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Visiting Senate House in Bloomsbury, London, England: Monumental, Art Deco Headquarters of the University of London

Updated on October 21, 2020
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1
Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1 | Source
Looking north-east in Malet Street with the Senate House of University of London in the background
Looking north-east in Malet Street with the Senate House of University of London in the background | Source
Map location of London, England
Map location of London, England | Source

Apparently worth keeping the Duke waiting for

A familiar landmark on the London, England, skyline, this gigantic building in Art Deco style was built between 1932 and 1937 as the headquarters of the University of London. On completion, its height of 64 metres was only exceeded in London by St Paul's Cathedral.

Included in the building are several research institutes and the Senate House Library, which stocks over three million volumes. The Library subscribes to over 5,000 journals; its thesis holdings surpass 170,000.

The world-famous British Museum is located close by, to the south of Senate House.

Its architect was Charles Holden (1874-1960), who was also well known for his designs of London Underground stations. One of Senate House's particular features is its Portland stone facing. While its design was known to have been derided as 'Stalininst' in style, it also received some very positive appraisal. The University of London had been founded in 1836 (1) and by the early 20th century the expanding University was regarded — or allegedly so (see below) — as being in need of large headquarters.

The role of the Duke of Bedford

Senate House was built on land which once belonged to the Duke of Bedford. Indeed, the land twice belonged to the Duke.

Strange? This state of affairs was attributable to deep-seated administrative indecision and even rivalry among influential members of the University. In brief, what happened is this: in 1921, the Government bought 4.5 hectares of land from the Duke, to be provided to the University of London for the complex which it thought the University desired. When voices from within the University seemed to indicate that the land wasn't really wanted after all, the land was dispensed with and sold again in 1926.

Its buyer was the Duke!

Then in 1927 (after evident, considerable, internal manoeuvrings), the Duke was prevailed upon graciously to sell it back again for the University of London's use, after which planning for new headquarters could proceed, it may be said, more in earnest.

Originally Senate House was to have been part of a larger university complex than was actually built. However, the reason for the further changes to plans for the site was rather different from those which informed the Duke of Bedford's gracious, accommodating commercial transactions: this reason was the coming of World War Two, when priorities were diverted.

Wartime nerve-centre: fixing it for Prime Minister Winston Churchill

During World War Two, Senate House was the location of the Ministry of Information, which from 1941 until 1945, was led by the redoubtable Brendan Bracken, widely seen as Prime Minister Winston Churchill's personal confidant and 'fixer'. Once installed in Senate House, Mr. Bracken, also a Member of Parliament and, in his time, publisher of The Economist and the Financial Times , proceeded alternatively to amaze and appal in his evident capacity for manipulation and communicative effectiveness, not to say for a persona bereft of delicacy towards subordinates. To Mr. Bracken (later, Viscount Bracken) at least, administrative indecision was rarely attributed. In any case, it is said that, upon losing his Parliamentary seat in 1945, his former civil servants in the Ministry of Information cheered.

By the end of this great, world conflict, the University of London had quietly moved on from its earlier, doubt-stricken period of less than edifying, internal manoeuvrings.


(1) An earlier institution called 'London University', founded 1826, subsequently became known as University College London, a constituent institution of the University of London.

Also worth seeing

London 's visitor attractions are so extensive that attempts at a proper summary here would be futile; but a very few of these would include: Trafalgar Square, faced by Canada House and the National Gallery, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and St. Paul's Cathedral.

Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham (distance: approx. 36 kilometres) is an architecturally impressive college, the Founder's Building of which, built in 1886, was based on Château de Chambord.

How to get there

United Airlines flies from New York Newark Airport to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Underground and train services link Heathrow Airport with Central London. Underground stations convenient for Senate House include Russell Square and Goodge Street. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada


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