10 Under-Appreciated Buildings On London's South Bank

10 Under-Appreciated Buildings On London's South Bank

The London Eye, the Royal Festival Hall, the Globe Theatre — all South Bank landmarks we know so well. But what about the lesser-appreciated buildings that inhabit the stretch of central London to the immediate south of the Thames? In this abridged extract from London's South Bank in 50 Buildings, authors Louis Berk and Rachel Kolsky go in search of Italianate Victorian hospitals, almshouses with pristine lawns, and a magnificently opulent design studio.

General Lying In Hospital, 85 York Road

A grand hospital with 'General Lying in Hospital' on the front

Amid the grey expanse of York Road sits an incongruous late 18th-century classical building with a grand entrance behind four Ionic columns: the Westminster New Lying-In Hospital. Opened in 1767 as a maternity hospital for married women, its name changed to General in 1818, relocating to York Road in 1828. By then the hospital was open to all Londoners, including unmarried women. A royal charter was granted in 1830 and modernisation and expansion continued throughout the 19th century, with a nurses' home added in 1907.

In 1933 Queen Mary opened a new wing with an outpatients department, additional nurses' accommodation and welfare centre. Following the second world war it became the maternity wing for St Thomas’s Hospital but closed in 1971, being repurposed in 2003 for NHS training, IT and procurement. It was sold in 2007; the 1930s nurses' home was demolished and a Premier Inn built alongside incorporating the hospital. The staircase leading to the original doorway remains unrenovated, contrasting with the grand newer lettering above. Behind the hospital is Leake Street, famous as a graffiti tunnel, the name commemorates Dr John Leake, the hospital's founder.

Royal Doulton, Black Prince Road

A beautifully ornate red brick edifice

A peek down Black Prince Road brings into view a wonderfully exuberant corner building. Built in 1871 (with later extensions) as Royal Doulton's design studio, art school and ceramic museum, the exterior also acted as an open-air salesroom displaying the different styles of glazed pottery which Doulton was already famous for. The business closed in 1956 and most of the premises were demolished. Some friezes were saved and are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum.  John Doulton first established his pottery in Fulham, moving to Vauxhall Walk in 1815 and Lambeth Walk in 1826. In 1846, Doulton's son Henry moved the business to the Albert Embankment, producing up to 13 miles per week of glazed piping, meeting the growing demand for better public health and sanitation.

When their partner Watts retired in 1854, the name changed to Doulton & Co. and from the 1860s their range expanded to over 70 products. Doulton employed students from the nearby Lambeth School of Art including over 100 women. Above the Lambeth High Street corner entrance an 1878 terracotta relief depicts people perusing vases, a lady making a pot and a cat below her chair. In 1901 King Edward VII granted a royal warrant and the name became Royal Doulton. By the 1950s the company’s salt-glaze methods did not comply with London’s new clean air regulations and Royal Doulton transferred production to Stoke. Subsequently used by the DVLA and as a London Black Cab driver test centre, it is now Southbank House, offering shared workspace units and art studios.

One Southwark Bridge Road

A building covered in lots of black glass, and bearing the FT logo

Between 1989 and 2019, the seven-storey building nestling alongside the southern approach to Southwark Bridge was the purpose-built HQ for international business newspaper the Financial Times (FT). Several critics were harsh, one calling it "a tinted glass box with a cheap-looking blue metal roof", although others considered it distinguished and the large letters FT stood out against pink tinted glazing, a nod to the FT's famous pink paper. Designed for a specific occupier, the interior was conducive to writing within the deadline-oriented atmosphere of a newspaper. Its position on the south bank of the Thames made it in some ways a City outsider while being very much key to the City.

Arriving in 1989, the FT witnessed the rapid transformation to the neighbourhood but in 2019 returned to its original City HQ, Bracken House on Cannon Street, and this riverside building will become the HQ for WPP, a global advertising company.

St Thomas's Hospital (Victorian building), Westminster Bridge Road

An old hospital building with an ornate water tower

St Thomas's Hospital's Italianate 274-metre frontage provides a striking contrast to the Victorian Gothic Palace of Westminster opposite.

Dating back to 1106, the hospital's original site was acquired for London Bridge station in 1859, opening here in 1871 with six blocks constructed according to the theories of Florence Nightingale, the nurse who famously transformed the Scutari military hospital during the 1854/56 Crimean War and pioneered nurse training. She promoted the importance of ventilation, natural light, fire prevention and the segregation of different facilities such as laundry, catering and sanitation from the wards.

