Calcutta House

Calcutta House, former Brooke Bond tea warehouse, built 1909, later London Metropolitan University | Part of London Metropolitan University buildings

London Metropolitan University's Buildings
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 2, 2019

All the buildings between Goulston Street and Old Castle Street south of Arcadia Court and Herbert House, as well as one building on the east side of Old Castle Street, are occupied by London Metropolitan University (LMU). That institution was created in 2002 through the merger of the University of North London and London Guildhall University. Several of the buildings had since the early 1970s been occupied by one of the last’s predecessors, the City of London Polytechnic. These buildings, of the 1900s to the 1960s, were originally offices, warehousing and packing facilities for the Brooke Bond tea company. From the 1990s university use spread north to the site of the Goulston Square Baths.

Brooke Bond and Calcutta House

The dominant building on the LMU site is Calcutta House, the core of which is a packing factory built in two stages in 1910 and 1913–14 for Brooke Bond Ltd, tea dealers and blenders. This firm had been founded in 1869 by Arthur Brooke (1845–1918), a retailer of tea and coffee in Manchester, who within two year had five shops in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool and had moved into wholesaling, which soon came to dominate the business. In 1873 Brooke Bond opened London premises at 58 Cheapside and 129 Whitechapel High Street, expanding greatly in the following decade, and offering a profit-sharing scheme to its 154 employees by 1882.1

The High Street property included stores to the rear that acquired a frontage when Old Castle Street was widened. Brooke Bond acquired other sites cleared in the road widening and from 1888 to 1895 built and rebuilt (following a fire) warehousing at 3–9 Old Castle Street. This may have been to the designs of the architect William Dunk; the buildings resembled his surviving warehouse at 31 West Tenter Street.2

Further northwards expansion followed from 1909, with the acquisition of the site south of the public baths that had been David King & Son’s builders’ yard. The architects of the first and northern part of the large steel-framed packing factory built here in 1910 were Sidney Stott Oldham in conjunction with Dunk, the builders G. Parker & Sons of Peckham. With five storeys over a basement, the former factory is red-brick faced to Goulston Street where the set-back building line of Goulston Square was maintained, the recessed southern bays leaving space for loading. Stone dressings include a bold arch-headed door-hood and narrow round-headed high-level staircase windows with keystones. Elsewhere vast rectangular windows light the former packing floors, and there is stock brick to the plainer Old Castle Street elevation. The broader southward extension of 1913–14, designed by Dunk & Bousfield and similarly constructed, was separated from the original building by a light well (covered by a steel bomb-proof cover in 1915). The packing floors extended into the former tenements that had been built with St Paul’s German church, emptied in 1914. There was thus an incongruously Gothic appendage to the warehouse’s Goulston Street front.3

Brooke Bond expanded yet further across Old Castle Street, taking the frontage opposite its complex, a shallow site that included the Green Man pub (see below) extending back only to Tyne Street. This was redeveloped in 1931–2 initially as a warehouse but converted during construction to be a staff welfare centre. Designed in a tentatively Expressionist manner by Albert Leigh Abbott (1890–1952), it was erected by local builders Walter Gladding & Co. Ltd. It is a four-storey and basement steel-framed building faced in brick and patent stone, with large steel-framed windows by Crittall Ltd. Entrances at either end lead to staircases and a lift was placed at the north end. An enclosed footbridge has always connected what was the top-floor directors’ dining room floor to Brooke Bond’s main building opposite. The ground floor included a workers’ lounge and dance room with a sprung maple floor, the first floor the workers’ dining room, the second the office-staff dining room and kitchens. Well specified, with teak joinery throughout, the building was also technologically advanced – a radio-gramophone piped music to speakers in all the rooms.4

Brooke Bond’s buildings were seriously damaged in the Second World War, the 1890s warehouses at 3–9 Old Castle Street completely destroyed. In 1946 Abbott oversaw repairs and designed a temporary light-steel structure for 3–7 Old Castle Street. The former church tenements at the south end of Goulston Street were replaced with a plain four-storey range. The basement of the ruined church and a surviving part of its schools were also taken over.5

By 1949 J. Stanley Beard was Brooke Bond’s architect. He designed the warehouse and packing building that went up at 7–9 Old Castle Street in 1951, extended south to Nos 3–5 in 1955. This was to house paper stores, tea packers, tea-chest repairs and engineers, and incorporated a large loading bay. It is in the Utility style typical of much 1950s rebuilding locally, faced in red brick with steel strip-windows in thin concrete frames. Beard, who designed Brooke Bond’s blending factory in Bristol in 1959, designed further three- and four-storey warehouses for the south end of Goulston Street’s east side in 1961. Built in 1964–5, these were for paper stores and a sales department above loading bays to the north and a maintenance office and stores to the south.6

