Somerset House is a large Neoclassical building situated on the south side of the Strand in central London, overlooking the River Thames, just east of Waterloo Bridge. The Georgian quadrangle, which was built on the site of a Tudor palace belonging to the Duke of Somerset, was designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776. It was further extended with Victorian outer wings to the east and west in 1831 and 1856 respectively. Somerset House stood directly on the River Thames until the Victoria Embankment was built in the late 1860s.
Old Somerset House
In the 16th century, the Strand, the north bank of the Thames between the City of London and the Palace of Westminster, was a favoured site for the mansions of bishops and aristocrats, who could commute from their own landing stages upriver to the court or downriver to the City and beyond. In 1539, Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (died 1552), obtained a grant of land at “Chester Place, outside Temple Bar, London” from his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. When his nephew the young King Edward VI came to the throne in 1547, Seymour became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. In about 1549 he pulled down an old Inn of Chancery and other houses that stood on the site, and began to build himself a palatial residence, making liberal use of other nearby buildings, including some of the chantry chapels and cloisters at St Paul’s Cathedral, which were demolished partly at his behest as part of the ongoing dissolution of the monasteries. It was a two-storey house built around a quadrangle, with a gateway rising to three storeys, and was one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in England. It is not known who designed the building.
Before it was finished, however, the Duke of Somerset was overthrown, attainted by Parliament and in 1552 was executed on Tower Hill. Somerset Place, as the building was referred to, then came into the possession of the Crown. The duke’s royal nephew’s half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I, lived there during the reign of her half-sister Queen Mary I (1553–58). The process of completion and improvement was slow and costly. As late as 1598 John Stow refers to it as “yet unfinished”.
In the 17th century, the house was used as a residence by royal consorts. During the reign of King James I, the building became the London residence of his wife, Anne of Denmark, and was renamed Denmark House. She commissioned a number of expensive additions and improvements, some to designs by Inigo Jones. In particular, during the period between 1630 and 1635, he built a chapel where Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, could exercise her Roman Catholic religion. This was in the care of the Capuchin Order and was on a site to the southwest of the Great Court. A small cemetery was attached and some of the tombstones are still to be seen built into one of the walls of a passage under the present quadrangle.
Royal occupation of Somerset House was interrupted by the Civil War, and in 1649 Parliament tried to sell it. They failed to find a buyer, although a sale of the contents realised the very considerable sum (for that time) of £118,000. Use was still found for it however. Part of it served as an army headquarters, with General Fairfax (the Parliamentarians’ commander-in-chief) being given official quarters there; lodgings were also provided for certain other Parliamentarian notables. It was in Somerset House that Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state after his death in 1658.
Two years later, with the Restoration, Queen Henrietta Maria returned and in 1661 began a considerable programme of rebuilding, the main feature of which was a magnificent new river front, again to the design of the late Inigo Jones, who had died at Somerset House in 1652. However she returned to France in 1665 before it was finished. It was then used as an occasional residence by Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II. During her time it received a certain notoriety as being, in the popular mind, a hot-bed of Catholic conspiracy. Titus Oates made full use of this prejudice in the fabricated details of the Popish Plot and it was alleged that Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, whose murder was one of the great mysteries of the age, had been killed in Somerset House before his body had been smuggled out and thrown into a ditch below Primrose Hill.
Somerset House was refurbished by Sir Christopher Wren in 1685. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Somerset House entered on a long period of decline, being used (after Queen Catherine left England in 1692) for grace and favour residences. In the conditions of the time this meant almost inevitably that little money could be found for its upkeep, and a slow process of decay crept in. During the 18th century, however, the building ceased its royal associations. Though the view from its terraced riverfront garden, open to the public, was painted twice on his London visit by Canaletto (looking up- and downriver), it was used for storage, as a residence for visiting overseas dignitaries and as a barracks for troops. Suffering from neglect, Old Somerset House began to be demolished in 1775.