When Florence's Training School of Nursing reopened here in 1900, there were 11 specialised outpatient departments in addition to in-patient care. The style is based on the miasmatic principle, prevalent at the time, that disease was airborne (rather than germ based) with long, narrow but not particularly high buildings with tall windows. A separate north block housed the administrative offices, governors' hall and committee room with the medical school to the south.

Additions were made in the early, mid- and late 20th century but following war damage just three of the seven 19th-century pavilions survive. Plans are underway to transform Block 9, the original Medical School, and the 1978 Prideaux Building, providing additional workspaces and increased public access.

International Maritime Organisation, 4 Albert Embankment

A huge green copper sculpture of a ship

Opened in 1983 by Queen Elizabeth II, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) building was commissioned as offices for 300 international civil servants including a conference hall, meeting spaces and a fourth-floor roof terrace. Specially commissioned works of art throughout the building represent oceans and maritime trade and at ground level are models of ships and vessels linked to merchant shipping, which still accounts for 90% of international trade. Established in 1948 by the United Nations (UN) as the Inter Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, it eliminated confusion caused by each country having developed its own regulations for ports, fees and paperwork.

The IMO's key responsibilities are safety and security at sea, including piracy, safety codes, pollution and, from 1988, global search and rescue. The IMO is also responsible for interaction between ships and ports, training and legal matters pertaining to sea trade. It is the only UN agency headquartered in the UK.

The International Memorial to Seafarers (see image above), unveiled in 2001, provides a dramatic addition to the streetscape. Weighing 10 tons and standing seven metres tall, the ship's brow and lone sailor symbolise the merchant seaman's sense of isolation where vast ships often have only a handful of crew. Designed by Michael Sandle, the classic cargo ship and anchor are reminders of shipping before the age of containers.

127 Stamford Street

A grand sand coloured building with lots of windows

Stamford Street provides an alternative route between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges. No. 127 Stamford Street was built by W. H. Smith & Son (WHS) as a printing works in 1915 for its rapidly growing range of services. The company derives its name from William Henry Smith, son of a newspaper distributor. He expanded the business into a UK-wide newspaper and magazine wholesaler and book publisher as well as building lucrative contracts for newsstands for the rapidly expanding Victorian railway network. By 1914 the company had over 4,000 employees and in addition to its print distribution services had moved into high street retail shops. It required printing, bookbinding and graphic design facilities for its own publications and those of its clients.

The large symmetrical four-storey building has a distinctly Egyptian flavour with the neo-Egyptian style of the distinctive tall recessed-niche glass windows reminiscent of the false-door architecture of ancient Egyptian tombs. The WHS logo includes a palm leaf motif and the stairwells have temple-like façades. It was designed by architect C. Stanley Peach, famous for the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

The building was sold by WHS to the Telegraph newspaper in 1939, which, due to the second world war, never occupied it. Following war damage, it was subsequently used for storage. After renovation, it now provides student accommodation for King’s College, London.

St Olaf House and London Bridge Hospital, 27 Tooley Street

A beautiful art deco building

The art deco gem of St Olaf House, nestling between 1980s redevelopments, currently houses the administration centre and consulting rooms for London Bridge Hospital. Designed by Henry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, a soldier, composer, pianist, author and architect, St Olaf House was built between 1929 and 1931 as the Hay's Wharf Company headquarters. A black and gold mosaic of St Olaf commemorates the Church of St Olave Bermondsey, previously on this site and one of four churches in Bermondsey and the City of London, named in honour of King (later Saint) Olaf, who assisted with the pulling down of London Bridge in 1014, defending London against the invading Danes.

The decorative riverfront fascia is a reminder of when warehouses, wharves and offices linked to the docks were mainly visible from the River Thames. The golden and terracotta relief, Capital, Labour and Commerce, was fashioned by Frank Dobson.

Following the closure of the docks, the building underwent extensive restoration between 1982 and 1983 for occupation by actuarial firm Bacon & Woodrow, which relocated to More London in 2006. London Bridge Hospital, a private medical care company established next door in 1986, then extended into St Olaf House.
London Bridge Hospital opened in the converted 1860s Chamberlain Wharf, which had primarily handled potatoes. It was repurposed in 1985 by Llewellyn-Davies Weeks incorporating a glass barrelled atrium. Walkways link to Denmark and Emblem Houses, both dockland storage facilities converted into hospital departments.

