Blythe House (former Post Office Savings Bank Headquarters)
- Heritage Category:
- Listed Building
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
- Statutory Address:
- Blythe House, 23 Blythe Road, West Kensington, London
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- Statutory Address:
- Blythe House, 23 Blythe Road, West Kensington, London
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Greater London Authority
- Hammersmith and Fulham (London Borough)
- Non Civil Parish
- National Grid Reference:
Offices. Built 1899-1903 under (Sir) Henry Tanner as the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank. The east wing of 1920-22, workshop ranges around the periphery of the site, printing works in the eastern courtyard, pre-fabricated huts and all post-war ancillary buildings and structures, are not of special interest and are excluded from the listing.
Reasons for Designation
Blythe House, an important work of 1899-1903 by Sir Henry Tanner, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: an impressive composition on a monumental scale by (Sir) Henry Tanner, a significant figure in late-Victorian and Edwardian public architecture, retaining interior features of interest;
* Historic interest: as the former headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank, among the largest government building projects of the period, representing both the proto-socialist paternalistic state and the increasing democratisation of wealth in Imperial Britain;
* Group value: with the Post Office and Delivery Office to the east of 1903-4, also designed by Tanner, listed Grade II.
The Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) was established by Act of Parliament in 1861 promulgated by Gladstone, to increase working-class access to secure banking and encourage thrift. It was also a cheaper source for government borrowing, and thus the POSB could offer a good rate of interest. Growing out of a pre-existing base of money-order offices, there were over 2,500 branches by 1863. Their wide distribution and guaranteed security ensured the initiative’s success: by the mid-1880s there were more than 8,000 branches and 3.5 million accounts, and the POSB model had been copied by other nations. At the end of 1902 there were about 12,000 branches and more than 9 million accounts, of which about 80% were reportedly held by working-class people, with a total value of about £145,000,000. This was among the largest government building projects of the late-Victorian/Edwardian period. With such a reach, and as the government’s chief department for serving the public, the Post Office was criticised for socialist tendencies.
Administration of the POSB had begun in two rooms of the General Post Office, St Martins-le-Grand, moving successively to larger premises in the City. Post Office reforms of the late 1890s and the passage of the Public Buildings Expenses Act (1898) enabled the provision of a large new POSB headquarters. A five-acre site was acquired in West Kensington immediately to the west of Olympia, previously occupied by temporary buildings used for William ('Buffalo Bill') Cody's Wild West Show at Olympia. The designs were prepared under (Sir) Henry Tanner (1849-1935), who had been appointed Principal Surveyor to the Office of Works in 1898. The final cost was £315,000, though the building’s east and west ends were deliberately left unfinished in anticipation of further wings being added. The Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone in June 1899, and the building was occupied in January 1903, accommodating some 4,000 staff. Of these, more than 1,000 were women, separated from the men in a north-south division, an arrangement which continued until 1936. Blythe House was electrified throughout with its own generators housed in a separate building. Good facilities were provided for the staff, with canteens on the top floor and basement bicycle stores. The basements were reinforced c1938 to provide air-raid shelters. An office adjacent to the entrance hall was adapted in the early 1920s as a war memorial room; its fittings were removed in the 1980s.
An east range was added in 1920-22 to a new design, but the corresponding west range was never built; instead, the central courtyard was built over (and opened up again), a printing works built in the eastern courtyard c1930, and pre-fabricated huts erected at the west end of the site in the late 1940s. The POSB's headquarters moved to Glasgow in 1963 and Blythe House was vacated in 1977-8. It was re-occupied by the national museums for storage and conservation workshops in the early 1980s.
MATERIALS: pinkish-red Midlands brick and Portland stone; elevations of east and west courtyards faced in glazed brick. Internally, the building was given fire-resistant construction within the load-bearing brick walls, steel-framed floors with breeze-concrete infill, supported on substantial cast-iron columns with moulded caps and bases. The riveted main beams, now encased, were formerly exposed.
PLAN: the building was originally planned as a huge rectangle, aligned east-west and divided internally into three courts by two cross-ranges. The first build of 1899-1903 omitted the closing east and west ranges, and comprised the two long north and south ranges, the former deeper in plan than the latter, and the two inner cross-ranges with spine corridors, with stairs and lifts located in recessed links at the four intersections. The addition of the east range in 1922 created a second closed court. The north frontage block contained suites of offices, ranging in size from cellular offices to large open-plan workrooms, to either side of a corridor. The principal offices were located at ground floor, those for senior staff on the western side entered via an open entrance hall, now subdivided. Some of the original ground-floor layout survives; above this level, partitions and corridors have been removed to create vast open-plan spaces. The south wing, occupied by female staff, was and remains open plan, again with some areas of modern subdivision. The north-south cross-ranges comprise mezzanine levels on the inner side, where cloakrooms and WCs were located, and further offices and ancillary rooms on the outer side. The room layout has been much altered. There is a separate entrance and small entrance hall, originally for female staff, on the south-east side of the eastern cross range.
