abandoned for fear of flooding by the river Effra and another to be built at St. Paul’s never started with worries about the stability of the cathedral. Evidence of the other shelters can be found at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Chancery Lane, Clapham Common, Clapham North, Clapham South and Stockwell.

Another at Goodge Street was built for the Americans, reinforced above ground by a circular pill box, housing staircases and lift machinery with slits in the walls to enable  this heavily defended bunker protection from the most determined attack it even had an anti-aircraft emplacement on its roof.

Now named the Eisenhower Centre this unremarkable candy striped concrete structure (now painted a rather boring navy) was the headquarters of ‘Eik’ the United States President and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and during the latter years of World War II was used to plan the D-Day invasion of Europe. This seemingly little building was kitted out to support 8,000 support staff with bunk beds, self contained with ventilation systems, gas filtration units and a hydraulic sewerage system.

One in south London had a rather curious final use, in 1948 the Clapham Common Deep Level Shelter became briefly home to several hundred Commonwealth citizens who had arrived on the SS Empire  Windrush, laying the foundations for nearby Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community.

Needless to say the high speed rail link was abandoned – where have we heard that before – and after a fire in 1956 the Eisenhower Centre was closed for many years. It is now used for commercial storage, with its bunk beds making useful shelving it is rumoured that Sir Paul McCartney stashes his gold and platinum disks within its vaults.

The title of this post, Kilroy Was Here, comes from graffiti first drawn by Americans during the Second World War. Thanks to the contributor of this photo is Christopher Hilton.

Avoid idleness and intemperance

In 1837 a young woman found herself the monarch of her country, she was to remain Queen during an unprecedented time of burgeoning industry and wealth creation, giving her name to the 64 years she reigned and a time Britain was at its zenith of influence and power. That same year a novel was printed which would change a country’s attitude to the most poor and venerable, that novel was the second major work by Charles Dickens.

[C]harles Dickens was no stranger to poverty. In 1823 when his father lost his job and was sent to Marshalsea debtor’s prison 11-year-old Charles worked in a blacking factory pasting labels on shoe polish bottled for six shillings a week. At that time he also certainly worked alongside children from the workhouse, it was an experience that would remain with him all his life and be the subject of his novel Oliver Twist.

In 1834 a Poor Law was enacted, with the sole purpose of discouraging claiming relief in times of poverty and forcing individuals to take work offered to them however low the pay. Welfare assistance was only available inside the workhouse, once admitted the unfortunate inmates would be deloused and forced to wear uniforms, families were broken up and if individuals were capable of working they would be sent to labour for unscrupulous employers. The very young, ill or old who were unable to produce an income were in most cases refused admission to the workhouse and starved to death.

In a fascinating piece of research Dr. Ruth Richardson has established the source material for Oliver Twist which tells the story of the illegitimate orphan Oliver who endures a miserable time at the workhouse and during his parish apprenticeship with an undertaker, before running away and being taken in by a gang of juvenile pickpockets.

It was known that Charles Dickens lived in a certain Norfolk Street twice in his early life for a period of four years. Dr. Richardson has established that Norfolk Street once was the southern continuation of Cleveland Street which exists today and that Dickens lived only nine doors away from the Cleveland Street workhouse ending years of speculation by historians to the exact location of Dickens’s childhood home.

Cleveland Street Workhouse was constructed in about 1780 on what at that time was a burial ground. Starting life as the parish workhouse for St. Paul’s, Covent Garden in 1836 its functioned as an infirmary, maternity unit, insane asylum or a place to deposit those suffering from highly contagious diseases.

Even by workhouse standards 44 Cleveland Street was dreadful, a contemporary account by Dr. Joseph Rogers the chief medical officer at the workhouse from 1856-68, reported: a laundry in the basement filling the dining hall with foul-smelling steam; carpets regularly beaten directly outside the men’s infirmary; the nursery both damp and overcrowded; “nursing” provided only by elderly female inmates, many of whom were apparently habitually drunk; the brutal indifference of the Guardians of the workhouse; the “dead house” adjoins the main structure. This led him to campaign for better standards in the medical care available to workhouse inhabitants.

After the Poor Law was reformed the Cleveland Street Workhouse passed first into the control of the Central London Sick Asylums District, then to the Middlesex Hospital and thence to University College London Hospital complex. Closing in 2006 when UCLH have moved all their services onto a single unified site.

The building is believed to be London’s only existing purpose built Georgian workhouse, a rare example of social engineering from the 19th century; now after a five-year long campaign the most famous workhouse in the world has been saved thanks to its Grade II listing.

Without it would Charles Dickens have written so passionately his most successful novel and then spent a lifetime campaigning for better welfare to be given to the poor? Now 44 Cleveland Street has been given Heritage listing we have an opportunity to convert this rare Georgian building into flats whilst keeping its integrity, and use some of that income to provide a teaching and resource centre at the very heart of social and welfare reform that has benefitted us all today.

In an echo of Dachau with its sign “arbeit macht frei” (works brings freedom), above the gates of the Cleveland Street Workhouse was a statute of an old man pointing to the words: “Avoid idleness and intemperance”, as with Dachau, 22 Cleveland Street’s importance to our lives should not be forgotten.