Royal Waterloo Hospital, Waterloo Bridge Road

A grand redbrick Victorian hospital

The ornate red brick and terracotta building on the corner of Stamford Street is currently student accommodation for the University of Notre Dame (USA) London campus, and between 1981 and 2011 it housed Schiller International University students. However, the fascia alongside Waterloo Bridge proclaiming 'The Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women' signals its original purpose. Built between 1903/05, it replaced a previous hospital on the same site built in 1822 and extended several times throughout the 1800s. Originating in 1816 as the Universal Dispensary for Children at Blackfriars, patronage from King George III's children added Royal to its name, with branches established throughout London.

A new site was found at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge, a rapidly developing area since the bridge opened in 1817. Eventually, in 1875, following more name changes and bequests the hospital became the Royal Hospital for Children and Women, with Waterloo added in 1903. The hospital continued to grow through the 20th century with a nurses' home opening in 1927 on York Road. Incorporated into the NHS in 1948, the hospital closed in 1976.

South Bank Tower, 55 Upper Ground

A lofty concrete and glass building

On the corner of Hatfields and Upper Ground is a soaring 151-metre-tall tower. Opened in 1972 as Kings Reach Tower, it stands opposite a point on the north bank of the Thames renamed to honour King George V in his 1935 jubilee year. Since renamed South Bank Tower, its existing height was elevated after much planning and public debate from the original 31-storey, 130-metre-tall building to its present height by adding another 10 floors.

Resonant of the mid-1970s Tower 42 in The City, both buildings were designed by Richard Seifert. Two circular halves with stepped extensions are attached to a central elevator and services shaft which gives the impression of a backbone. At the time of construction all-glass exteriors were not yet available, and thin lattices run up the length of the tower to which windows are attached.

IPC Media occupied the building from its completion in 1972 until 2007. One of Europe's biggest publishing companies, it featured the tower in its popular weekly science- fiction comic 2000AD. An 'alien' editor called Tharg introduced each publication and the tower was referred to as his 'nerve centre'.

Before IPC Media vacated, planning permission was underway to refurbish and raise the height of the tower with the central core reduced in width increasing the area of each floor. Work was completed in 2017. South Bank Tower has since been converted to apartments offering luxury concierge accommodation with facilities including a gym, spa, cinema room and rooftop gardens.

Hopton’s Almshouses, 10/11 Hopton Street

Bucolic almshouses nestled below modern high rises

No greater contrast is likely seen along the south bank than between the vast bulk of the Neo Bankside high-rise apartment blocks and the 1740s Hopton's Almshouses.

Built by livery companies, philanthropists and various charities, they provided accommodation, typically for impoverished retirees. Originally found throughout London and outlying villages, as the population rose the sites became more valuable. Many charities sold their properties to developers and rebuilt them in the growing suburbs so few examples survive in central London, making Hopton's Almshouses particularly notable.
Almshouses are easily recognisable. The homes are usually small, just one storey high, sometimes two. Typically built around a courtyard, there is often a chapel too. Residents were usually given an annual stipend, coal and blankets, depending on the charity's regulations.

Charles Hopton, a wealthy merchant and member of the Fishmongers' Company, died in 1731 making provision for almshouses housing 26 unmarried 'poor decayed men' of the local parish of Christ Church, Southwark. Opened in 1752, the site was considered 'the cheapest, best and most convenient piece of ground that could be had for the building'. Each resident was allocated around £10 and an annual chaldron of coal. Early residents included watermen and fishermen reflecting local occupations. Two more almshouses were added in 1825 and gas lighting was introduced in 1830. 1835 improvements included York stone paving and new front gates and railings.

Behind the almshouses were 28 small garden plots and a drying area and today the homes look out onto two small well maintained gardens. Hidden from public view are additional private and communal gardens. Following Blitz damage, rebuilding restored full occupancy by 1962.

Management passed to the Anchor Trust and following modernisation reducing the number of homes to 20, the accommodation reopened in 1988. In 2011 the United St Saviour's Charity took ownership. The John Fry Room, a communal activity and meeting space, commemorates the generosity of the proprietor of Fry's Metal Foundry on Holland Street, where Neo Bankside stands today.

London's South Bank in 50 Buildings by Louis Berk and Rachel Kolsky, published by Amberley Publishing

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All images © louisberk.com

Last Updated 19 December 2023

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