The IET finds a home

Over a century ago, the leaders of what was to become the IET decided to find a home.

The organisation began life in 1871 as the Society of Telegraph Engineers to address the concerns of an emerging profession, and it evolved to keep pace with the progress of technology. Within a decade the scope of the Society had broadened beyond telegraphy to encompass electrical science. The group twice changed its name to reflect the advancement of electrical science and its growing importance.

The Society of Telegraph Engineers added “and of Electricians” to its name in 1880. Then, in 1887, it became the Institution of Electrical Engineers, highlighting its representation of electrical engineers in England.

On 1 June 1909, with membership at more than 5,000 and growing, the Institution took possession of its own building by purchasing the remainder of a lease to a historic property on the Thames owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. Savoy Place now stands on that site. It was built in the 1880s to be an examination hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The Institution undertook extensive refurbishment and major alterations of the building to suit the needs of its members before it moved in. Some of these early changes have been preserved and are still on view today.

The Institution held its first Ordinary General Meeting here on 10 November 1910. It now has more than 150,000 members around the world. The last name change came in 2006, when the Institution of Electrical Engineers united with the Institution of Incorporated Engineers, creating the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Early history of the site

The present building was designed by Stephen Salter and H Percy Adams, architects, as a joint examination hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons. The site however, has a much longer and more notorious history.

The area of the Savoy manor takes its name from Peter, Count of Savoy, who was given the land by Henry III in 1246. He built a palace on this site but after his death in 1268 the property was left to a hospice in France. However, his niece, Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III, bought back the land and it was then given to her son, Edmund Plantagenet, the first Earl of Lancaster. Successive Earls of Lancaster extended the site and furnished the Savoy Palace, culminating in the efforts of John of Gaunt, using his booty from wars with France and Spain.

During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, both John of Gaunt and his palace became a target. A crowd marched on London, burnt down the palace and destroyed its contents. The palace was not restored but rather modified to serve as a prison for the Duchy during the 15th century.

The Savoy Hospital

In 1509 Henry VII left a substantial amount of money in his will so that the Savoy could be rebuilt as a hospital to accommodate 100 beds for the lodging of poor folk to receive a bath, a night’s rest and medical care.

The hospital was completed in 1517 when the executors of Henry’s will named it the Hospital of Henry VII King of England of the Savoy. Despite initial good intentions, mismanagement and corruption sent the hospital into decline.

For the majority of the 17th century the Savoy Hospital was not put to its intended use, housing wounded soldiers and eventually being transformed into a military barracks and prison. The area further deteriorated in the 18th century with houses appearing on the Strand, in Duchy Lane and on the riverside. Religious institutions also appeared such as a school of Jesuits and the area also provided a retreat for the families of poor French Protestants. In 1723 a German Lutheran Church was built on what is now part of the site occupied by the IET, but this was demolished in 1877 to make way for the Victoria Embankment.

Parts of ancient Savoy remained until the beginning of the 19th century but most buildings were swept away for the construction of Waterloo Bridge (1811) and the Thames Embankment (1862). With this regeneration the Savoy was finally returning to a place of prestige.

The current building

The building now occupied by the IET was originally built as a joint Examination Hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons, completed in 1889 and designed to accommodate 600 candidates.

The foundation stone, which can be seen on the East side entrance of the building, was laid by Queen Victoria on 24 March 1886. It was further adapted in May 1887 to build classrooms, laboratories and a lecture theatre on the vacant land adjacent to the Examination Hall. Planning was hindered by neighbouring tenants concerned that the buildings would obstruct their access to light.

However, with careful designing it was possible to build a wing on each side of the main building and to connect these by two galleries of rooms.

Between the years 1890 to 1902 much valuable work was done in these laboratories. This included research on typhoid fever and in 1894 antidiphtheritic serum was manufactured and tested here.

The IEE moves in

On 1 June 1909 The Institution of Electrical Engineers bought the remaining seventy-six years of the ninety-nine year lease from the Duchy of Lancaster. The Institution had been founded over 15 years before, in 1871, as the Society of Telegraph Engineers. By the early 1900s the Institution had over five thousand members and was collecting funds for the purchase of its own building.

Before the IEE moved in to the building in 1910, alterations were carried out by H Percy Adams and Charles Holden. This included renovation of the entrance hall, the lecture theatre and the creation of a library from the long room on the first floor. In the late 1950s, Adams Holden and Pearson altered the facade and added the top storey and entrance.

In 1923, the newly formed British Broadcasting Company was offered spare accommodation at Savoy Place for its broadcasts. It began leasing seven rooms and quickly expanded, taking over the West Wing by the end of the year. The BBC moved in to Savoy Mansions in 1925 and renamed it Savoy Hill. "2LO" broadcast from there until 1932. Savoy Hill was bought by the Institution in 1984 and is now known as Savoy Hill House.