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London: New Bank Buildings, Princes Street, City of London, 1807-10 (115)

New Bank Buildings

Sir John Soane was appointed architect to the Bank of England in 1788, a post he held for 45 years. It was in the middle of his tenure that Soane was directed to design five new houses for a vacant plot on the west side of Princes Street. The commissioning of these new houses came at a time when the northwest expansion of the Bank was nearing completion, in January 1807. This phase of work had included the building of the Tivoli Corner (erected 1806-7) and the realignment and widening of Princes Street, which was reopened to traffic on 29 September 1808. The Bank wished to profit from the land acquired from the Grocers' Company in 1800 (Abramson, op. cit. below, p. 158). The new houses were therefore to be let as mercantile residences and consisted of commercial offices on the ground floor and domestic accommodation for the proprietors and clerks above. The Bank struggled to find tenants owing to high rental charges and it was not until April 1810 that all of the houses were occupied.

The history of the building of the five new houses may be divided into two stages; the first, from 1807 to 1809, when the houses were designed and erected and the second, from 1809 to 1811, when additional land behind the new houses was acquired and three counting houses built in the new space.

Soane was first asked to present a plan of the new houses to the Bank's Committee of Building on 5 March 1807 (drawing 1). After conferring with the Grocers' Company over a piece of land belonging to the Bank next to the vacant site, a plan was approved and the new houses ordered to be built in August of that year (drawings 2-5). The designs for the new houses appear to have gone through few variations before they were approved, and no drawings of the rear elevation are to be found in the Soane Museum. Perhaps this is because its appearance was unremarkable, or else that it was shielded from sight by the buildings behind on Old Jewry. The new houses were under construction by the end of the year. Writing in his Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect (1835) Soane described the houses as 'one uniform pile, in every respect symmetrically composed, and presenting more of the appearance of one grand hotel than of several distinct mansions' (p. 33). The frontage (drawings 110-12) was decorated with incised pilasters, fret moulding and antefixes in what has been described as 'an extreme example of the dissatisfaction with the self-effacing fronts of most C18 houses that overtook house-builders in the early C19' (S. Bradley and N. Pevsner, op cit. below, p. 98). Internally, Soane masterfully arranged five equal-sized houses on an irregular corner site while maintaining a single, unified exterior that presented a look of modern yet sober commercialism.

The second stage of work was prefaced in April 1808 by the offer of an estate in Old Jewry to the Bank for £10,000. This estate belonged to the Company of Armourers and Braziers and included the Old Jewry Meeting House as well as almshouses and other private dwellings. Although the Committee wished to make a deal, it was discovered in January 1809 that the Braziers were not legally entitled to sell the premises without the consent of Parliament and it was not until December 1809 that the estate was finally purchased by the Bank. The delay had not precluded Soane from making plans of the new plot, however (drawings 46-47), and the Committee negotiated the vacating of the Meeting House and the adjacent houses during 1809.

The acquisition of the premises behind the new buildings allowed Soane to design three counting houses for Nos 1, 2 and 3. The London Dock Company, which occupied house No. 1, had requested a separate building for its Secretary in February 1809, and Messrs Thellusson, Nephew & Co. (then of No. 3) followed suit in October. Plans of the counting houses for Nos 2 and 3 were presented to the Committee and approved on 7 March 1810, and the new offices were built during the year. The entrances to the counting houses were particularly Soanean and coupled associations of security and commercialism with sepulchral elements (drawing 91).

While the building of the new houses was relatively straightforward, finding suitable tenants proved much more difficult for the Committee. The principal cause of this difficulty was the high level of rent demanded by the Bank. Delays in construction also caused problems. The houses were originally reserved for five individuals. Soane was asked by the Committee to propose the rental rates for the new properties. In May 1809 three separate reports were commissioned to calculate the rents at 5% of the total costs, from which Soane was directed to take an average. Thereafter it was resolved to set the rents on leases of 21 years as follows:
No. 1: £525 p.a.
No. 2: £315 p.a.
No. 3: £320 p.a.
No. 4: £360 p.a.
No. 5: £450 p.a.

