Today (July 17) in London History – County Hall

King George V opened County Hall 100 years ago today (July 17, 2022). 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.

I’m not sure whether this one’s a christening or a birthday party. Maybe it’s both.

Anyway, let’s go there.

It’s July 17th, 1922. One hundred years ago today. How’s that for a nice round number for you.

King George V – accompanied by Queen Mary and Princess Mary – is about to open the new County Hall. A photographer has captured what the great French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson called “the decisive moment.” King George V has just emerged out onto the terrace and is greeting the hundreds of assembled dignitaries with a salute. The detail of the photograph is remarkable. The dignitaries have all risen from their chairs and are standing at attention. The men have removed their hats. Office workers up on the first and second floors can be seen crowded round the windows, straining to get a view. Far above them, lining the crescent walkway just beneath the roof, hundreds more staff are peering over the parapet. Their vantage point would be approximately a third the height of the London Eye. And finally, if you look closely at the photograph, you can see a party of eight or nine men on the very ridge of roof, getting a bird’s eye view.

But let’s go to the forgotten history. Bring it out. Burnish it up. Inspect it.

Names first. One of the cornerstones of my personal approach to this infinitely fascinating city – my grasp of it – is: to see London you have to hear it. So, yes, names first. The east front of the building – where the King entered – is in Belvedere Road. Belvedere Road takes its name from an old mansion that became a noted tavern and tea garden in the eighteenth century. The dictionary definition of a belvedere is a summer house or open-sided gallery, typically at rooftop level, commanding a fine view.

Perfect, really. Because County Hall commands a fine view: the Thames, across the Thames to Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Bridge, etc. It’s one of the great views in London. That view, after all, is why the London Eye is where it is. 

And let’s unearth another piece of forgotten history, another name to hear in order to see London. County Hall stands on land that was known as Pedlar’s Acre. It was a piece of real estate – a fine piece of real estate considering its river frontage – a piece of real estate said to have been given by a prosperous pedlar to the parish of St Mary’s, Lambeth. In return for having a favourite dog buried in the churchyard. And knowing that, I think you better, sooner or later, take a little detour to St Mary’s. Because that dog – and his owner, the pedlar – can be seen, so we’re told, on a window in the church. 

And you know something, the secret history gets better. The chairs for the Chairman, Vice Chairman and Deputy Chairman in the Council Chamber are veneered with bog oak discovered during excavations in Villiers Street. The street leading up to the Strand from Embankment Station. An observation here – and a question. The question is: what happened to those chairs? Where are they now? I’d love to see them, see that veneering, see that bog oak. 

The observation – this is just so London Walks guide territory – you fall into the thrall of London – you fall in love with London – the place becomes an enchanted forest. You move through it, stunned – seeing what’s there but also, simultaneously, seeing what was there. Or you want to put that in aural terms, to a London Walks guide London isn’t just monaural or stereophonic, it’s quadrophonic. Or more. Villiers Street I’m seeing 21st century Villiers Street but I’m also seeing York House and the Watergate and the Thames 50 per cent wider than it is today and the greatest civil engineering project to ever come London’s way and the blacking warehouse where Dickens worked as a despairing boy and now  the notes of another instrument in that symphony, a bog oak that veneered those important chairs in County Hall. 

What else? Well, I’ve got one of those male minds. A weakness, a fondness for fact. Hand on heart here, fact has an inordinate grip on my mind. So here are three facts that have successfully booked a seat on the David Tucker Mental Express. County Hall cost £4 million pounds. It numbers 30 million bricks. And 50,000 tons of stone. Fun to know as well, that King George V was in at the very beginning as well as seeing it on its way, opening it today. His Majesty had laid the foundation stone ten years earlier, in 1912.

It also piqued my interest to find out a bit about the top officials. No surprise this, with the exception of Miss Henrietta Adler, the Deputy Chairman of the LCC, the London County Council, they were all white, middle-aged men.

Some of the job titles give pause. There was the Head of the Public Control Department. There was the Tramways General Manager. There was the Asylums Engineer. Gives me a brief chill, pairing that word “engineer” with the word “asylums”. Others are a bit more run of the mill: Parks Department Chair and Head of Education and Chief of the Fire Brigade, and Chief Engineer and County Surveyor and Comptroller and Architect and Stores Chief Officer.

Though I note with interest that there was also a Parliamentary Officer. 

That national government over the river in Parliament and local government – the LCC – on the other side of the Thames – they’ve never been comfortable bedfellows. They’re rival centres of power. They look at each other with unease. Relations are often strained. To put it mildly. 

I often make the point on my Old Westminster Walk – when we’re looking across the Thames at County Hall – that you get an idea just how ungovernable London is when you bear in mind that over the course of the last century New York City has had just one form of local government. In that same period of time, London has had four different forms of local government: The Metropolitan Board of Works, the LCC (the London County Council), the GLC (the Greater London Council) and, today, the GLA (the Greater London Assembly). County Hall was the seat of government – local government – for the LCC and then the GLC. Mrs. Thatcher closed the GLC down. We went through a period of time in our city, London, was the only major city in the world that did not have an overarching local government. We’ve clawed one back. Today we’ve got the GLA, the greater London Assembly. They’re not in County Hall. County Hall today is a couple of luxury hotels and the London Aquarium and something called Shrek’s Adventure – well you might ask: it’s  a so-called walk-through, immersive experience.

A description which, when you think about it, perfectly describes a London Walk: a walk-through, immersive experience.

Ok, a Today in London recommendation. I’m going to pass over the obvious ones: the Eye and the Aquarium and Shrek’s Adventure. Instead I’m going to send you to St Mary’s Lambeth – it’s not far – to look for Pedlar and his dog in that window. And especially to see the Garden Museum. It’s housed in the church. And it’s delightful. 

Postscript: Ralph Knott was the Architect of County Hall. Another forgotten London Architect. He died young. 

An addendum: County Hall is faced with Portland Stone. It’s the stone for major public buildings in London – from St Paul’s to the Cenotaph. Its qualities – everything is right about Portland Stone given London’s atmospheric and light and wind and weather conditions. It’s a white wine with fish marriage.

And an addendum to the addendum. The GLA – the Greater London Assembly – is in a building just over the river from the Tower of London, a building popularly known as “the glass testicle.” And, yes, that’s a London smirk you’re hearing, a London smirk modulated through chewy American diphthongs.

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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