In 1968, after a century of expansion tied up with the British Empire, especially north-east India, Brooke Bond merged with another multi-national food producer, Liebig, inventors of the Oxo cube. Its Whitechapel buildings were soon given up.7The City of London Polytechnic was formed in 1971 as a result of policies given impetus by the publication in 1966 of a White Paper, A Plan for Polytechnics and Other Colleges. The science and technology departments of Sir John Cass College (whose art department already had a Whitechapel presence in Central House) amalgamated with the business-focused City of London College. The former Brooke Bond buildings were taken over in 1972 and in 1974 adapted to reflect the science focus and integrated as Calcutta House by Fitzroy Robinson and Partners, architects. Basements included specialist labs (microbiology, neurophysiology, ‘toxic procedures’), and the 1950s building on Old Castle Street had an ‘animal room’, with fish tanks, birds and mammals. Upper floors had lecture rooms, offices, a refectory and lounge. The former welfare centre on Old Castle Street was given a language lab in the basement and a library on the first floor.8

The Women’s Library and later developments

In 1992, the City of London Polytechnic was granted university status as London Guildhall University. A year later it acquired the derelict former public baths to the north of its existing premises with permission for change of use and a view to expansion for library, computing and exhibition space, conference facilities and office and teaching areas. The University hoped finally to find suitable accommodation for the Fawcett Library, acquired in the 1970s from the Fawcett Society, which had its origins in the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, and housed unsuitably in the basement of Calcutta House. An outline scheme of 1995, in a feasibility study by Jones Lang Wootton, proposed redevelopment on the L-shaped footprint of the baths, with a typical early-1990s feature, a corner octagon, on Goulston Street. The Fawcett Library would be set back from Old Castle Street behind a ‘suffragette garden’. Only the east or Model Baths side of the site was developed initially, following a competition won in 1995 by Wright and Wright Architects. Construction in 1999–2001 with Kier as main contractors cost £4.4 million, funds coming from private and public donors, the Heritage Lottery Fund being the most significant.9

The client’s brief requested the new library ‘feel permanent’. Wright and Wright’s design made use of thick concrete walls which contributed to a restrained architectural aesthetic while improving environmental performance. As in Baly’s Model Baths, design was technology-led, ornamentation shunned in favour of efficiency and ventilation. Yet, in a notably if not uniquely intelligent instance of façadism, the practice elected to retain the Old Castle Street front wall of 1846, a gesture to a kind of continuity as thousands of women had come through here. The building behind occupied only about three quarters of the plot’s width, space to the north given up to be a paved garden with silver birches behind the stepping down north wall of the baths. In its dignity and pragmatism, the building was regarded by the architectural press as a ‘model of politeness’. Indeed, it was the willingness to engage with the site’s history that Claire Wright believed won the architects the commission. Behind the punctuated black-painted façade, a substantial red-brick block steps back, rising to five storeys above a basement. Internally, accommodation was arranged around a central ground-floor exhibition space within which there was a pod-like double-height seminar room. A modest staircase led to a first-floor café lit by the arch-headed windows of the 1840s façade. Upper floors housed the archive, reading rooms and a double- height library across the front of the building with a shallow barrel-vaulted ceiling. Connections between these diverse and interlocking spaces led The Architectural Review to laud the building for possessing ‘the elegant complexity of a Chinese puzzle’. It has been argued that the rejection of conventional spatial hierarchies was a self-consciously feminist act. In 2002 the Women’s Library was awarded the RIBA Journal’s ‘Best UK Building of the Year’ Award.10

London Guildhall University gained backing from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for redevelopment of the Goulston Street side of the former baths site in 1999, but works had not begun in 2002 when it merged with the University of North London, another former polytechnic, based in Holloway Road. This was the first merger of two universities, and the new London Metropolitan University was in its student numbers the largest university in the UK. The Goulston Building, as it became, went up in 2003–4 as a law and business school. Also designed by Wright & Wright, it was built by Willmott Dixon, contractors. The long and undemonstrative range echoes the red-brick elevations and strip windows of Calcutta House’s post-war buildings. There is a recessed entrance at the four-storey south end giving access to a long double-height top-lit corridor that is a common room and exhibition space. Teaching rooms originally included one configured as a mock courtroom. The building also incorporates barrow storage for Petticoat Lane market at its north end. The former warehouse of 1964–5 at the south end of Goulston Street had its loading bays infilled with glazing in 2004 to the designs of Robert Hutson architects, to create another double-height reception area, this building being otherwise devoted to library and study space.11

