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London beneath the covers

London beneath the covers

London Hidden Interiors author Philip Davies gives an exclusive tour around some of the capital’s best conserved and least known interiors – including Freemasons’ Hall

Aldwych Underground Station
Strand, WC2R 1EP
Listed: Grade II

Aldwych Underground Station opened as Strand on 30 November 1907, rechristened Aldwych in 1915. An oddity from its inception, the Aldwych branch operated a shuttle service between Holborn and Strand; various extensions were envisaged, so the station was built, but they never came to fruition, leaving Aldwych as a dead end.

Built on the site of the old Royal Strand Theatre, the station was designed by Leslie Green using the familiar ox-blood terracotta blocks. Three lift shafts were completed in the expectation of expansion, but only one was fitted out with lifts, which still survive. As early as 1917, the eastern tunnel and platform were closed, and used as secure wartime storage for pictures from The National Gallery. After the First World War, passenger demand remained low, and closure was mooted as early as 1933.

From 1940 to 1946 the station was used as an air-raid shelter, and the tunnels for storing the Elgin Marbles and other valuables from the British Museum. The station finally closed on 3 October 1994. Today it is used for training and as a film location, with old tube stock permanently stationed at the branch. It is reputedly haunted by an actress from the theatre that once occupied the site.

‘From 1940 to 1946 the tunnels were used to store valuables from the British Museum’

Freemasons’ Hall
60 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AZ
Listed: Grade II*

Known as the Peace Memorial, Freemasons’ Hall was built as a tribute to its 3,000 members killed in the First World War. Its design is the result of an international architectural competition launched in 1925, won by Henry Victor Ashley and Francis Winton Newman, who had extensive experience designing banks, factories, housing and hospital extensions.

The Grand Lodge of England had been based in Great Queen Street since 1774, where Thomas Sandby designed the first purpose-built Masonic Hall in the country in the form of a Roman Doric temple embellished with masonic symbols.

Originally Ashley and Newman intended to retain Sandby’s hall, but it was demolished in March 1932 after serious defects were found. The gigantic new complex was faced in Portland stone and designed on an heroic scale. No expense was spared on the sumptuous interior, which is finished in neo-Grecian style in marble, bronze, mosaic and stained glass imbued with masonic symbolism.

Set on a diagonal axis, the ground floor comprises the grand entrance hall and museum, and a marble staircase lit by full-height stained-glass windows leads to a huge marble-lined vestibule. Facing west is the war memorial window and Roll of Honour, which is housed in a bronze casket by Walter Gilbert, who designed most of the metalwork in the building.

The awe-inspiring Grand Temple – entered through bronze doors each weighing 1.25 tons – is crowned by a celestial canopy surrounded by a mosaic cornice, which depicts allegorical figures with different orders of classical architecture. Elsewhere, the Boardroom is panelled in hardwood and lit with stained glass, while Lodge Room No. 10 has huge arched bays carrying a domed roof.

‘No expense was spared on the sumptuous interior, with bronze, mosaic and stained glass imbued with masonic symbolism’

Victoria House
Southampton Row, WC1B 4DA
Listed: Grade II

Some of the worst poverty in London was previously to be found yards from the site of Freemasons’ Hall. The shocking mortality rates of Victorian Britain prompted the less fortunate to form burial clubs, so they could afford a decent funeral for their loved ones as an alternative to the pauper’s grave.

The early societies were unregulated. Many collapsed from mismanagement or fraud, but a number of reputable societies emerged, one of which was the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. Formed as a burial society in 1843, its business was based on ‘penny policies’ collected door-to-door. Like several other societies, Liverpool Victoria grew into a huge financial institution, the sheer opulence of its building rivalling those of the great banks.

Victoria House, the headquarters of Liverpool Victoria, involved the clearance of an entire street block of Georgian houses on the east side of Bloomsbury Square, making way for the huge Grecian-style, Beaux Arts palace. Designed by Charles W Long and erected over thirteen years between 1921 and 1934, it exuded the twin values of dignity and security, as expected of the headquarters of the great financial institutions.