Somerset House (Sir William Chambers, 1776)
Since the middle of the 18th century there had been growing criticism that London had no great public buildings. Government departments and the learned societies were huddled away in small old buildings all over the city. Developing national pride found comparison with the capitals of continental Europe disquieting. Edmund Burke was the leading proponent of the scheme for a “national building”, and in 1775 Parliament passed an act for the purpose of, inter alia, “erecting and establishing Publick Offices in Somerset House, and for embanking Parts of the River Thames lying within the bounds of the Manor of Savoy”. The list of public offices mentioned in the act comprised “The Salt Office, The Stamp Office, The Tax Office, The Navy Office, The Navy Victualling Office, The Publick Lottery Office, The Hawkers and Pedlar Office, The Hackney Coach Office, The Surveyor General of the Crown Lands Office, The Auditors of the Imprest Office, The Pipe Office, The Office of the Duchy of Lancaster, The Office of the Duchy of Cornwall, The Office of Ordnance, The King’s Bargemaster’s House, The King’s Bargehouses”.
Somerset House was still technically a royal palace and therefore Crown property. By an earlier Act of Parliament, it had been placed in trust for the use of Queen Charlotte in the event that her husband King George III predeceased her. Therefore the 1775 act annulled this arrangement and instead provided for another property, Buckingham House, to be vested in trust for the Queen on the same terms. (Provision was made for the King, who had privately purchased Buckingham House some years earlier, to be duly compensated). In due course, the King outlived the Queen and the property (later known as Buckingham Palace) reverted “to the use of His Majesty, his heirs and successors”. By virtue of the same act, Ely House in Holborn (which had itself been purchased just a few years earlier as a potential site for new public offices) was sold and the proceeds applied to the Somerset House project.
Initially a certain William Robinson, Secretary to the Board of Works, was commissioned to design and build the new Somerset House, but he died in 1775 shortly after being appointed. So Sir William Chambers, Comptroller of the King’s Works, (who had in any case been vying for the commission) was appointed in his stead, at a salary of £2,000 per year. He spent the last two decades of his life, beginning in 1775, in several phases of building at the present Somerset House. Thomas Telford, then a stonemason, but later an eminent civil engineer, was among those who worked on its construction. One of Chambers’s most famous pupils, Thomas Hardwick Jnr, helped build parts of the building during his period of training and later wrote a short biography of Chambers. The design influenced other great buildings: Charles Bulfinch’s Massachusetts State House, begun in 1795, has been described as a work “frankly derivative” of Somerset House.
Chambers’ own influences stemmed from Palladianism, the principles of which were applied throughout Somerset House, inside and outside, both in its large-scale conception and in its small-scale details. The footprint of the building was that of the old palace, ranging from its gateway block in the Strand across what was originally a gently sloping site down to the river. Chambers experimented with at least four different configurations of buildings and courtyards in drawing up his designs; his final version provided a single courtyard, 300 ft (91 m) by 200 ft (61 m), flanked by a pair of terraces, the whole presenting a unified frontage to the river, 500 feet (150 m) wide. Around the courtyard, each block consisted of six storeys: cellar, basement, ground, principal, attic and garret. The public offices and learned societies which were accommodated around the courtyard varied greatly in size, but each occupied all six floors of its allotted area, the upper floors often providing living space for a secretary or other official. Large vaults for storing public documents were provided, extending under the entire northern section of the courtyard.
The North Wing, fronting the Strand, was the first part of the complex to be built; its design was based on Inigo Jones’s drawings for the riverfront of the former palace. By 1780 the North Wing was finished and occupied, and Chambers reported to Parliament that the rest of the quadrangle was complete up to a height of two storeys. Construction of the riverside wing followed; it was finished in 1786. At the time of construction, the Thames was not embanked and the river lapped the South Wing, where a great arch allowed boats and barges to penetrate to landing places within the building. Meanwhile work continued on the East and West Wings, which began to be occupied from 1788; by 1790 the main quadrangle was complete.
