Engineering places: Savoy Place
Image credit: IET Archives
Located in the heart of London, Savoy Place has been a part of the IET for over 100 years, but its rich history dates back as far as the 13th century. What legacy does it uphold in the engineering and tech space and in society?
By the River Thames stands the building of Savoy Place. It’s not just any building – certainly not to us here at E&T. It is at the heart of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), which this month is celebrating 150 years since the organisation’s inception.
While the building now serves as an office for IET staff, a venue space for conferences and events and a place for members of the IET to visit (when out of Covid-19 restrictions), not many people know of its history before it came into the organisation’s possession over a century ago, or that of the area around it.
The site that we know as Savoy Place and its surroundings have gone through many changes and events over the years. Here, we delve into the most significant events that have taken place at what is now the IET hub.
Savoy Place is located on land that was originally part of Savoy Manor, which took its name from Peter II, Count of Savoy. Henry III gave him the land on 12 February 1246 and here he built a palace. Following the Count’s death in 1268, he left the property to a French hospice. But his niece, Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III, bought back the land, who handed it to her son, the Earl of Lancaster. Successive Earls of Lancaster and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster extended the palace.
During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, both John of Gaunt and his palace became a target. A crowd marched in London, burnt down the palace and destroyed all its contents. Following these events, the Duchy did not restore the palace but rather modified it to serve as a prison. Then in the 16th century it was rebuilt as a hospital for the poor, which was later used as a barracks.
In time, as housing was built on the Savoy lands, the site also housed various religious institutions, including a Jesuit school. The area was also a retreat for Huguenot families – French protestants who were persecuted in their home country. In 1723, a German Lutheran church was built on part of the site, but in 1877, London authorities demolished the church for the construction of the Thames Embankment.
Everyone who has engaged with the news would know what the BBC is, but some people may not know that Savoy Place offered the British Broadcasting Company (now the British Broadcasting Corporation) spare accommodation in its building for its broadcasts back in 1923.
In fact, it had been a 1922 meeting of 200 companies held in the IEE’s lecture theatre that resulted in the formation of the British Broadcasting Company. The BBC began by leasing seven rooms at Savoy Place and quickly expanded, taking over the West Wing by the end of the year. By 1925, it moved into a building at the back of the site, which it renamed ‘Savoy Hill’.
Throughout the 1920s, broadcasting developed exponentially and two studios rapidly became nine. The BBC abandoned the cramped but cosy environment of Savoy Hill in May 1932 when the company moved to its first purpose-built centre, Broadcasting House in Regent Street.
The IET bought the lease of the Savoy Hill building (now Savoy Hill House) in 1984.
Savoy Place today
In 2013, Savoy Place saw the start of a major refurbishment to make the building more flexible to adapt to changing technology, improve sustainability, promote accessibility, and make the most of the stunning riverside views.
Now, Savoy Place provides a stylish setting for IET members to do a spot of work, meet with colleagues, grab some lunch, attend lectures and network with their peers. Members can visit the building (out of Covid restrictions, of course), and its Riverside Room view provides a stunning backdrop for events and conferences.
If you ever get the chance to visit Savoy Place, there’s a neat display of 100 objects (pictured above), all of which have contributed to changing the world through engineering and technology. One of these objects, however, has a strong link to the site.
By the summer of 1940, the Second World War was raging across Western Europe. The US, meanwhile, was still actively trying to stay out of the war. This all changed when Welsh physicist Edward George ‘Taffy’ Bowen travelled with a group of other British scientists and military officers to Washington, DC, whereby the UK government had entrusted Bowen with a black metal box that contained technical secrets related to Britain’s wartime R&D.
The purpose of the journey – officially called the British Technical and Scientific Mission, but better known as the Tizard Mission – was to share these secrets with the US and Canada, in the hope they would produce workable weapons and other equipment for the war.
Among the box’s contents lay a curious-looking device: a disc with grooves around its rim and thin pipes and wires extending from its ends. This palm-size gadget, called a cavity magnetron, produced high-power microwaves and it would prove to be by far the most important item in the box.
While Germany, Britain and the US had simultaneously been developing radar to help in their advances, Britain was on the verge of implementing a revolutionary new technology – microwave radar – made possible by the invention of the cavity magnetron.
