Another towering Holden

When Malcolm was ruminating about the Great Eastern Railway’s James Holden, a small coincidence of names was also in his mind. Another Quaker-type. Another Holden who still casts a profound shadow across north London.

Thinking big

So, a small brain-tickler: what links all the following (which Malcolm thinks he may have in chronological order) —

  • Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn and how she catered for John Betjeman?
  • The release, in December 1942, of the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, known commonly as the Beveridge Report.
  • George Orwell’s Minitrue (in 1984)?
  • The Forgotten Enemy, one of Arthur C Clarke’s earliest (1949) and best short stories?
  • John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids?
  • Umpteen films, including Batman Returns (as below) and The Dark Knight Rises?

If you need a further clue: it’s big. Briefly it was second only to the dome of St Paul’s as the tallest structures in London (Battersea Power Station soon pushed it into third spot).

It is the Senate House of the University of London.


During WW2 the Senate House was the official press centre, the Ministry of Information. Betjeman was a Ministry of Information officer, before he was packed off to Dublin to keep ears and eyes open for the IRA in particular and Anglo-Irish gossip in general. The deputy catering manager at Senate House was Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Here Simon Jenkins, in 2008:

Yes, she did exist and no, she and Betjeman were never engaged. But what gives the poem its undeniable force was Betjeman’s all-too-real office infatuation and the puppy-love fantasy he constructed on its basis.

It was written at the height of the blitz, in 1941, with Betjeman working on government propaganda in the bleak Senate House in Bloomsbury and Hunter Dunn as a girl in a seductive white coat in the catering department. She was, as he correctly guessed, the daughter of a Hampshire doctor, who immediately captivated him with “the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice”. Like characters in many a 20th-century novel, the needs of war had forced them both out of place, but not out of character.

Hunter Dunn was a bubbly red-head whom Betjeman later described as “a lovely creole type … with strapping frame and jolly smile and soft laughing voice, a girl to lean against for life and die adoring”. Betjeman fell on his knees in the open office and beseeched her, “How d’ye do?” She laughed and thought him mad. She may also have known he was married.

Elsewhere, but nearby, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Eric Blair/George Orwell’s first wife, had been a psychology student at UCL, and was working during the early years of the War in the basement of Senate House as an official censor. When she died (in 1945, under surgery) Blair/Orwell became involved with and eventually married Sonia Brownell, another wartime “information officer”. Beveridge Hall in Senate House was the “mosh pit” for correspondents. Full-scale briefings took place across the corridor in the Macmillan Hall, which was where, on 2nd December 1942, the Minister of Information  (the extraordinary Brendan Bracken) pulled his coup de théâtre in releasing the Beveridge Report.

Orwell describes the administrative core of London, chief city of Airstrip One:

The Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, in Newspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:


The Ministry of Truth contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below. Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously. They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided. The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.

Vast as Senate House is, Holden’s concept was far grander: a single structure with two towers, stretching the whole length of the Malet Street block, all the way from the Montague Place front up to Byng Place. There is an architectural model of this monster in the gallery above the Senate House Crush Hall: it adequately represents Orwell’s nightmare vision.

Charles Henry Holden

Holden came from Bolton, and a hard-scrabble childhood: his father went bankrupt; his mother died. He was apprenticed to a Manchester architect, and received his training through that grand institution, “night school”. He discovered Walt Whitman, who appealed to his naturally ascetic nature.

By the late 1890s he was in London, working for the arts-and-crafts practice of C.R.Ashbee in fashionable Chelsea, but living in the East End workshops of the firm. He picked up with Margaret Steadman, the run-away wife of an alcoholic wife-beater. They lived together — by 1906 in a house of Holden’s design near Welwyn — apparently never marrying, until her death in 1954.

Holden supported his enlarged household (Margaret had a son by her marriage) by becoming the chief assistant of H.Percy Adams, who was a specialist in hospital design. Drawings for the Bristol Central Library won Holden the prize, and promotion to Adams’ full partner. His work of this period, just before the First World War, is still evident in Zimbabwe House (originally the BMA building) in London’s Strand. What the passer-by may not notice are the “castrations“. Holden included Epstein figures in his façade. The BMA were happy enough, but when the Rhodesian High Commission took over the building, the nudity was a bit too advanced. The “official” version was the danger of bits dropping off in high wind:

The Rhodesians make sure the naughty bits did fall off.

Throughout the First World War Holden served with the ambulance column (he was a practising Quaker), and then with the Imperial War Graves Commission. His work with the IWGC shows him simplifying his style and working largely in Portland stone.

His London practice was Adams, Holden, and Pearson, but Holden himself became focused on two great projects: the expansion and unification of London Underground and then London University. In the first he turned out the Portland-stone fronts for the Northern Line extension down to Morden. Then, 55 Broadway, the headquarters building of London Underground. After a study-tour across northern Europe he produced the radically different station exteriors of the extended Piccadilly Line, including the iconic drum of Arnos Grove.

In 1931 he received the commission which is the main topic here: the University of London central development. Costs meant the mammoth project had to be trimmed back severely, and what was left, we have. Including the monumental nineteen stories of Senate House.

Like it (the Führer und Reichskanzler did: it was to designated to be Nazi HQ in conquered London) or not, when Holden passed away in May 1960, more than most architects of the twentieth century he had left his mark on London. Like Abel Evans on Sir John Vanburgh we might say:

Lie heavy on him, earth! for he
Laid many heavy loads on thee.


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Filed under fiction, History, Literature, London

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