The British Empire relied on British Naval Power as a sign of strength; keeping the trade routes open and supporting the growth of the Empire. This article describes five buildings, in and around the district known as Whitehall, that were key to British Naval Power. It describes why they were built and some the people and events that shaped their history.
Starting at the top of Whitehall we have the grand entrance from Trafalgar Square to The Mall. This Edwardian imperial arch, designed by Aston Webb in 1912, has strong Roman and Renaissance influences – and was designed to impress. It was the official residence of the First Sea Lord and housed offices for the Admiralty (the adjoining building and next). As a symbol of imperial, naval and royal power it was built for major public occasions. However, even today, the central archway is reserved for the sole use of royalty. In 2016, it was announced that Admiralty Arch was to be sold and converted into a hotel, restaurant and four apartments!
The Admiralty (or Ripley Building)
Since the time of King Henry VIII, the British naval power has protected British trade interests throughout the world, from the Napoleonic wars through to WW1 and WW2. The Admiralty Building is about 200 metres down Whitehall on the west side. This building dates from 1726 and was designed by Thomas Ripley – with the elegant stone screen by Robert Adam, added in 1788. The creatures above the gates are Hippocampuses!
Architecturally, critics describe the building as bland and rather ugly; a classical design, ‘in between’ baroque and Palladian styles – imposing rather than impressive. Here, the government department responsible to administering the Royal Navy and its naval campaigns was based up until 1964, before it was merged with the new cross-service Ministry of Defence. It’s also where Nelson’s body lay the night before his funeral in January 1806! Today, it’s occupied by the Department for International Development!
Admiralty House, built in the 1780’s by Samuel Pepys Cockerell, is a small mansion to the south of The Admiralty. There is no main entrance and one can just see it from Whitehall. This was the residence of the First Lord of the Admiralty (including Winston Churchill). Its rear facade faces directly onto Horse Guards Parade (see below).
On the north side of Horse Guards, the large brick building is the Admiralty Extension, completed in the early 1900’s; primarily to manage the naval arms race with the German Empire before World War I. Architecturally, critics believe it’s a rather pompous building, built in the Queen Anne ‘streaky bacon’, style in red brick and Portland stone. Occupied by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) since 1964, it will soon be home to the Department for Education.
In the west corner of Horse Guards is the Admiralty Citadel, a squat, windowless World War II fortress. It was built in 1940 as a bomb-proof operations centre for The Admiralty with a 20-foot (6.1 m) thick concrete roof – reportedly linked by tunnels to government buildings in Whitehall! Architecturally its style is utilitarian! Sir Winston Churchill described it as a ‘vast monstrosity which weighs upon the Horse Guards Parade’. But then, the brief was to build a fortress against a German invasion, with loop-holed firing positions! The Admiralty communications centre has used it since 1992. Ivy has been encouraged to cover it!
All these buildings are in the same north west end of Whitehall, so make an easy and fascinating walk – perhaps after Changing the Guard on Horse Guards, see link below.
How to watch Changing the Guard in London
Contributor: Eric Large
Eric is an accredited guide for both the City of London and the City of Westminster, specialising in architecture and the historical development of London.
Contact Eric by email at: email@example.com
2 thoughts on “The architecture of British Naval Power in Whitehall”
In 1979 I had a naval staff job in Ripley Block, where my office was exactly opposite the Nelson Room, a small office where Lord Nelson lay before his final journey to St Paul’s. In the hallway was the model of Admiral Nelson as he is depicted on top of his column. And there were two beautiful chairs in the entrance hall that my wife and young daughter used to sit in, when visiting me. I would love to know more about the history of Ripley Block. When working in the building I was aware of the history around, and above in the Admiralty Board Room, but somehow one took it all for granted!
What an incredible piece of history to have. Hope you have a photo of the family in that amazing setting! Thanks.