It was originally envisaged that the main quadrangle would be flanked by two terraces of houses, one to the east and one to the west, providing accommodation for several of the Commissioners whose offices were based there. It is not certain at what pace the rest of the construction progressed, but it is clear that the outbreak of war with France in 1793 caused delays through lack of money. Chambers died in 1796, whereupon James Wyatt took over as architect. In the end, only the western terrace was built and by 1801 the building was deemed to be complete, at a cost of £462,323.
In 1815 Sir Robert Smirke was appointed as Attached Architect to Somerset House; in 1817 he added the Legacy Duty Office to the north-west corner of the quadrangle, its design in keeping with Chambers’s adjacent façade. Even as late as 1819, decorative work to the exterior of the North Wing was still being completed.
In addition to applying a rich scheme of architectural decoration, Chambers enhanced the exterior of Somerset House with a multiplicity of sculptures and other visual embellishments. Designs were produced by Giovanni Cipriani and the sculptors included Joseph Wilton, Agostino Carlini, John Bacon, Joseph Nollekens, John Cheere and Giuseppe Ceracchi. Bacon oversaw production of the bronze group of statues (consisting of Neptune and George III) in the main courtyard, facing the main entrance from the Strand.
Inside, most of the offices were plain and business-like, but in the North Wing the formal rooms and public spaces of the learned societies were enriched with painted ceilings (by Cipriani, Benjamin West, Angelica Kauffman, J. F. Rigaud, Charles Catton and Joshua Reynolds), ornamental plasterwork (by Thomas Collins and Thomas Clerk) and casts of classical sculptures. Many of the ceiling paintings were removed by the Royal Academy when they vacated their premises.
A key reason for rebuilding Somerset House was to provide accommodation for a diverse variety of learned societies, public offices and naval administrators.
A home for arts and learning
The North Wing of Somerset House was initially fitted out to house the Royal Academy, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The Royal Academy took up residence first, in 1779, followed by the other two institutions the following year. The Royal Academy occupied the western half of the wing and the Royal Society the eastern half; their main entrances faced each other across the central vestibule leading from the Strand to the courtyard, topped by busts (of Michelangelo and Isaac Newton respectively) which are still in place today. The Society of Antiquaries was also accommodated in the eastern half of the wing, though its premises were limited to a first-floor meeting room, a ground-floor library, an apartment in the attic and a kitchen in the basement.
The Geological Society was also accommodated in the Somerset House from 1828, as was the Royal Astronomical Society from 1834.
The annual Royal Academy Exhibition was held in Somerset House from 1780 onwards, until the Academy moved out in 1837 (initially to rooms in the new National Gallery, then to Burlington House, Piccadilly). Its former accommodation was given over to a newly-established Government School of Design (which was much later to become the Royal College of Art); it remained in the complex from 1837 until, in 1853, the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths needed to expand its office space and the School relocated to Marlborough House.
In 1857, the Royal Society moved out of Somerset House, followed in 1874 by the Society of Antiquaries, the Geological Society and the Royal Astronomical Society; they were all provided with new purpose-built accommodation in Burlington House.
The Navy Office
In 1789 the Navy Board moved into grand riverside rooms in the western half of the newly-completed South Wing. It was soon followed by its subsidiary Boards, the Victualling Commissioners and the Sick and Hurt Commissioners, which (along with the autonomous Navy Pay Office) occupied the West Wing; they had all hitherto been based in the City of London. Thus the various Navy offices occupied around a third of Chambers’ completed building. In addition, the terrace to the west of the quadrangle provided dwelling-houses for the Comptroller of the Navy, the Secretary to the Board and three Commissioners of the Navy, along with the Chairman, Secretary and two Commissioners of Victualling, with the Treasurer of the Navy allotted the ‘mansion’ at the river end of the terrace (which included a coach house and stables for ten horses in the vaults under the terrace). As well as providing office space and accommodation, Somerset House was the place where examinations for promotion to the rank of lieutenant took place, sat by several hundred midshipmen each year. The Admiralty Museum (a precursor to the National Maritime Museum) was also accommodated there, in the central room above the south portico.
