Vic Keegan: Tower 42’s extraordinary City history footprint

Vic Keegan: Tower 42’s extraordinary City history footprint

Number 25 Old Broad Street, better known as Tower 42 – and even better known by its former name of the NatWest Tower – is a vertical history book just off Bishopsgate. If you know nothing about London’s history except what has happened on this site over the centuries you will be acquainted with some of its key moments.

Designed by Richard Seifert, who was also the architect of Centre Point, the tower was the City of London’s first skyscraper. Formally opened in 1981, it was the tallest building in London until the topping out of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf in 1990 and the tallest in the City for 30 years.

Though long since departed, the NatWest bank has left an indelible mark – the top of the building was designed in the form of the company’s logo and can still be seen if you look at one of the 3D maps online, such as Apple’s, or maybe from an aeroplane if you are flying by.

As with so many places in the City, Roman remains were found during archaeological digs at the time of the tower’s construction. Mosaics and tessellated floors have been preserved in the Museum of London. But the real fascination of this building, with its offices, restaurants and other amenities, is what came after the Romans.

In 1466 Sir John Crosby built a mansion on the site called Crosby Place, having purchased the land from the nuns of St Helen’s Priory who had been there since the early 13th century. Crosby was a City dignitary, knighted for his role in resisting an attack on London by the so-called “Bastard of Fauconberg”, a cousin and accomplice of the Earl of Warwick – known as Warwick the Kingmaker – who was trying to reinstall Henry VI as King. This was an extraordinary moment when the Wars of the Roses, fought mostly in the north of England, reached the gates of London Bridge.

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Crosby’s mansion, often known as Crosby Hall, was completed in 1472 but Sir John wasn’t able to enjoy it fully because he died four years later. In 1483 it was bought from his widow Lady Crosby by the Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Robert Fabyan’s Chronicle of 1483 notes that “the Duke lodged hymself in Crosbye’s Place, in Bishoppesgate Street” where the Mayor and citizens waited upon him with the offer of the Crown.

Much later on, in 1598, William Shakespeare, who we know lived nearby for a while, used the location for parts of his controversial play Richard III, such as in Act 1, Scene 3: “When you have done, repaire to Crosby place”. One wonders how many people think of Richard when they enter Tower 42.

In 1519 another great figure of history, Thomas More, Henry VIII’s ill-fated Lord Chancellor, purchased the lease to the property. He subsequently also bought an estate in Chelsea, which would become part of the Crosby Place story.

Later that century Crosby Place belonged to Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of Britain’s first stock market, the Royal Exchange. In 1596, in keeping with Gresham’s will, the Institute for Physic, Civil Law, Music, Astronomy, Geometry and Rhetoric was established in the mansion’s Great Hall. Known as Gresham College, it provided free lectures – including, over time, by the likes of Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. Amazingly, 500 years on, today’s Gresham College is still fulfilling this role, though its lectures are delivered not at Tower 42 but at Barnard’s Inn or online.

Sir Walter Raleigh, another formidable intellectual, had lodgings there in 1601, two years before he was imprisoned in the Tower of London by James l. And between 1621 and 1638 Crosby Place again became a global centre, though not of science but international trade when the East India Company, then the biggest company in the world, made it its headquarters, prior to moving to Leadenhall Street. It would take a book to chart the company’s amazing rise and shameful fall as it became mired in slavery and corruption.

During the 1660s another intellectual powerhouse moved in – the Royal Society. Its origins can be traced to a meeting at Gresham College on November 28 1660, following a lecture by Wren. Endorsed by Charles II in 1663, its full name was The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

Crosby’s mansion survived the Great Fire of 1666, but in 1672 was severely damaged by another one. Only the Great Hall and one wing survived, but these carried on through most of the 19th century partly by being turned into a luxurious restaurant. Augustus J. Hare, the Victorian author, said it was “altogether the most beautiful specimen of fifteenth century domestic architecture remaining in London”.

However, in 1907 oblivion beckoned as new owners the Bank of Australia and China made plans to demolish it to make way for a new bank building. Fortunately, an outburst of public opposition saved it.

The building was pulled down and yet preserved. After considering various suggestions, the London County Council (LCC) found a new site for it and, stunningly, in 1909-10, transported the 500 year-old remains, stone by stone, five miles along the Thames to be rebuilt in Chelsea, in part of the garden of the estate former Crosby Place owner Thomas More had purchased there.

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Having become in effect a council property, the hall was for years the home of the British Federation of Women Graduates. The Greater London Council (GLC), successor body to the LCC, maintained it until it was abolition in 1986. The London Residuary Body, formed to dispose of GLC assets, put the new Crosby Hall up for sale, ushering in an astonishing end to this tale.

It was purchased in 1988 by Christopher Moran, a philanthropist and sometime controversial businessman. He spent lavishly to return it to its former splendour as his private mansion and last year renamed it the Crosby Moran Hall. The picture above shows the outside of the restored Great Hall in Portland stone on the right and a recent modern addition in red brick on the left.

Sir Simon Thurley, who was involved in its restoration, calls it “the most important surviving domestic medieval building in London”. It may well last longer than Tower 42. What goes around comes around.

PS: In 1993 tragedy struck when the then NatWest Tower was badly damaged in the IRA Bishopsgate bombing, which killed one person and caused extensive damage to other buildings.

This is the second article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London, kindly supported by the EC BID, which serves that area. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: Culture, EC BID supported series


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