From the Vaults

4 December 2012
Present-day Savoy Place

Sarah Hale re-visits some of the stories that make the IET’s home at Savoy Place such a fascinating and significant building.

Savoy Place

Savoy Place, the London home of the IET, occupies a site that has had a long and interesting history. The current building has been associated with the IET for over a century, after the Institution of Electrical Engineers (the IET’s direct predecessor) moved in in 1909, but the site itself has also been home to a palace, a hospital, and a prison, amongst other things.

The land on which the building stands is prestigious in its own merit. It takes its name from Peter of Savoy, who was given the site by Henry III in 1241. He built a palace on the site in 1263, which was later passed down to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Under his ownership the Palace became known as one of the most magnificent mansions of the period. Although the medieval structure was destroyed in 1381, the current Savoy Place still maintains a physical link to the historic palace; the IET Archives holds a 14th century manuscript copy of a work by Geoffrey Chaucer, most famous for writing ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Chaucer was a member of the Royal Court, as well as a clerk for John of Gaunt, and so it is possible that he would have worked within the Savoy grounds. After the building’s destruction, the land at different times became the site of a hospital and a prison.

The current building, though of lesser antiquity, has a fascinating history of its own. It was built in 1889 as a joint Examination Hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons. The place where the examinations were held was in the large room on the first floor of the building overlooking the Thames, which is now occupied by the IET Library Reading Room. ‘Examinations’ in this sense meant written tests undertaken by students of the Colleges, though there is evidence that some medical experiments were undertaken here; the IET Archives hold a plan of the building dating from the early 20th century which shows that there was once a ‘Monkey Room’ in the basement. This may relate to when the Cancer Research Fund held its laboratories in the building from 1904 to 1909. The building also houses an early elevator, which is believed to have already been in place when the IEE moved in in 1909. Though very small and possessing doors that need to be operated manually, it is still fully functioning and in use today.

BBC

Since 1909, the building has not just been occupied by the Institution. One of the building’s most famous residents was the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which rented rooms in Savoy Place and Savoy Hill House (the building directly behind Savoy Place) from 1923 to 1932. There is evidence to suggest that the director general Lord Reith had an office on the second floor of the building, with views towards Westminster. We believe that this is the room now known as the ‘Mountbatten Room’, which is regularly used for events. Correspondence between the IEE’s secretary, Percy Rowell, and the honorary treasurer, Sir James Devonshire, reveal that sharing accommodation did not always result in a harmonious working environment. In 1926, Rowell wrote to Devonshire: ‘A serious crack has recently developed in the NW staircase…I took the line that the crack was due to the BBC taking up pianos and other heavy goods…they felt sure that the cause was the bomb of 1917’.

The building’s prominent position on the Thames Embankment and its proximity to Westminster meant that it was a target during war time, especially during the Blitz. In September 1941 it lost all of its windows due to bombing raids, and by the end of the war it had been hit no less than 16 times. Luckily there was no serious damage done and the building remained largely unchanged until 1959, when major structural alterations were undertaken. The Lecture Theatre was enlarged and the Library was improved, and another storey was added to incorporate a kitchen and refectory and some more office space. External changes also took place with the front façade of the building being altered and some of the Victorian detail removed.

Memories of the building’s more recent past still abound; many of the current staff fondly recall the waitress-service lunches which were once held in the Riverside Room on the top floor. This room itself was transformed into a top-class restaurant for athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games, when Savoy Place was used as the London base for the Qatar Olympic Committee in July and August.

While the majority of IET staff have now been relocated to Michael Faraday House in Stevenage, Savoy Place continues to be a home for a number of the IET’s services and the building has also cemented its reputation as a prestigious venue. In 1996 the lease on Savoy Place was renewed for a further 125 years.

Refurbishment

As a building it is constantly re-inventing itself to meet the needs of members and visitors alike so we look forward to entering the next stage of its history with a proposed refurbishment project to upgrade the building. As has been previously reported on Member News online, the IET is currently undertaking a feasibility study into a comprehensive refurbishment, aiming to substantially improve the layout, functionality and infrastructure of Savoy Place, with the objective of not only providing a modern home for the IET over the coming decades, but also to preserve the building’s important heritage. For more information visit the online project area.

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