In 1832 the Navy Board and its subsidiaries were abolished and their departments placed under the direct oversight of the Admiralty. Their administrative staff remained in Somerset House, but communications with the Admiralty (based a mile away in Whitehall) were problematic as what became known as the “civil departments” of the Admiralty guarded their independence. In 1868, the Admiralty took the decision to move all their staff from Somerset House to Whitehall; this necessitated reconfiguring what had been a set of residences there pertaining to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty into office accommodation. Nevertheless, the move was completed by 1873, and the expanding Inland Revenue immediately took over the vacated space in Somerset House.
Taxes, Stamps and the Inland Revenue
From the beginning of the new Somerset House there was a fiscal presence in the shape of the Stamp Office and the Tax Office, the former occupying the eastern part of the South Wing from 1789 and the latter occupying part of the East Wing. The Stamp Office had the task of applying an impressed duty stamp to various specific items to show that the required duty had been paid. For example, up until 1855 (when the relevant duty was abolished) every newspaper produced in the country had to be brought to Somerset House to be stamped. The Tax Office administered and collected various taxes, including income tax (first levied in 1799). Introduced as a means of raising revenue in wartime, it was collected during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars; though repealed in 1816, it was reintroduced in peacetime (in 1842) and has been collected ever since.
The Inland Revenue was created by a merger of the Stamp and Taxes Office and the Excise Office in 1849; in 1854 the Excise Office staff were moved from their old headquarters in the City of London into the newly-built New Wing.
Somerset House continued in use by the Inland Revenue throughout the 20th century. In 2005, the Inland Revenue was merged with HM Customs and Excise; its successor HM Revenue & Customs continued to occupy much of the building, although its executive and senior management moved to 100 Parliament Street shortly after the merger. Various divisions and directorates of HMRC continued to occupy the East Wing until 2009, the West Wing until 2011 and the New Wing until March 2013, by which time all staff had been relocated (with most moving across the street to the southwest wing of Bush House). This brought to an end a 224-year association of the revenue services with Somerset House.
Somerset House Laboratory
In 1842, the Excise Office had established a laboratory within its Broad Street headquarters for the prevention of the adulteration of tobacco products. It had started as basically a one-man operation by an employee of the Excise, George Phillips. After the Excise Office had been merged with the Office of Stamps and Taxes to form the Inland Revenue, the latter took over the laboratory; by 1858 it was reestablished in Somerset House as the Inland Revenue Laboratory (with Phillips remaining in charge). It was also known as the Somerset House Laboratory. Under the Inland Revenue, the Laboratory’s work expanded to encompass the testing of many different substances, including food, beer and spirits, as well as tobacco.
Phillips retired as principal chemist in 1874. James Bell was then the principal chemist of Somerset House Laboratory until his retirement in 1894. He was replaced as principal chemist by Sir Thomas Edward Thorpe. At the same time, the laboratory was amalgamated with a similar facility that had been established within HM Customs and it was renamed the Government Laboratory. In 1897, Thorpe moved the Government Laboratory from Somerset House to a new building of his own design.
Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths
In 1837, following the establishment of civil registration in the United Kingdom, the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths set up his office in the North Wing of Somerset House, establishing a connection that lasted for over 130 years. This office held all birth, marriage and death certificates in England and Wales until 1970, when the Registry and its associated archives were moved to nearby St Catherine’s House at Aldwych.
From 1859 until 1998, the Principal Registry of the Court of Probate (latterly the Principal Probate Registry of the Family Division) was based in Somerset House, prior to its move to First Avenue House, High Holborn.
