The history of the Strand Campus

Strand Archives Header

If you’re anything like us, you probably fell in love with King’s campuses during your time here. But how much do you really know about them? We’ve teamed up with Geoff Browell of the King’s Archives Service to shed some light on the history of our favourite King’s buildings.

Location, Location, Location

King’s was not always destined to be built on the Strand, in fact, the first choice of location was in Regent’s Park, adjacent to London Zoo.

The scheme was ultimately blocked by local residents, who were fearful of 'inconsiderate, rude, and mischievous' students! (We can’t imagine why…)

With Regent’s Park not an option, the founders of King’s were left with few alternatives. They made the unlikely choice of the Strand, which in 19th Century London was close to notorious slums and brothels - and the centre of London’s pornography trade in Holywell Street, where Bush House now stands. The area was home to many theatres and pubs, as well as criminals and beggars. It was feared that such unsavoury characters would have a damaging influence upon students fresh to London.

The neighbourhood in 1831 was densely populated and chaotic, bordering the slums that comprised Dickens' famous 'rookery' described in novels such as Oliver Twist.

Strand Archives 3

The New Swell's Night Guide to the Bowers of Venus, a guide to pubs and bars in which prostitutes could be found. Listed as published in Holywell Street in about 1847.

Architecture (not) fit for royalty

Despite being named in honour of the monarch, the founders of King’s turned down the architectural services of the man responsible for Buckingham Palace, Sir John Nash, despite him offering to work pro bono.

The Grade I listed King’s Building was designed by Sir Robert Smirke instead. Thankfully his portfolio also included The British Museum and King’s neighbour, Somerset House, and looking at the magnificent King’s building now, we’re sure you’ll agree that our founders made the right choice.

Strand Archives 6

Did you know? The marble statues of Sappho and Sophocles in the King’s building foyer were donated to the university in 1923 by Frida Mond, a keen supporter of the British Academy, and a close friend of its first Secretary, Israel Gollancz, a King’s Professor. They symbolise the King’s motto of ‘sancte et sapienter’, meaning ‘with holiness and with wisdom’.

Strand Archives 7

Does this chapel look good on me?

The fabulous King's College Chapel was also designed by Sir Robert Smirke as part of the King's building. However, his vision for the religious hub of the building proved somewhat less timeless than its exterior.

In 1859, just 28 years after it was first built, the chaplain, Reverend E. H. Plumptre complained to King’s council that the ‘meagreness and poverty’ of the chapel’s Anglican design made it unworthy of an institution as grand as King’s.

The man tasked with rectifying the situation, Sir George Gilbert Scott, whose work also includes the grand St. Pancras Hotel, endeavoured to transform the modest chapel into something reminiscent of ‘an ancient basilica’. 

The reconstruction was completed in 1864 at a cost of just over £7,000, that’s around £812,000 in today’s money. Talk about the price of holiness!

Strand Archives 4

Ventilation issues…

Being situated directly next to the Victorian Thames led to something of a sanitation problem for King’s in its early days. In the basement, the university got the worst of the stench rising from the sewage in the Thames and nearby. In the 1840s the Headmaster complained repeatedly about foul odours from the dissecting department.

The absence of adequate sanitation was an exceptional public health problem before the monumental construction in the 1860s of London's modern sewerage network and the embankment of the Thames by Joseph Bazalgette.

Strand Archives 2

Do you know of any weird and wonderful facts about King’s? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook, or email us at alumoff@kcl.ac.uk, and we can add them to the list!