Broadcasting House in the 1930s

A Building is Born

The site
The site, looking north, after the demolition of Foley House. The steps of All Souls Church are on the right of the picture.
It was in early 1926 that the BBC decided to look for new and larger premises to replace the cramped headquarters at Savoy Hill. Various buildings were considered for adaptation, including Dorchester House (soon to be replaced by a hotel), an island site in Adelphi Terrace, The Grand Hotel in Trafalgar Square, Bush House in the Strand and the Langham Hotel. These last two would be used by the BBC in later years. Preliminary plans were drawn up for several possible sites. Eventually, though, it was decided that the problems of adaptation were too great and that it would be better, despite the greater expense, to construct a new building.

In the spring of 1927 the site of Foley House at the corner of Portland Place and Langham Street had been brought to the BBC's notice and early in the following year, with the decision made to construct a new building, the BBC looked again at the site. It was reasonably central, had good access with Oxford Circus close by, and had the added attraction of the nearby Queen's Hall which would
Top Hat design
What might have been - the 'Top Hat' design.
be a good venue for broadcast concerts. The site was in the hands of a syndicate which had been planning to build a block of high-class flats or a hotel but now they offered to build a new headquarters to the Corporation's requirements. They would grant the BBC a long-term lease with an option to purchase. An agreement between the BBC and the syndicate was signed on 21st November, 1928.

The syndicate had already appointed Lt. Col. George Val Myer (1883-1959) as the architect of their original plans and it was agreed that he would work on the design with the BBC's civil engineer Marmaduke Tudsbery. Val Myer's 1928 drawing, right, shows the preferred 'Top Hat' design which was abandoned because of site constraints and the need to maximise the available space.

Val Myer and Tudsbery faced the problem of how to construct studios which would be unaffected by extraneous noise from outside the building and which would also be free of sounds from other parts of the building. Clearly the studios could not have windows so they would require a system of artificial ventilation and this
Clearing the site
Clearing the site, looking south.
had to be provided without allowing sound to travel between studios.

The solution was to dispense with the central light-well often found in buildings of this size and to use this space to build an inner 'tower' which would contain the studios. To reduce transmission of sound between studios this tower would contain no steelwork, being instead constructed entirely of brick. Because of the enormous weight of the brickwork and the studio floors supported by it, ordinary Fletton bricks would have been over-stressed and blue Staffordshire bricks were used for most of the tower's construction - more than 2.6 million of them. In order to make the Concert Hall as large as possible, it was designed to extend beyond the north wall of the tower, so this wall was carried at second floor level by twin plate girders, each 10'6" deep.

The outer wall of the tower was very thick - 4'6" (1.4m) at the base - to improve sound insulation and to provide the necessary stability. The non-structural partitions within the tower were cavity built, of cellular-concrete blocks. A layer of triple-ply sound deadening quilting was placed in the cavities.
May 1930
The problem of sound travelling through the ventilation system was solved by the use of sound absorbing material in the ducting and by providing four separate air-conditioning plants.

The offices needed daylight and had to be easily capable of internal adjustment to suit changing staff arrangements. They would be placed around the tower, providing insulation from outside noise, and this part of the structure could be built using a steel frame.

The site was an odd shape and there were height restrictions owing to the existence of 'ancient lights' on two sides. The eastern front had to be designed so as not to violate the rights of light attached to the buildings in Langham Street. The solution was to have a mansard roof sloping down to the fourth floor. The effect that this had on the interior can be seen in the various floor plans in these pages. There were similar rights on the southern front of the building, but concessions from the owners resolved the problem. The tower could not be continued to the eighth-floor level because of the shape of the roof. The eighth floor studios were therefore constructed towards the western side of the building. This presented considerable difficulties, as it was necessary to avoid connecting the studios with the steel framework which supported them.

Sinking the well
There were difficulties underground, too, in the form of a deep sewer, more than a hundred years old, running diagonally across the site. This had to be encased in a reinforced concrete sheath before the foundations could be begun. Excavation went 40 feet deep, a total of 43,000 tons of clay had to be excavated. An artesian well was sunk to a depth of more than 600 feet in the north-west corner of the site (right). This was able to provide a stand-by supply of about a thousand gallons of water per hour. Construction of the tower was under way by the spring of 1930. The steel frame was up to fourth floor level that October. The outside walls were clad with Portland stone.



Some of the largest steels in the country were used in the outer frame of the building. The stanchions stand on solid steel blooms each weighing seven tons.

Progress - 1930


No date on the shot, left, but in the September 1930 picture above it can be seen that the Portland stone cladding is being added.

Below - the cladding is getting higher and the start of the shape of the Mansard roof can be seen.


above - Finishing touches to the fifth floor windows in 1932. The sloping roof can be seen beginning on the floor below.

There were 22 studios, compared with nine (plus two effects studios and a temporary studio at Big Tree Wharf) at Savoy Hill. In November 1929 a Studio Decoration Committee was formed under the chairmanship of the Assistant Controller of the BBC, Commander V. H. Goldsmith. It was decided that several interior designers should be employed. The building's architect, Val Myer would design the largest studio, the Concert Hall. Raymond McGrath (1903-1977) was to be the co-ordinator of the interior design and was also responsible for the two studios in the sub-basement. He also designed the two Press Listening Halls in the basement, the Green Room for the Concert Hall and the staff restaurant. Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) designed talks studios (3B and 8B) as well as the large music studio on the eighth floor. Wells Coates (1895-1958) had an engineering background and was given the more technical areas - the Control Room, the news studios (4A and 4B) and the Productions Group on the sixth and seventh floors which included the effects studios.