Other Public Offices
In addition to the learned societies, the ground floor rooms of the North wing housed the Hawkers and Pedlars Office (on the west side) and the Hackney Coach Office, the Lottery Office, the Privy Seal and Signet Offices (on the east side). The Hackney Coach commissioners had been established on a permanent footing in 1694, while the Board of Commissioners of Hawkers, Pedlars and Petty Chapmen dated from 1698; the latter was abolished in 1810 and its work taken over by the Hackney Coach Office until its abolition in 1831, whereupon responsibility for licensing both of hackney carriages and of travelling traders passed to the Stamp Office. The Lottery Office, established in 1779, was also abolished in 1831 and its residual business likewise passed to the Stamp Office. The Signet Office was abolished in 1851 and the Privy Seal Office in 1884.
One of the first occupants of the building had been the Duchy of Cornwall Office. It was accommodated in the East Wing along with the Tax Office and various Exchequer offices (including the Pipe Office, the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer’s Office and the Office of the Clerk of the Estreats). As early as 1795 the Exchequer was requesting that more space be made available; Sir John Soane was engaged to redesign their offices, and as part of the scheme the Duchy was relocated to another part of the East Wing, prompting complaints from its officers. Pipe rolls and other ancient records of the Treasury and Exchequer (which had been moved to Somerset House from the Palace of Westminster in 1793) remained stored in the basements until the establishment of the Public Record Office in 1838.
The office of Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer ceased to exist in 1833 and the Pipe Office was abolished in 1834; however space in Somerset House continued to be at a premium: in 1854 an Act of Parliament was passed (the Duchy of Cornwall Office Act 1854) noting that the Duchy’s rooms in Somerset House were now needed “for the use of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, whose present office is insufficient for the Business thereof, and adjoins the said Office of the Duchy of Cornwall”. The Act provided for the Duchy Office to move to new, purpose-built premises in Pimlico: now known as 10 Buckingham Gate, the building still serves as head office for the Duchy.
From 1785 the Commissioners for Auditing Public Accounts were also housed in the East Wing, as was the Duchy of Lancaster Office (having moved there from accommodation in Gray’s Inn) until it moved in 1823 to new offices across the road in Lancaster Place. The Surveyor of Crown Lands also had his office here until the early 19th century. The Salt Office initially occupied rooms in the West Wing, alongside the naval offices, but it was abolished in 1798 (administration of the salt tax having been transferred to the Board of Excise).
During the 19th century the North Wing contained, in addition, the offices of the Poor Law Commissioners (1834–47) and the Tithe Commissioners (1836–51), who also acted as the Copyhold Commissioners.
Magnificent as the new building was, it was something short of what Chambers had intended, for he had planned for an additional terrace of houses to the east, as well as to the west of the quadrangle; work had sopped short, however, cost being the inhibiting factor. Eventually King’s College London was erected to the east (the government granting the land on condition that the design conformed to Chambers’ original design) by subscription between 1829 and 1834; the architect was Sir Robert Smirke. At the same time, as part of Smirke’s scheme, the eastern third of the river frontage was completed, following Chambers’s original design.
Then, increasing demand for space led to another and last step. The western edge of the site was occupied by a row of houses used as dwellings for Admiralty officials who worked in the South Wing. Between 1851 and 1856, this terrace was substantially expanded and remodelled to provide the Inland Revenue with an entire new wing of additional office accommodation. As part of this development, its architect James Pennethorne created a monumental new façade alongside the approach road to Waterloo Bridge (which had not been in existence when Chambers was alive). 150 years later this part of the building is still known as the “New Wing”.
In 1891 a headquarters building was constructed in the West Court (between the West Wing and the New Wing) for the Civil Service Rifles, a Rifle Volunteer Corps.
By the start of the First World War the Civil Service Rifles, by then renamed the 15th (Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles) Battalion, The London Regiment, had its own Morris tube firing range (where the calibre of the rifle is reduced for indoor operation by a use of a tube) fitted with vanishing and running targets at Somerset House.
Somerset House had its share of trials and tribulations during the London blitz in the Second World War. Apart from comparatively minor blast effects at various times, sixteen rooms and the handsome rotunda staircase (the Nelson Stair) were completely destroyed in the South Wing, and a further 27 damaged in the West Wing by a direct hit in October 1940.