EXTERIOR: the building is four storeys high plus an attic and semi-basement. The principal (north) elevation, designed in the Edwardian Baroque manner with ‘Wrenaissance’ detail, is symmetrical with a projecting frontispiece and end pavilions articulated 3:7:5:7:3, with one-bay returns. The third and fourth floors are treated as a double attic storey above a deep modillion cornice; the recessed seven-bay sections have a slated false mansard roof with timber pedimented dormers, rather than a full upper attic storey. Roofs are otherwise flat. The elaborate five-bay frontispiece is accentuated by tower bays flanking a heavily rusticated stone tripartite entrance arch with a pediment carved with the Post Office crown, and acroteria with the carved ER monogram. Attic windows have aedicular surrounds and balconets, that to the taller central bay with a clock and an eyebrow pediment. The stone towers, surmounted by open cupolas, derive from Wren's west towers at St Paul's Cathedral. The end pavilions have colonnettes to the first and third-floor windows, and oeil-de-boeuf attic windows to the pedimented outer bays. Windows otherwise have stone mullions and transoms, those to the ground floor in rusticated surrounds; those to the first floor pedimented. Windows are timber sashes with glazing bars and fixed upper lights. The ragged ends to the masonry of the west flank elevation betray the absence of the west range. The basement area is enclosed by cast-iron railings with art nouveau detailing on a low stone wall.
On the wall to the left of the entrance is the foundation stone; to the right is a granite war memorial within a bronze frame, erected in 1919, inscribed with the names of the 93 employees who fell in the Great War, paid for by staff subscription and made by AL and CE Moore.
A triple barrel-vaulted carriageway carried on stone compound piers leads through to the main courtyard. The courtyard elevations are faced in red brick, have simple but dignified treatment, with some stone detail such as pediments to first-floor windows and string-courses, and brick openwork parapets which have been largely rebuilt to match the original. A walkway joining the south ends of the cross-ranges is enclosed with timber and glass between cast-iron columns. The basement area, with coal vaults along the east and west sides, is enclosed by railings of the same design to the frontage. Square 'chimneys' on all the courtyard elevations are ventilation shafts. The south elevation, which has no street frontage, is articulated 7:3:9:3:7, with similar treatment to the central courtyard. Fenestration of the south and courtyard elevations comprises sash windows set within timber mullion and transoms, some with reeded mullions, and smaller windows to the mezzanine levels of the cross-ranges.
INTERIOR: the interior is consistently finished with glazed-brick linings to the corridors, stairwells and interior office walls in cream and yellow with minimal pale green patterning, maple wood-block and tile flooring; some areas of terrazzo. The exception is the ground floor of the western front range, which has a stone pilastered entrance hall and corridor with moulded plaster cornices and glazed timber doors. The entrance hall has been partly subdivided with modern partitions*, but the above decorative features and the arched entrance to the former War Memorial room remain in situ. The original floor was coloured terrazzo, which may possibly survive beneath later floor covering. The former Director’s office (south-west corner) has a plaster ceiling with egg-and-dart enrichment to the beams and cornice, and a stone bolection-moulded chimneypiece. The former Controller’s office (north-west corner) has a beamed plaster ceiling and a simple grey marble fire surround. A few fireplaces survive elsewhere. At fourth floor, the original clock mechanism survives in working order. The corridors of the cross ranges retain their wall-mounted metal ventilators; a number of glazed panelled doors also remain in these areas. At the four intersections of the ranges stone serliana open onto imposing open-well cantilevered stairs with scrolled wrought-iron balustrades, hardwood handrails and reconstituted stone or concrete treads. The women’s entrance hall has a glazed timber lobby and triple doorways in keyed stone arches to the inner side. The majority of the offices and workspaces are (and were always) very sparsely finished with exposed cast-iron columns and steel beams (the latter now enclosed), the rooms originally divided by timber partitions which have largely been removed and other than tiled walls there are no fixtures or fittings of note. The basement lacks fittings of interest, with the exception of some strong rooms with steel doors. Many of the interior spaces have modern (1980s or later) partitions: these, and other modern insertions, are not of special interest*.
SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: the north frontage is enclosed by low stone boundary walls with rusticated piers surmounted by ball finials, cast-iron railings and triple gates with fleur-de-lys heads and wrought scrolled detail. Tall rusticated piers flank the central pair of gates, each bearing an ornate lamp standard. To the right is a small stone porter’s lodge with an open segmental pediment and rusticated angle pilasters; this is complemented on the left side by an open arch with identical detail.
To the south is a 12-bay single-storey brick boiler house with 12 pilastered arcaded bays, with a pitched slate roof, stepped gables and a banded end stack. The front has some original paired windows; other openings have been blocked or altered. Internal plant and fittings* are not of special interest. Behind rises a 150ft-tall red-brick and stone-dressed chimney, detailed as a campanile with blind arcading and cornices. The lower attached buildings are excluded from the listing, as are the ranges of workshops to the south-west of the site, the former printing works in the east courtyard, and all post-war structures within the site.
* Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest.
This List entry has been amended to add sources for War Memorials Online and the War Memorials Register. These sources were not used in the compilation of this List entry but are added here as a guide for further reading, 10 February 2017.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
War Memorials Online, accessed 10 February 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/77098
War Memorials Online, accessed 10 February 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/85396
War Memorials Register, accessed 10 February 2017 from http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/47920
War Memorials Register, accessed 10 February 2017 from http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/39099
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
The listed building(s) is/are shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.
End of official listing