Today (July 15) in London History – London’s North Star

July 15, 1964 was the “topping out ceremony” for the building that still, nearly 60 years later, could pass for the most modern building in London: the BT Tower as it’s known today. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

July 15, 1964 was the high point. So we can go with that, even though the official opening ceremony wouldn’t take place until October of the following year.

Presiding at the “topping out ceremony” as it was called was the Minister of Public Buildings and Works, one Mr Geoffrey Rippon.

They knew they had something special. And London couldn’t help but agree.

Have you guessed? 

It was the Post Office Tower. London had never seen anything like it. The astonishing thing is it’s a building that’s now nearly 60 years old but it could easily fool people who didn’t know better into thinking it’s the most modern building in London.

So let’s see what we can do to get you to see the Post Office Tower – it’s called the BT Tower today – afresh. You cannot miss it. There is no other building in London that looks remotely like it. Personal story – first couple of years I was in London I oriented by the Post Office Tower. It was my North star.

London can be a pretty confusing place but the Tower is near University College London where I was a student and near Albany Street – Regent’s Park in other words – where I lived. And you could see the Post Office Tower from just about anywhere in central London. Once I’d spotted it, I had my bearings. 

So, yes, a landmark building. A landmark building everyone sees. But let’s see if we can get you to see it anew, see it with fresh eyes. Gain a new appreciation of it.

Since today is the anniversary of the topping-out ceremony, let’s begin with that all-important metric. The Tower is 580 feet high. It was the tallest building at the time. Today, the Shard, at just over a thousand feet in height, is getting on for twice as high as the Post Office Tower. But we should remember that the Post Office Tower – I’m going to use its old name interchangeably with its current name, the BT Tower – we should remember that the Post Office Tower is topped by a 40-foot high mast tacked on to the 580-foot high structure. Put that mast on top of it and I think you can say the BT Tower is more or less in the same league as The Shard. Stretching up 61 per cent of the way to the Shard’s full height, it wouldn’t be shamed. And its design is so striking it would attract just as much if not more attention than the Shard. The way a gifted 5 foot ten-inch point guard in basketball will often upstage a seven-foot centre.  

And the Shard’s not the only comparison in town. Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square is 170 feet tall. The BT Tower – yes, I’m going to say it here – Towers over the Admiral. 

The height of the BT Tower is dictated by the topography of London. Micro-wave radar signals can only travel over unimpeded line-of-sight paths. So that height formula – 580 feet plus 40 feet for the mast – makes possible micro-wave radio channels that can carry telephone and televison traffic to all parts of the country. Writing about it at the time, techies enthused that those micro-wave beams could carry 1,000 individual telephone calls at once. Offsetting the enormous cost of underground telephone circuits out of London. 

Ok, let’s look up properly and see what’s up there. The very top of the building – not the mast – housed the lift pulley room, the lift motor room, water tanks and the building’s ventilation plant. Just down from that, the kitchens. Makes a difference, doesn’t it. The standard London architectural formula for kitchens is they’re in the cellar. Down from the kitchens, the cocktail lounge. Down from the cocktail lounge, the revolving restaurant. It made a full revolution every 20 minutes. Down from the restaurant, a tea bar. Down from the tea bar, an observation gallery. Down from the observation gallery, the main tubular body – some 14 floors in all – housing the transmitting apparatus.

So far so good, but here’s the really telling architectural stuff. Any number of buildings in the second half of the 20th century were called towers. That was a misnomer. They weren’t towers, they were slabs.

But the Post Office Tower really is a tower. It’s slim and elegant. The decision, taken early on, to make it round rather than square is the key to the whole thing. A round structure bulks less largely in the sky. And it confers another advantage. It offers less resistance to the wind. The BT Tower had to square the circle, so to speak. It had to be tall enough to transmit over existing and projected high-rise buildings in the capital. But it also had to be sufficiently stable in high winds so that microwaves it was transmitting were not sent off course. 

And then, finally, yes, the aesthetic considerations. And there’s no question but they were important. To look closely at the BT Tower is to be reminded that it’s not a single, uninterrupted column all the way up. The tower has – as I spelt out earlier – stages. Each stage has its separate function and characteristic appearance.

Ergo the building’s unusual – and richly rewarding to look at – outline. Bears repeating, the BT Tower’s outline derives directly from its multiplicity of functions.

It’s a beauty, the post office tower.

I know what you’re thinking and I’m right there with you – you want to go and take a closer look at it now, don’t you. And so you should. 

Ok, time to name names. He’s all but forgotten now. He shouldn’t be. We should all raise a glass tonight to Eric Bedford. He’s the man, the architect. He was the chief architect to the Ministry of Works. Which meant he was responsible for all new government building projects. The Post Office Tower is his most famous work but he also designed the new British embassy in Washington DC and the new British High Commission building in Ottawa, Canada, and my favourite, the bridge in St James’ Park. Which of course yields up – if you’re exactly halfway across the bridge – the most famous view in London. For me it’s a teensy extra iota of pleasure knowing that the man who designed that bridge also designed the Post Office Tower.

Anything else? Well, yes, conflict and strife spoiled a lot of the fun. An IRA bomb in 1971 damaged parts of the 33rd floor and led to the closure of the public viewing gallery. The restaurant remained open until expiry of the lease in 1980 and so, yes, the restaurant is also now a fairly distant memory. 

Ok, Today in London. Recommendation time. 

This weather, this time of year…get thee to the top of Primrose Hill. Great view of the Post Office Tower from up there. To say nothing of the rest of the London skyline. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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