Victorian London - Buildings, Monuments and Museums - Somerset House

Somerset House - Somerset House was formerly palace of the Protector Somerset, whose residence fell to the crown upon his execution; subsequently to that period it was the occasional residence of Queen Elizabeth. The present magnificent edifice was erected by Sir William Chambers; it is in the form of a quadrangle, with a large court in the centre. The river front is extremely beautiful, and presents perhaps the most splendid architectural display of which the metropolis can boast. The public establishments in this building are as follows: -Admiralty Office (the civil department), the Audit Office, the Duchy of Cornwall Office, Legacy Duty Office, the Office of Stamps and Taxes (of which the Hackney Carriage and Stage Coach Duty departments are branches), and the Office of the Tithe commissioners and the Poor Law Commissioners. The Royal Society, the Society of Antiquarians, the Geological Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society have also apartments here. The eastern wing, devoted to the Kings College established here, was completed in 1833. In advance of time river front is a noble terrace raised on rustic arches; it commands a delightful view of the river, the metropolis, and the Surrey hills; it forms altogether a promenade of surpassing beauty, from which, however, the public are, it is much to be regretted, most unmercifully excluded.

source: Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

SOMERSET HOUSE, in the STRAND, (present building). A pile of public offices, erected between the years 1776 and 1786, on the site of the palace of the Protector Somerset. ...  The architect was Sir William Chambers, son of a Scottish merchant residing at Stockholm. He was born in 1726, died in 1796, and is best known as the architect of Somerset House. The general proportions of the building are good, and some of the details of great elegance. The entrance archway or vestibule from the Strand has deservedly found many admirers.t The terrace elevation towards the Thames was made, like the Adelphi-terrace of the brothers Adam in anticipation of the long projected embankment of the river, and is one of the noblest facades in London. The building is in the form of a quadrangle, with wings, and contains within its walls, from 10 to 4 every day, about 900 government officials, maintained at an annual cost of something like 275,0001. The Strand front is occupied by the apartments of several learned societies. Observe, under the vestibule, on your left as you enter, (distinguished by a bust of Sir Isaac Newton), the entrance- doorway to the apartments of the Royal Society and Society of Antiquaries; Herschel and Watt, and Davy and Wollaston, and Walpole and Hallam have often entered by this door. Observe, under the same vestibule, on your right as you enter, (now the School of Design, &c., distinguished by a bust of Michael Angelo), the entrance-doorway of the apartments, from 1780 to 1830, of the Royal Academy of Arts. Some of the best pictures of the English school have passed under this doorway to the great room of the yearly exhibition ; and under the same doorway, and up the same steps, Reynolds, Wilkie, Flaxman, and Chantrey have often passed. The last and best of Reynolds's Discourses were delivered, by Sir Joshua himself, in the great room of the Academy, at the top of the building. [See Astronomical Society; Geographical Society; Geological Society.] The principal government offices in the building are the Audit Office; the office of the Duchy of Cornwall, for the management of the estates of the Prince of Wales, who is also Duke of Cornwall; the Legacy Duty Office, where the several payments are made on bequests by wills of personal property ; the office of Stamps, Taxes, and Excise, or the Inland Revenue Office, where stamps on patents, deeds, newspapers, and receipts are issued, and public taxes and excise duties received from the several district collectors. The Admiralty occupies more than a third of the building, and is a branch (rather, perhaps, the body) of the Admiralty at Whitehall. The Poor Law Commission Office is the head-quarters of the Commissioners for regulating the administration of the law with respect to the poor ; and the Registrar-General's Office is for the registration of the births, marriages, and deaths of the United Kingdom. The east wing of the building, erected 1829, is occupied by King's College. The bronze statue of George III., and figure of Father Thames, by John Bacon, R. A., cost 2000l.
    A little above the entrance-door to the Stamps and Taxes, is a white watch-face, regarding which the popular belief has been, and is, that it was left there by a labouring man who fell from a scaffold at the top of the building, and was only saved from destruction by the ribbon of his watch, which caught in a piece of projecting work. In thankful remembrance (so the story runs) of his wonderful escape, he afterwards desired that his watch might be placed as near as possible to the spot where his life had been saved. Such is the story told fifty times a-week to groups of gaping listeners-a story I am sorry to disturb, for the watch of the labouring man is nothing more than a watch-face, placed by the Royal Society as a meridian mark for a portable transit instrument in one of the windows of their ante-room.

source: Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

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Somerset House, Strand is the one memento left of the long succession of palaces which formerly lined the Middlesex bank of the Thames between London and Westminster. It is only a memento, not a relic; the old Somerset House, built in the middle of the sixteenth century for the Protector Somerset, by John of Padua, having been pulled down in 1775 when Buckingham House was settled upon Queen Charlotte in its stead. The resent building is the work of Sir  W. Chambers, and was erected with an express view to the purpose to which it has ever since been devoted, viz, the accommodation of various Government and semi-public offices. It is a fine work of its kind, though the effect of the river front, which is its finest visible facade, is naturally not improved by the removal of the river. It is in the Italian style, with capitals of various Grecian orders copied from original antiques. Bacon, Banks, Carlini, Flaxman, Geracei, Nollekens, and Wilton had all a hand in the ornamental portion of the work. NEAREST Railway Station, Temple (Dist.); Omnibus Routes, Strand and Waterloo-bridge; Cab Rank, Catherine-st.

source: Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879


The principal facade of Somerset House, overlooking the Victoria Embankment, is nearly 800 feet long, and rises from a terrace 50 feet high, almost hidden by the trees which line this magnificent thoroughfare. Built by Sir William Chambers during the years 1776 to 1786, Somerset House, which stretches from the Embankment right up to the Strand, derives its name from its occupation of the site chosen by the Protector Somerset for the palace which he began in 1549, but did not live to finish, and which was demolished in 1766. The present building is used for Government offices, with the exception of the right, or eastern, wing, the home of Kings College, of which a view is given on page 102.

source: The Queen's London, 1896