The enhanced resolution of microwave radar gave the western allies a large technical advantage. It helped guide bombers through clouds, located U-boats, pinpointed German aircraft, shot down Buzz Bombs, and guided paratroopers to their D-Day drop zones.
What is this invention’s link to the Savoy? Bowen collected this very cavity magnetron from Savoy Hill House, which was then occupied by the Ministry of Supply.
The IET did not always have Savoy Place in its possesion since the organisation first started up as the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1871. In fact, architects Stephen Salter and H Percy Adams originally designed the current building to serve as an examination hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons, completed in 1889. During 1887-9, the plan was adapted to include classrooms, laboratories, and a lecture theatre too.
Medical research has also been conducted in the laboratories of Savoy Place and Savoy Hill House, but not by the Royal Colleges. In the early 1900s, a team of medical experts founded the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now known as Cancer Research UK), and the Fund’s newly appointed executive committee faced two important tasks: first, the provision of laboratory accommodation and, second, the appointment of research staff. The first of these presented no difficulties when the Fund gained research laboratories in rooms adjacent to the old examination hall in Savoy Place from the Royal Colleges.
Cuthbert Dukes, a pathologist and member of council for the Fund, recalled in a letter published in 1964 that: “The accommodation provided for the Fund consisted at first of two rooms only, but, as the laboratory staff increased, further rooms were placed at the Fund’s disposal. These were situated to the north of the examination hall and staff entered through a side entrance which no longer exists.”
Dukes also wrote in the letter that he and Mr W J Dunn, a retired technician who began his career nearly 60 years ago as a ‘lab boy’ in these same laboratories, visited the site in the summer of 1964 and could climb to the upper floors of the building. “Looking down from the roof toward Savoy Hill, we could see the actual rooms which 60 years ago were packed with cages of rats and mice. Now they are equally overcrowded with typists and telephones!” he recalled.
By the early 1900s the Institution of Electrical Engineers (as it had become in 1888) was looking for its own building. The examination hall had impressed the president, who declared “there is no finer site in London” and on 1 June 1909 the IEE bought the lease to Savoy Place.
Architects H Percy Adams and Charles Holden carried out various alterations to suit the needs of the 5,000 members, including renovation of its entrance hall and lecture theatre and creation of the library.
In 2006, the IEE became part of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which remained at Savoy Place. And indeed there is no finer site. The land is still owned by the present Duke of Lancaster – the Queen, who is also the Patron of the IET.
Savoy Place has contributed to many events in its life. We hope it remains an engineering hub for years to come.
Timeline: history of Savoy Place
1246: Peter, Count of Savoy is given the land where Savoy Place now lays by Henry III. He builds a palace on the site.
1268: Peter, Count of Savoy dies, and the palace is left to a hospice in France. His niece, Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III, buys back the land for her son, Edmund Plantagenet. Successive holders refurbish and extend the palace.
1381: Peasant’s Revolt – the palace, then the residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, is burnt down and its contents destroyed.
1509: Henry VII leaves a substantial sum of money in his will to rebuild Savoy Palace as a hospital. Later mismanagement and corruption send the hospital into decline and it is eventually used as a barracks and a prison.
1723: A German Lutheran Church is built on the grounds.
1877: The church is destroyed to make way for the Victoria Embankment.
1880: Savoy Mansions is built (now called Savoy Hill House).
1886: Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone for Savoy Place, designed by Stephen Salter and H Percy Adams as a joint examination hall for the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Surgeons.
1889: The building is completed.
1 June 1909: The Institution of Electrical Engineers buys the lease of Savoy Place from the Duchy of Lancaster.
1923: BBC broadcasts begin from rooms in Savoy Place.
1925: The BBC moves to Savoy Mansions, leaving in May 1932.
1940: The ‘Tizard Mission’ during WW2 sees Edward Bowen collect the cavity magnetron from the Ministry of Supply at Savoy Hill House.
1984: The IEE buys the lease of Savoy Hill House.
2013: Major refurbishment begins at Savoy Place to make the building more flexible, to adapt to changing technology, improve sustainability, promote accessibility, and make the most of its riverside views.
2015: Building reopens after a £30m refurbishment; transformed from top to bottom, the venue now offers cutting-edge technology, inspiring event spaces and London’s newest roof terrace.
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