Two more designers were given single studios to work on. Edward Maufe (1883-1974), who was soon to win a competition to design Guildford Cathedral, designed the 'Chapel' studio on the third floor (3E) and Dorothy Warren Trotter produced the little study-like talks studio 3D.

Six lifts were installed, two originally meant for artists, two for staff and two for goods. These lifts travelled at 400 feet per minute, the fastest in London at the time. The passenger lifts had a capacity of 24 persons.

At first it was thought that the BBC would not require the whole of the building, and initial plans included a bank, an underground garage and shops.

The building was completed in 1931, and was initially rented at £45,000 p.a.. It was later purchased for £650,000 and the freehold transferred to the BBC on 16th July 1936. In September 1931 the first staff began to move in. Programmes transferred gradually to the new building. On the 15th of March, 1932 the first musical programme to come from BH was given by Henry Hall and his Dance Orchestra. The first news bulletin was read by Stuart Hibberd on March 18th. The last transmission from Savoy Hill was on May 14th.

Staff in the Concert Hall
The building entered full service on 2nd May and the following morning Sir John Reith addressed his staff in the Concert Hall. He spoke to them 'not as staff in the mass but as individuals'. Many of those individuals were disappointed with their new building, though. Even Reith expressed his initial dislike of it and was unhappy with the inclusion of his name in the Latin inscription in the reception hall. The friendly atmosphere of Savoy Hill was missing, and the building itself proved to have many shortcomings. Despite all the planning, there were soon complaints about the facilities. Offices and some studios were thought to be too small; despite all the efforts to prevent it there was noise leakage between studios; the Concert Hall organ could be heard in other studios; and, in return, big bands playing in the sub-basement could be heard in the Concert Hall; the rumble from the Bakerloo line could be heard in the lower studios; there was inadequate lighting to read scripts and scores; and some doors were too narrow to allow pianos through.

Even in the time that it had taken to plan and build BH, the requirements of broadcasting had increased. This trend continued and staff were soon moving out to other buildings in the area - the total number of BBC employees more than doubled in the period 1932-1936. The Empire Service began on the 19th December 1932 and made demands on space and recording facilities. There were more vaudeville, comedy and revue shows so St. George's Hall, near to the Queen's Hall, was acquired in 1933. A space suitable for large orchestras was required and an old ice-rink in Maida Vale was converted into a studio complex in 1934. Early television experiments were moved from Studio BB to 16 Portland Place, also in 1934.

Some data concerning Broadcasting House in 1932
From above
  • The height of the building above street level was 112 feet 9 inches.
  • The depth of the building below street level was 34 ft. 3 in.
  • The weight of the building was 24,000 tons.
  • The number of blocks used was 2,630,000.
  • The cubic capacity of the building was 2,260,161 cub. ft.
  • The number of doors was 800.
  • The number of panes of glass in the building was 7,500.
  • The length of corridors was 1 mile.
  • The weight of earth excavated before building commenced was 43,000 tons.
  • The average consumption of water per day was approx. 193,000 gallons.
  • The capacity of the fuel oil storage tanks was 60 tons.
  • The average oil consumption per day for heating was 2 tons.
  • The steam-raising capacity of the boilers was 12,000 lbs. per hour.
  • The number of radiators in the building was 840.
  • The power consumption of the air-conditioning and ventilating plant was equal to approx. 450 h.p.
  • The amount of air handled by the ventilating apparatus per hour was approx. 260 tons.
  • The number of rooms served by air-conditioning and ventilating plant was 180.
  • The moisture given off in twelve hours by people in the tower, when it was fully occupied was 1 ton.
  • The number of electric lamps in the building was approx. 6,500.
  • The number of thermionic valves was approx. 660.
  • The average filament heating load was 1,700 watts.
  • The average H.T. load, including local loud-speaker amplifiers, was 1,300 watts.
  • The average total electricity consumption daily was 5,300 units.
  • The number of clocks in the building was 98.
  • The total length of wiring in broadcasting circuits was approx. 142 miles.
The Original Studios
Studio Designer Size (ft.) Original use Link
8A Serge Chermayeff 51x33x16 Small orchestras, brass and military bands, musical comedy and revues. View
8B Serge Chermayeff 16x13x10 Talks and discussions View
7A Wells Coates 13x13x9 Drama, later Empire Service. No pics
7B Wells Coates 19x19x9 Drama and piano music. View
7C Wells Coates 19x19x9 Drama. No pics
7D Wells Coates 13x12x9 Practical effects. View
7E Wells Coates 12x8x9 Gramophone effects. View
6A Wells Coates 36x16x18 Large Drama productions. View
6B Wells Coates 19x19x9 Drama. No pics
6C Wells Coates 19x19x9 Drama. No pics
6D Wells Coates 23x19x19 Practical effects. View
6E Wells Coates 12x8x9 Gramophone effects. View
4A Wells Coates 12x7x8 News and gramophone programmes. View
4B Wells Coates 12x7x8 News and gramophone programmes. View
3A Serge Chermayeff 35x15x19 Childrens' Hour and small musical groups. View
3B Serge Chermayeff 15x11x9 Talks. View
3C Serge Chermayeff 15x11x9 Talks and auditions. View
3D Dorothy Warren Trotter 15x11x9 Talks. View
3E Edward Maufe 21x18x19 The Chapel Studio. View
CH Val Myer 106x
Large concert hall. View
BA Raymond McGrath 44x36x19 Vaudeville. View
BB Raymond McGrath 29x18x19 BBC Dance Orchestra, also used for early experimental television broadcasts. View