An iconic King’s building: the history of Bush House

Image credit: Nick Wood

King's acquired a 50 year lease on Bush House in 2015, in this article we take a look at the story behind this iconic building.

The area where Bush House now stands underwent significant redevelopment in the decades around 1900. Areas of slum housing and the notorious Holywell Street (a centre for the sale of pornography) were pulled down and replaced with an imposing new business district centred on the newly-constructed Kingsway. In 1905, King Edward VII opened both the revolutionary tram subway and the grand semi-circular Aldwych (named after Wych Street which used to cross the area), home of two new theatres.

Kingsway on a 1910s Ordinance Survey map
Kingsway on a 1910s Ordinance Survey map, before the construction of Bush House

From its base at Strand campus nearby, King’s played a significant part in the development of the area. The university pioneered education to degree level for the increasing numbers of city workers and lead a series of important public lectures during World War I, which reflected on the war and Britain’s role in the world.

During the war, the future site of Bush House was occupied by a series of wooden buildings known as The Eagle Hut. These provided social services for American troops or ‘Doughboys’ based in London, including a restaurant and kitchens servings thousands of meals a day, overnight accommodation, a theatre hall and billiard and reading rooms.

In 1919, American businessman Irving T Bush gained approval for his plans for a major new trade centre on the Strand. Designed by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, sections of Bush House were opened over a period of 10 years. The grand central block, with its 100-foot tall arch facing north up Kingsway, was completed in 1925 and the full complex opened in 1935. In 1929, Bush House was declared the most expensive building in the world. Built from Portland stone, it is estimated to have cost around two million pounds.

Drawing of entrance to Bush House
Drawing of entrance to Bush House (artist unknown)

Above the arch at the entrance to the central block are two statues by American artist Malvina Hoffman. The statues symbolise Anglo-American friendship and the building bears the inscription ‘To the friendship of English speaking peoples’. In 2018, French artist Léo Caillard staged an intervention to dress the statues in contemporary clothing as part of a major King’s exhibition, The Classical Now.

To the Friendship of the Classical and the Contemporary © Department of Classics, King’s College London

The BBC World Service began moving some services into Bush House after war damage to Broadcasting House during World War II. Churchill’s war speeches were amongst the early broadcasts from the building. Although the BBC never owned the building, it became closely associated with the world’s largest international broadcaster, which went on to operate from there for over 70 years until 2012.

George Orwell (Eric Blair), a producer with the BBC Eastern Service between 1941 and 1943, is believed to have based the canteen in the Ministry of Truth from his novel 1984 on the one in Bush House.

View of Bush House from the Strand
View of Bush House from the Strand

King’s acquired a 50-year lease of Bush House, taking occupancy in 2016. Redevelopment of the buildings will continue over the next few years, including the construction of a new glass pavilion in the courtyard. The new King’s Business School was the first faculty on the site, opening its doors in 2017.

A digital mockup of how the courtyard will look once completed.
A digital mockup of how the courtyard will look once completed.