In defence of these high rents, Soane offered an estimate of the comparative building costs for each of the houses between 1807 and 1809, which he found to have risen significantly owing to increasing material costs. High rents did prove an obstacle to some tenants and it was not until 1810 that the houses were all finally let, as follows:

No. 1: The London Dock Company
Beeston Long (1757-1820), the Governor of the Bank of England from 1806-8 and Chairman of the London Dock Company reserved No. 1 in 1808. A private firm which was responsible for constructing the Wapping docks, the London Dock Company profited hugely from a 21-year monopoly on unloading all vessels bringing tobacco, rice, wine and brandy to the port (except those from the East and West Indies). In February 1809 it was estimated that £11,000 had been spent on building the London Dock Company's house, and the request for a separate building for the company's Secretary raised this amount to £13,500. Rent was estimated at £540 plus a ground rent of £110 per annum, although in June this was revised to £525. In a letter dated 13 June 1809 the London Dock Company agreed to rent house No. 1 'provided that the Directors of the Bank of England agree to erect such other additional Building in the rear of the present House as the Company may deem necessary. And provided also an additional entrance from the Old Jewry be secured to the Company to the present House or any other Building that may be erected for the Company' (Bank Archives, M5/262, p. 127). The house was occupied from Christmas 1810. In October of the following year additional rooms were built at the rear of the premises for £400, increasing the rent to £545 p.a.

No. 2: Messrs Thellusson, Nephew & Co.
Soane made designs and alterations for premises belonging to the three sons of Peter Thellusson (1737-97), an Anglo-French merchant banker, in 1792 and 1800. It was the second son, George Woodford Thellusson (1764-1811) who, with his nephew, George, and partner William Mitchell applied for a house in the New Bank Buildings, having been informed by Soane of their availability in March 1809. Writing to the Bank in June, Thellusson & Co. noted the high rent, but concluded 'that the Committee of Building have not fixed that rent without due consideration and therefore we submit to it' (Bank Archives, M5/262, p. 128). This was on the condition that the house would be fitted with a safe and a wine cellar, a request with which the Bank complied. In September the company asked for a counting house to be built 'with one room about 25 feet long and width in proportion & proper height and over that another room same size divided in two with sky light only.' It was resolved by the Committee 'that Messrs Thellussons be permitted to have the House No. 2 instead of No. 3 but that no additional Buildings be allowed to be erected higher than the Basement Story of the House' (Bank Archives, M5/262, p. 137). The following January the company relinquished house No. 3, but in February agreed to take No. 2 instead, which they occupied from Lady Day (25 March) 1811. The rent was increased by £49 after the counting house was completed at a cost of £980.

No. 3: Manning & Co.
William Manning (1763-1835), a merchant, MP, member of the Committee of Building and Governor of the Bank (1812-14), did not apply for a house until January 1810 after Messrs Thellusson, Nephew & Co. had rejected No. 3. The terms were that 'at least three of the Chief rooms' would be fitted with marble chimneypieces, that the lease would be granted for 35 years, that the Meeting House behind would be 'taken down (conformably to a plan already prepared) before the commencement of the Term', and that the lease should 'contain a clause enabling us, at any time hereafter, to build Counting Houses under the direction of your own Surveyor' (Bank Archives, M5/262, pp. 155-6). The Bank agreed to the terms, although the lease remained at 21 years. A counting house was built, and Manning & Co. moved into the property on Michaelmas (29 September) 1810.

