Only nine months before his death, Sir George Gilbert Scott was still completing the last stage of his government office work: the Home and Colonial Offices facing Whitehall, which had immediately followed on from the completion of the Foreign and India Offices in 1868. At Scott’s confrontation with Palmerston on 8 September 1860, when Palmerston proposed the new site arrangement, he left the Whitehall front ‘as a future work’.
The defeat of the Liberal Government in June 1866 brought the Conservatives back to power with Scott’s ally, Lord John Manners, as First Commissioner again. Manners decided that the new offices to the east of the Foreign Office would contain the Colonial Office to the north and the Home Office to the south and in November 1866, the Treasury set up a commission to examine the future planning of the whole Whitehall area, with Manners as its chairman. A number of plans were presented to the commission, including a grandiose proposal which still exists in model form, by the Director of Engineering Works at the Admiralty, Lt. Colonel Andrew Clarke. This shows every building between the new Foreign Office and Trafalgar Square demolished and rebuilt in an Italianate style. The other plans were less extravagant but they all did away with Downing Street and removed the thin slice of property between Whitehall and King Street. However Hunt told the commission that this slice would be very expensive to purchase and produced a plan making King Street the eastern boundary of the new offices.
Scott also produced a plan. He claimed that the Home and Colonial Offices could not be fitted into Hunt’s plan, and, as with the other plans, he would abolish King Street and give the new offices a frontage onto a widened Whitehall. Not surprisingly, with Manners as chairman, Scott’s plan became the commission’s favourite, but he was asked to comment on the merits of the other plans. The Builder, Scott’s ally, commented:
It was impossible that so great an architect could be thoroughly satisfied with any plans so concocted; and the Government will have done wisely, if, as is understood, they have put the whole matter entirely into his hands.
On 25 February 1868, Scott was appointed ‘architect of the proposed new offices for the Home and Colonial Departments’, but he had to await the publication of the commissioner’s report before he could commence work. This did not take place until May 1868. He then acted quickly. He drew up plans for a building containing both offices but separated by a carriageway leading from Whitehall into a recess, which was an extension to the large quadrangle beyond. On 30 July 1868, Smith’s signed a contract to construct the foundations for this building for £20,709. Anxious to proceed quickly with the superstructure, Scott consulted heads of the departments and based his design on their requirements. But this was a period of political uncertainty and it was not until after a new Liberal Government under Gladstone was formed in December 1868 that he was able to submit his plans to the Office of Works.
The new First Commissioner of Works was Austen Layard who had been the sole objector to Scott’s classical design in the great debate of July 1861. Since 1866 he had directed the sculpture on the Albert Memorial on behalf of the Executive Committee and had become one of Scott’s staunchest allies. He entered his post with reforming zeal; deprived Pennethorne of his architectural work, created a new post of Secretary of Works and Buildings to which he appointed his friend James Fergusson, and set up a committee to report on Scott’s plans.
Scott told the Office of Works that his plans would cost a staggering £352,372, so by 22 January 1869, he had re-organised his design. He told the committee that the carriageway from Whitehall would have to go, along with the recess on the quadrangle side. This meant that the twelve feet deep raft that Smith’s were already constructing would have to be modified at an additional cost of £1,406. The Office of Works instructed Scott on 27 February to proceed with the modifications without delay although the changes ‘will involve no charge for your renumeration’. Scott obtained the approval of the Secretaries of State of the two departments for the new arrangement and on 13 August 1869 he was instructed by Layard ‘to proceed with as little delay as possible’ with the working drawings.
But Layard’s stay at the Office of Works was woefully brief. He had come under attack from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, Acton Smee Ayrton, the M. P. for Tower Hamlets, for excessive public expenditure on ‘painters, sculpturers, architects and market-gardeners’. Gladstone was impressed by his forcefully expressed economic arguments and, in October 1869, for no other obvious reason other than he wanted to break up a quarrel between Ayrton and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he appointed Layard to be the British Minister in Madrid and made Ayrton the First Commissioner of Works.
Ayrton declared war on architects late in December 1869 with an attack on Street in connection with the Law Courts; in January 1870 he sacked Edward Barry as the architect of the Houses of Parliament; and on 24 February he demanded information from Scott about the costs and accommodation to be provided in the new Home and Colonial Offices. Scott did not have this to hand so three weeks later Ayrton wrote again asking for this information to be ‘given at once’. Two days later, Scott said that he had been able to reduce the cost of the two offices from £379,968 to £350,000, and on 13 May 1870, his assistant, Rupert Goldie, sent a set of working drawings to the Treasury for inspection. Scott was then told to do nothing ‘until you receive further instructions’.
Scott’s proposed Whitehall front was a heavily modelled symmetrical fifteen-bay façade with a big central porch and pavilions at each end crowned with ninety-feet tall cupolas. Scott heard nothing for seven weeks, then, on 25 June, he was ordered to remove the porch and the cupolas, which as The Builder said, would make the front ‘sadly monotonous and heavy in outline’. On 23 August 1870, Scott was finally ordered to invite tenders from fifteen builders. These included Jackson and Shaw of Earl Street, Westminster, which was only half a mile south of the site. They had already won the first phase of the Midland Grand Hotel and Scott was so pleased with their work that they were awarded the later stages of the hotel without competition. He must have been delighted that their tender for the Home and Colonial Offices, submitted in September 1870, was the lowest at £242,323 and they signed the contract with Ayrton on 20 November. The work was expected to take three years. Inevitably it took longer. Numerous governmental reorganisations were a major cause of delay, particularly the formation in 1871 of the Local Government Board which was assigned the southern portion of the Home Office building. In 1872, all Jackson’s contracts were selected for industrial action, but by August 1875, the building was sufficiently complete for the staff to move in, although outstanding work delayed the final completion for another two years.
Scott was able to retain a considerable amount of sculpture to indicate the functions of the two offices on the Whitehall front. The spandrels between the lowest range of windows are filled with high-relief sculpture by Philip on the Home Office side and by Armstead, representing the five continents, on the Colonial Office side. Crowning the central projection, and giving some life to the ponderous façade, is a seated sculpture of Queen Victoria with a lion and unicorn and attendant figures. Scott probably designed this group which was carved by Farmer and Brindley who carried out all the decorative carving on the building.
Scott was never satisfied with the Home and Colonial Offices. In July 1872 he said that:
My design has been greatly impoverished for economy’s sake The great damage done has been the striking off of two corner towers, needed to relieve the monotony of so vast a group I live in hopes of their restitution!
This never happened and the great block remains today a very public monument to Scott’s unfulfilled aspirations.
Toplis, I., The Foreign Office, an Architectural History (Mansell Publishing, London and New York, 1987), pp. 155-6, 159-160, 176-9, 181-4, 186-7, 189-90, 192-3.
Scott’s Recollections, II 228, III 242.
Parliamentary Papers, 1867-8 (281) LVIII, 257.q. 257, 261, 268, 406.
Physick, J., and Darby, M., ‘Marble Halls’, Drawings and Models for Victorian Secular Buildings (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1973), pp. 44-5.
The Builder, XXVII, 16 March 1869, p. 181.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 56.
Handbook to the Prince Consort National Memorial (John Murray, London, 1924, 25th ed.), p. 11.
Brownlee, D. B., The Law Courts, The Architecture of George Edmund Street (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Mass. and London, 1984), p. 209.
The Builder, XXXI, 20 June 1874, p. 523.
Handley-Read, L., ‘Whitehall Sculpture’, The Architectural Review, vol. CXLVIII, November 1970, p. 278.