The Women’s Library lasted only until 2012. London Metropolitan University, hit by funding crises including a ban on international students, could no longer afford to run it and the collection was sold to the London School of Economics. In efforts reminiscent of those to save the baths on the same site, the ‘Save The Women’s Library’ campaign gathered a petition with over 12,000 signatures and the backing of prominent supporters including RIBA President Angela Brady. One protester reflected that the Library and its award-winning home belonged together, like ‘a body and its insides’, but to no avail. In 2015 Molyneux Kerr Architects altered the interior by replacing the seminar- room pod with a lecture theatre. The University’s own archival collections were brought to the site, along with the Trades Union Congress Library, the Archive of the Irish in Britain, and the Frederick Parker Collection, over 200 chairs and archives relating to the history of British furniture-making.12

Following the sale of Central House in 2015, the Cass School of Art was relocated to Calcutta House in 2017 on a temporary basis pending the intended consolidation of London Metropolitan University on a single site at Holloway Road, the size of the student body being much reduced following the ban on overseas students. ArchitecturePLB and Willmott Dixon Interiors oversaw the adjustments. The Architecture Department moved to the Goulston Building, law departing for Moorgate, and the former staff-welfare building on the east side of Old Castle Street was refurbished to create workshops and studios.

Other studios and related space in Calcutta House were intended ‘for a design life of only two years’, but in 2019, as growth returned, it was announced that LMU had scrapped its ‘one campus, one community’ plan and that the Cass would remain at Calcutta House.13

  1. Leeds Mercury, 10 Oct 1871, p.1: Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 7 April 1870, p.7: Manchester Evening News, 23 May 1873, p.1: Royal Commission on Labour: Appendix to the Minutes of Evidence, 1894, p.207: Post Office Directories: David F. Schloss, Methods of Industrial Remuneration, 1892, pp.173–4: Report on Profit Sharing and Labour Co- partnership, 1920, p. 150 

  2. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), GLC/AR/BR/06/034933/001–2; District Surveyors Returns (DSR): Getty Images: Mansfield Reporter, 21 July 1893, p.2 

  3. DSR: LMA, GLC/AR/BR/06/034933/001–2: Historic England Archives (HEA), Aerofilms EPW005770; EPW055309 

  4. DSR: LMA, GLC/AR/BR/053188/001: Ancestry: The Builder, 28 Oct 1932, pp.722,729–30 

  5. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/06/034933/001–2; GLC/AR/BR/13/053188/01: HEA, Aerofilms EPW011143: Tower Hamlets planning applications onlin (THP) 

  6. THP: LMA, GLC/AR/BR/13/053188/01; GLC/AR/BR/06/034933/001–2: Official Architecture and Planning, vol.22/10, Oct 1959, back cover 

  7. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/13/053188/02] 

  8. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/13/053188/001–2: THP 

  9. London Metropolitan University (LMU) Archives, TWL000000049; TWL000000243; TWL000000247–8: THP: Annmarie Adams, ‘Architecture for feminism?: The Design of the Women’s Library, London’, Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture & Social Justice, vol.29/1, Fall/Winter 2004, pp.99­–105 (p.100) 

  10. LMU Archives, 727.309.4215 GOU; TWL000000246; TWL000000247: The Fawcett Library Annual Report, 1st August 1997 to 31st July 1998, 1998: Architects' Journal, 23 Feb 2006, p.26: Adams, p.100: Catherine Slessor, ‘Making History’, Architectural Review, vol.211, Jan 2002, pp.50–7 

  11. LMU Archives, 727.309.4215 GOU; 3701022156: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Building Control file 18324: THP 

  12. THP: [accessed 6 July 2016]: metropolitan-university/, [accessed 6 July 2016]: Daily Telegraph, 8 Nov 2012; school-economics-lse: /how-to-find-us/the-wash-houses/: collection/: information kindly supplied by Peter Fisher and Catherine Phillpotts 

  13. THP: phase-1-2: information kindly supplied by Dr Lesley Stevenson 

Old Castle Street frontage of Calcutta House
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Calcutta House from Old Castle Street
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Calcutta House from the east in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Calcutta House from the north-east in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Calcutta House Annexe in 2021
Contributed by Derek Kendall