Still more windows were shattered and balustrades toppled, but the worst was over by the end of May 1941. It was not until the 1950s that this damage to the South Wing was repaired. The work required skilled masons, whose services were hard to come by in the early post-war years. Sir Albert Richardson was appointed architect for the reconstruction. He skillfully recreated the Nelson Room and rebuilt the Nelson Stair. The work was completed in 1952 at a cost of (then) £84,000.
In 1984 the Somerset House Act was passed, legislating the way for Somerset House to be redeveloped as a centre for the arts. In 1997 the Somerset House Trust was established as a charity to maintain the building and develop it as a centre for arts and culture.
In the late 20th century the building began to be reinvigorated as a centre for the visual arts. The first institution to move in (in 1989) was the Courtauld Institute of Art, including the Courtauld Gallery, which has an important collection of old master and impressionist paintings. The Courtauld occupies the North Wing.
The main courtyard, which had been used as a civil-service car park, and the main terrace overlooking the Thames were refurbished and opened to the public, these alterations being overseen by the conservation architects Donald Insall & Associates. Grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund financed the conversion of the South Wing between 1999 and 2003: a visitor centre featuring audio-visual displays on the history of the building, the gilded state barge of the Lord Mayor of the City of London and a shop and café were opened, overlooking the river. The Gilbert Collection of decorative arts, and the Hermitage Rooms, which stage exhibitions of items loaned from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, moved into the same area. The last Hermitage exhibition took place in 2007 and the Gilbert Collection galleries closed in 2008; the collection moved into new galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in June 2009. Somerset House now puts on a programme of art exhibitions, drawing on various sources.
In stages from 2009 to 2013, HM Revenue and Customs withdrew from the other parts of the building; since March 2013 the Somerset House Trust has had oversight of the entire complex. Its management policy has been to rent out the upper floors at a commercial rate to “creative businesses”, while devoting the ground floor to “public realm” activities. The trust receives no public subsidy and relies on income from rent and private hire to fund the upkeep of the estate and relies on ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship to fund its artistic and cultural programme.
In the winter the central courtyard is home to a popular open-air ice rink, as seen during the opening credits of the 2003 Christmas-themed film Love Actually. At other times, an array of fountains display 55 vertical jets of water rising to random heights.
The courtyard is also used as a concert venue. In July each year the “Summer series” of music events take place, which have included performances from artists such as Lily Allen.
Somerset House is now residence to more than a hundred tenants, comprising a large and diverse collection of creative organisations and artists including the British Fashion Council, 7Wonder, Hofesh Shechter Company and the Royal Society of Literature. The largest tenant is King’s College London, whose Cultural Institute, Executive Centre and Dickson Poon School of Law occupy a large part of the East Wing, which is adjacent to its historic College Building of 1831. For a time the Representative of Anguilla (the diplomatic mission of the British Overseas Territory of Anguilla) was accommodated in part of the West Wing.
Somerset House is a popular filming location, with its exterior featuring in several big-budget Hollywood films. These include two James Bond films, GoldenEye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and several scenes of the 2003 film Shanghai Knights, starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, were filmed in the courtyard of Somerset House. The courtyard was also used in the 1991 comedy King Ralph. Elements of the 2008 film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, were filmed in October 2007. Somerset House was also used as a filming location in several Sherlock Holmes films, including 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and, more recently, Sherlock Holmes (2009), starring Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr., directed by Guy Ritchie. Exterior shots of Somerset House were used in the 1999 Tim Burton horror film Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp, and the 2006 film Flyboys. Somerset House was a filming location in the 2012 Bollywood film Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which starred Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma, directed by Yash Chopra. Somerset House Courtyard was also used in the 2008 movie Last Chance Harvey, with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Scenes were filmed in Somerset House for the Olympus Has Fallen sequel, London Has Fallen (2016).
Somerset House was also the main location for the BBC’s New Year Live television show, presented by Natasha Kaplinsky, which celebrated the arrival of the year 2006.