Beneath the heroic marble entrance hall is a large basement ballroom, fitted out in Art Deco style with chrome, silver leaf and mauve-coloured lighting – a sharp contrast to the chaste Greek classicism of the upper floors. A suite of mahogany-panelled Grecian-style boardrooms are found on the third floor, some of which have eighteenth-century marble chimney pieces salvaged from the houses that once stood on the site.

Shortlisted in 1998 as a potential new City Hall for the Mayor of London, it was refurbished by Will Alsop, retaining the historic interiors.

‘It exuded the twin values of dignity and security, as expected of the headquarters of the great financial institutions’

The British Optical Association Museum
41-42 Craven Street, WC2N 5NG
Listed: Grade II

Founded in 1901 by the optician J H Sutcliffe, the British Optical Association Museum is now hosted by the College of Optometrists, after a peripatetic existence over the past one hundred years. It was first opened to the public in 1914 at Clifford’s Inn Hall, prompted by Sutcliffe’s desire to establish ‘An Optical House Beautiful’ in line with the fashionable concepts of the Aesthetic Movement. Later it moved to Brook Street and then to Earl’s Court before arriving at its current location in 1997, a fine early-Georgian house built c1730, with a replica extension erected in 1988.

Sutcliffe’s legacy is a quirky collection of more than eighteen thousand items relating to ophthalmic optics, the human eye and visual aids, as well as archival material, paintings and prints. The museum display is a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new objects, including the spectacles of famous personalities from Dr Johnson to Ronnie Corbett, and the sides of Dr Crippen’s glasses, the lenses missing after he tried to use them to cut his own throat in prison in a failed suicide attempt.

The cabinets house an extensive collection of porcelain eyebaths, binoculars, spyglasses and jealousy glasses with sideways mirrors to allow the owner to discreetly eye up potential suitors. Look for the dark adaptation goggles with red lenses used by Second World War pilots to adjust their night vision prior to take off, and the early revolving self-service cabinet of spectacles made by the Automatic Sight Testing and Optical Supply Co Ltd in 1889.

‘Sutcliffe’s legacy is a collection of more than eighteen thousand items … a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new objects’

James Smith & Sons
53 New Oxford Street, WC1A 1BL
Listed: Grade II

In 1830, James Smith established this famous firm of umbrella makers in Foubert’s Place, off Regent Street. In 1857, his son opened a shop at 53 New Oxford Street, followed rapidly by six other businesses elsewhere in London, including a hatter and barbershop. From their branch in the tiny passageway at Savile Row they sold umbrellas to many of the leading figures of their day, including Lord Curzon and Bonar Law.

The company was one of the first to use the famous Fox steel frames, named after Samuel Fox, who created the first steel umbrella frame in 1848. In addition to umbrellas, Smith’s has specialised in making canes and military swagger sticks, as well as bespoke items such as ceremonial maces for tribal chiefs in South Africa, Nigeria and elsewhere.

The superb shopfront and interior is a beautifully preserved example of a high-class Victorian West End shop, with cast-iron cresting to the faceted gilt and glass fascias, inscribed brass sills, elaborate black and gilt lettering to the upper panels of the windows and a splendid traditional box sign. Inside, the original mahogany counters and display cases are stocked with an array of canes, sticks and umbrellas, most of which are still manufactured in the basement. James Smith & Sons is the largest and oldest umbrella shop in Europe, and its shopfront and interior one of the landmarks of central London.

London Hidden Interiors by Philip Davies is an English Heritage book published by Atlantic Publishing, £40, available from booksellers everywhere. All pictures courtesy of English Heritage. www.londonhiddeninteriors.co.uk

‘The superb shopfront and interior is a beautifully preserved example of a high-class Victorian West End shop’