A Brief History Of The BT Tower

By M@
A Brief History Of The BT Tower

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The BT Tower against a light blue sky

A chronology of the famous Fitzrovia landmark.

The BT Tower has gone by many names — Post Office Tower, GPO Tower, even the Museum Radio Tower — but whatever you call it, it remains an impressive pillar on the skyline. It was built in the early 1960s at the dawn of the telecommunications revolution and continues to serve BT to this day (albeit without its microwave dishes).  We've dipped into the newspaper archives to piece together its history.

1954: A large tower in central London, to handle the perceived rapid increase in telephone calls, is first proposed.

1961 (June): Construction of the Post Office Tower begins. It will eventually rise to 177 metres (or 581 feet, as they'd say in those days), making it London's second-tallest structure after the Crystal Palace mast (but the tallest "building" — a structure with habitable floors — in the country).

1963 (August): Reginald Bennett MP raises a question in the Houses of Parliament about how contractors will remove the crane from the tower's top, once construction is complete.

View of the BT Tower from a height at distance looking across fitzrovia

1964 (15 July): The tower tops out. The final piece of cement is poorly smoothed over by minister Geoffrey Rippon, prompting a labourer to say: "A bit out of practice he looks".

1964 (November): A man falls to his death from the tower, after walking past security checks unchallenged.

1965 (8 October): The tower is officially opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Its dishes and antennae can handle 160,000 simultaneous telephone calls and up to 40 television channels through microwave radio.

The BT Tower, with a neighbouring sign showing binary and the phrase "white heat of scientific revolution"
Wilson's "white heat" of technology is now quoted on a mural beside the tower.

1966 (17 May): Queen Elizabeth II visits the tower and has a very high tea with unlikely companions Tony Benn (then Postmaster General) and Sir William "Billy" Butlin (of seaside resort fame). Butlin owned the rights to operate the tower's revolving restaurant).

1966 (19 May): The tower is opened to the public for the first time. Those who couldn't afford to dine in Butlin's 120-seat revolving restaurant could still visit the viewing galleries for 4s (2s for children).

1968 (18 April): The first race up the tower's 814 steps is contested between UCL and Edinburgh University. The latter won, with the lead competitor ascending the stairs in 4 minutes 46 seconds.

1971: The tower appears on Ordnance Survey maps, contrary to the rumour that it was always left off as a state secret.

1971: As if to reinforce its hold on the popular imagination, the tower was this year destroyed by a giant kitten in The Goodies episode "Kitten Kong".

A giant kitten clings to the falling Post Office Tower in a clip from The Goodies
Not based on actual events

1971 (June): A 26-year-old from Hampstead was refused access to the tower and proceeded to spray tear gas into the lift attendant's face. On trial, she would later claim "I can't explain how it happened and I assure you it will never happen again."

1971 (31 October): A bomb explodes in the roof of the men's toilets in the Top of the Tower restaurant. Nobody is injured, but it effectively put an end to casual use of the observation decks (though the restaurant would reopen). The blast was blamed variously on far-left anarchists The Angry Brigade and the IRA, although the latter denied involvement and nobody was ever charged. Many people were observed collecting "souvenir" shards of glass and other debris from the roadway.

1977 (7 August): In the tower's most unusual experiment in communication, Matthew Manning transmits a "psychic message" from the tower to readers of the Sunday Mirror. Using thoughtwaves alone, he projected a number, a colour and a shape across the nation. Just "one in four people who wrote in about it" afterwards claimed to have got "at least one" of his signals right, although the Mirror reckoned the result was staggering.

1980: Butlin's lease on the restaurant ends, and public access is curtailed. In the same year, the tower was eclipsed by the 183 metre NatWest Tower (now Tower 42) as the country's tallest. Around the same time, the building became increasingly known as the British Telecom Tower (which would later become BT Tower after privatisation).

1984 (25 December): Noel Edmonds broadcasts a special Christmas morning show from the top of the tower, in what would become an annual tradition. Will he be tempted back for the 40th anniversary in 2024?

1993: Labour MP Kate Hoey wrongly states in the House of Commons that the tower is a state secret and never appears on maps.

A view from the top of the BT Tower with its shadow stretching out into Bloomsbury
The view from the top at dusk, with the tower's shadow acting as a sundial

2003: The tower is given Grade II listed status, which it still holds. This would later cause a bit of a headache when defunct equipment needed to be taken down.

2006: The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology installs an air-quality monitoring station now known as the BT Tower Observatory.

2009 (31 October): A wrap-around LED screen is installed around the 36th and 37th floors. It begins counting down the days until the London 2012 Olympics.

2010: A rare opportunity to ascend the tower becomes available during Open House weekend. 35,000 people register interest for the 500 available slots. The only other opportunities to visit are through occasional charity climbs, and by invitation to a private function.

2011 (September): C3PO actor Anthony Daniels flicks a switch, turning the tower into a giant lightsaber. It's a PR stunt to mark the release of the (then) complete Star Wars saga on Blue Ray.

BT Tower at night, illuminated for the countdown
The Olympic countdown reaches 500 days in March 2011

2011 (December): The tower undergoes another radical costume change, when the removal of the last of the dishes and antennae around its neck. Ever since, the bare concrete core has been visible.

2014 (24 October): Queen Elizabeth II sends her first ever tweet, which is displayed on the tower's LED screen.

2019 (April): The 360 degree LED display shows a Windows 7 error message for several days.

2024 (February): The tower is sold by BT to hospitality group MCR Hotels for £275 million. The move raises hopes that the structure will once again become accessible to the wider public.

All images by the author, except the giant kitten (obviously).

Last Updated 21 February 2024