A Visit to Senate House, London

My shot of the exterior of the building on an overcast day.

I go to London quite frequently because I have family over there and every time I make a trip I try and do a little bit of literary tourism. One day I managed to rope my sister, Orla, into accompanying me to Bloomsbury. I got out my map of London (not a physical map, an app map) and plotted out my route and off we headed on the tube towards Russel Square. We disembarked and en route to my destination Google Maps tried to send me through the public thoroughfare of a very impressive looking Art-Deco style skyscraper. I remember craning my neck and looking up at this building and thinking ‘I know this place—I’ve seen it before—this place is important’. 

And then I remembered. Senate House. 

A place on my literary tourism to-do list and I’d just stumbled upon it. 

Senate house was originally built to replace the original University of London buildings. Under the instruction of the University of London’s Vice-Chancellor Sir William Beveridge Architect, Charles Holden was appointed. He was tasked with finally creating a building finally worthy of the title ‘University of London’. And Holden certainly achieved that. Senate House was to be the capital’s first skyscraper and is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture you’ll find anywhere.

Senate House isn’t just an architectural gem, it’s a serious literary tourism gem for three reasons:

  1. It has a beautiful library;
  2. Mary Prince used to live in a house on this site; and
  3. The building and its function during World War 2 inspired a number of 20th century authors

1. Senate House Library

A gorgeous shot of the Senate House Library
Image credits
 © University of London/Robert Mills

Senate House is the administrative centre of the University of London and contains the universities humanities and social sciences library. Senate House Library holds over 2 million books and 1,200 archive collections. The library is beautiful, as you can see, but it is mostly restricted to UL students. I understand that you can access it for reference purposes if you show ID and purchase a £5 day-pass.

Treasures held by the library range from mediaeval manuscripts,  to Shakespeare’s First Folio to books printed by William Caxton, who became the first retailer of books in Britain after introducing the printing press to Britain in 1476. It also holds a presentation copy of Das Kapital, Byron’s unfinished, unpublished draft for the end of Don Juan, a handwritten letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a manuscript by Sir Walter Scott, letters by poet, Phoebe Heskith and early drafts of Terry Pratchett novels.

Oh how I love the sight of a Chesterfield in a library. Photo of Senate House Library
Image credits: .
 © University of London/Robert Mills

The library holds regular exhibitions and events which are free-of-charge, open to the general public and often book-related. You don’t need a day membership pass to visit these exhibitions but you do need to register online

The current exhibition is entitled Rights for Women: London Pioneers in their Own Words which is running until the 15thDecember, 2018. It features the stories of fifty female pioneers in London, and one of the women whose stories feature in the exhibition is Mary Prince: a West Indian slave and an anti-slavery abolitionist and that’s a good segue into the next part of this post…

2. Mary Prince used to Live on this Site:

Image courtesy of Senate House Library

Mary Prince lived on the site of the Senate House in the 1800s, long before  the building was a twinkle in Sir William Beveridge’s eye. Prince was an abolitionist, the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament and an important literary figure because she was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself.  When Prince’s book was published, slavery was still legal in England, and Parliament had not yet abolished it in the colonies. 

It has been proven that books increase empathy in a way that no other medium can. Prince telling her story in her own words gave the British people an insight into the horrors of slavery from the slave’s perspective. Something that had not been done before. .Prince’s autobiography proved the power of the written word, the personal story, the first-person narrative and generated an understanding that could not have existed beforehand. The book sold out three printings and was instrumental in changing public opinion and garnering support and momentum behind the anti-slavery movement in the UK. 

It would be a few years after the book was published before abolition took place, but certainly, her book was hugely influential in changing public opinion and its impact should never be forgotten. Senate House now dominates the spot where she once lived, but there is a commemorative plaque there that reads ‘Mary Prince abolitionist and author lived near this site’ and it is definitely worth stopping there and reflecting on where we once were, and indeed, where we are now.

3. Its Connection with Speculative Fiction

In 1937 the University of London reopened in its new location, and in 1939 the war began. The university staff and students moved out, which was a good thing as Senate House withstood a number of attacks during the Blitz in World War II, and did so relatively unscathed. The government took over the building over for the duration of the war. It was used to house the newly formed Ministry of Information; a controversial department tasked with monitoring public opinion and issuing propaganda. It would later be accused of subterfuge, spying on British citizens and censorship. 

A great number of fiction writers were inspired by Senate House and its wartime function. I have no doubt that the formidable and imposing appearance of the building enhanced the sense of insidiousness around the activities of the occupants of Senate House during WW2. Don’t forget that when much of the literature involving this house was written, it was the only, or one of the only skyscrapers in London. Its stature would have made it the most dominant and visible building in the skyline of the city—and this, combined with its masculine, granite walls and angularity gives it a cold, imposing and formidable beauty. Its appearance is reminiscent of totalitarian architecture going up all around Europe at that time. Indeed, Hitler allegedly liked the building so much that he earmarked it for his British headquarters if he won WW2. So for those of you who take an interest in speculative fiction, you’ll definitely appreciate its aesthetic.

Of all of the authors inspired by Senate House, George Orwell is the most famous. The Ministry of Truth which features in his novel was based on The Ministry of Information. Orwell’s wife worked in the Censorship Department at the Ministry of Information for a time, and so Orwell obviously had a unique insight into its machinations. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four are sky-rocketing. It’s not surprising. We live in an era of ‘fake news’ and attacks on a struggling free press. An era where science is rejected in favour of conspiracy theories. When people glean information from online op-eds and commentary instead of objective, factual reporting. Where social bots spew hatred and bigotry and the spectre of the far-right is being resurrected throughout the world. Where the cash-strapped media compete for ad revenues and use outrage and fear to generate valuable clicks. Where targeted propaganda is being disseminated via social media and personal information being traded for likes and conveniences. Our sense of paranoia about the world and the future has increased, and with it, the relevance of the warnings contained in this very important novel.

Graham Greene is another who drew inspiration from Senate House. In his novel The Ministry of Fear, he described it as a ‘high heartless building… where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in’. His perception of the building itself, clearly influenced by its wartime use.

Evelyn Waugh’s character in the wartime novel Put Out More Flags is repulsed by the building, believing that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry.’ 

Interestingly, Senate House is seen as a place of refuge in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. It is the location where a group congregate to escape the post-apocalyptic chaos surrounding them. The main character and others gather there to attempt to form a kind of order among the mess. The building operates in this context as a kind of fortress. Senate House is a place where the characters can visualize their future. The place they choose to go to and seek out normalcy and order as their reality is turned on its head.

The building also features in the film adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Day of the Triffids, and it has also been the location for a Ministry of War, a CIA lobby and a Russian secret service HQ in various other movies. So there you go, what an interesting place Senate House is. A source of much inspiration to writers and filmmakers alike. Unfortunately, it isn’t a building you can just wander around in. The only areas open to the general public are the thoroughfare, the exhibition area on the 4thfloor, and the library (subject to the purchase a day pass), but gazing up at its impressive facade is sufficient for most. If you want to explore the interior building itself relatively unhindered and get some dystopian/ Art-Deco style inspiration for your writing, the building is open to the public during the annual Open House London weekend which has just passed but will return on the 21st and 22nd September 2019. See the Open House website for details.

I’d like to say thank-you to Senate House Library for their assistance with this article. They kindly provided me with photographs and information around the current exhibition on female pioneers and Mary Prince.

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My name is Catherine Day. After practising law for many years, I've decided to take the leap, leave law temporarily, and write the novel I've always wanted to write.

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