Lost London – The Imperial Institute…

February 24, 2018


An ornate turreted building in South Kensington, construction of the Imperial Institute began in 1887 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Designed by Thomas Edward Collcutt and paid for almost entirely by public subscription, the huge 213 metre long building featured three “Renaissance-style” towers with copper covered domes. Foremost among them was the 87 metre high Queen’s Tower (initially known as the Collcutt Tower after the architect).

Officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1893 (although the building was apparently never completed), the building – which was built to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – was intended as an exhibition space to showcase the Empire’s industrial and commercial resources and also as a location for research and meetings.

The idea for a permanent exhibition space for colonial “produce” had apparently been enthusiastically backed by the Prince of Wales (and the Queen herself) following a series of exhibitions showcasing the wares of India and the colonies in preceding years.

But the enthusiasm for the institute, said to have cost more than £350,000, quickly waned (perhaps because of a vagueness over its purpose) and despite efforts to encourage people to use it through introducing “attractions” like a billiards room, the financial position of the institute became somewhat straitened.

Help came from the University of London which took over half of the building just six years later in 1899 and other tenants followed in attempt to keep money for maintenance flowing. Various government departments took on responsibility for the building in the following years.

With its purpose increasingly questioned by the middle of the 20th century, when Imperial College needed to expand, it was decided to demolish the building. Demolition started in 1957 and ran into the mid-1960s. Thanks to public protests led by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, the Queen’s Tower, however, was preserved and is now part of Imperial College.

The tower, which once had a public viewing gallery (now closed) contains 10 bells, known as the Alexandra Peal, which are hung about halfway up the tower. They given by a Mrs Elizabeth A Miller, of Melbourne, Australia, in 1892 as a gift and are named after Queen Victoria, the then Prince and Princess of Wales, and other children and grandchildren of the Queen. They are rung on important college occasions.

Meanwhile, the institute, renamed the Commonwealth Institute, relocated to Kensington High Street. It later went into liquidation. That site now houses the recently unveiled Design Museum.

PICTURE: Top – Imperial Institute during the Edwardian era (public domain); Below –  The Queen’s Tower is all that now remains of the institute (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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