Nos 4-5: Joseph Kaye
House No. 5 was reserved for Joseph Kaye (1755/6-1840), the Bank's solicitor, in March 1808. The following February he requested that the house be ready for occupation by 1 August. In May, however, Kaye asked to be relieved 'from the inconvenience & the suspense which he is now subjected to on account of the delay which has taken place in finishing the House in Princes Street which has been reserved for him' (Bank Archives, M5/262, p. 120). Despite his association with the Bank, Kaye received no preferential treatment, for he wrote to the Committee of Building in July 1809 that the proposed rent of £450 p.a. exceeded 'by at least one third what I expected the Bank would have required me to pay and [exceeds] in the same proportion my estimation of the value of the accommodation the House affords' (Bank Archives, M5/262, p. 129). £350 p.a. was Kaye's offer. In February 1810, Messrs Smith, Cheeseman & Co. agreed to terms for house No. 4, but relinquished it 11 months later. The lease was subsequently requested by Kaye, who was granted the tenancy at a reduced rate of £310 p.a. The rent of No. 5 was also reduced by £50. In return it was decided that one of Kaye's rooms should be used as a repository for the Bank's law papers.

The Committee of Building minutes for May 1812 record that 'a letter was read from Messrs Manning, Anderdon & Co., Mr. Mitchell & Messrs Kaye & Freshfield requesting that the New Houses which they occupy adjoining to Princes St may be called Bank Buildings or New Bank Buildings, on which the Committee directed Mr Soane to have the words New Bank Buildings painted on one of the said Houses' (Bank Archives, M5/263, p. 45). George Bailey, Soane's pupil and assistant, added titles to a number of drawings during his time as Curator of the Soane Museum (1837-60), hence the reason that the name 'New Bank Buildings' appears on drawings dated as early as 1807.

The houses on Princes Street were twice threatened with at least partial demolition as part of plans to widen Lothbury to improve traffic circulation. Soane recounted both proposals in his Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect (1835) in a section based heavily on his comments presented to the Committee of Building in 1825 (drawings 114-5). Soane was very defensive of his buildings which were 'arranged & settled with the City Surveyor so as to make a part of the great Plan then in contemplation for the improvement of the City' (Bank Archives, M5/623, p. 3). The houses survived both scares and were demolished at the end of the 19th century when they were replaced by the 'ornately Neo-Palladian' Bank Buildings of A. C. Blomfield. Bradley and Pevsner say that 'a characteristic gable end of Soane's building survives, trapped between later party walls' (op. cit., p. 581).

In addition to the 115 drawings catalogued here, the New Bank Buildings are shown in five drawings made for Soane's Royal Academy lectures (SM 12/4/1-5). Two views of the houses are also included in Joseph Gandy's composite drawing of views of the Bank of England, 1822 (P84). The New Bank Buildings appear three times in Gandy's capriccio of Soane's executed designs, 1818 (P87) in the form of a model of the houses, a plan of the houses and a model of the entrances to the counting houses.

The Bank of England Archive has material related to Soane's work at the Bank of England, including Minute Books of the Committee of Building, 1803-38, Soane's comments on the proposals for widening Lothbury, Freshfields' papers, title deeds and plans of the houses made before their demolition. Besides the drawings catalogued here, there is further material relating to the New Bank Buildings in the Soane Museum's archive. For more information about this material, please contact the Archivist, Sue Palmer, spalmer@soane.org.uk.

Literature:
Sir John Soane, Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect, 1835; W. Marston Acres, The Bank of England from Within, Vol II, 1931; D. Stroud, The Architecture of Sir John Soane, 1961; J. Summerson, 'Sir John Soane and the furniture of death', Architectural Review, March 1978, pp. 147-58; J. Slinn, A History of Freshfields, 1984; D. Stroud, Sir John Soane, Architect, 1996; D. Watkin, Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures, 1996; S. Bradley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 1: The City of London, 1997; D. Abramson, 'The Bank of England', in John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light, 1999; G. Darley, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic, 1999; D. Abramson, Building the Bank of England, 2005; P. Dean, Sir John Soane and London, 2006.

Tom Drysdale, July 2013
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