Thames House and Norwest House/Imperial Chemical House, Millbank, London SW1


Ministry: “When built in 1928-30 for ICI, the Grade II Listed building comprised two separate blocks linked by an enclosed bridge over Page Street, but when Thames House (pictured above) was refurbished to become the headquarters of MI5 (‘the Security Service’) in the late 1980s (opening in 1994), a new block, er, blocked the road…”

allhails: “I worked at Thames House from 1962 to 1964, and remember Page Street well. This building (now incorporating MI5) was then called Thames House South, and it was occupied by International Nickel and other firms. ICI occupied the whole of Thames House North, on the other side of Horseferry Road, also facing the river. I do not recall ICI occupying any part of Thames House South, but they may have done.”

From the 2014 Panorama of the Thames project:

“Built in 1930 to designs by Sir Frank Baines, KCVO, CBE, FRIBA, 1877-1933, Principal Architect of the Government’s Office of Works, Thames House (main picture) was once the HQ of ICI, bought by the government in the late 1980s…

[Grace’s Guide To British Industrial History: “Baines’s last and greatest architectural project was for two blocks of offices on opposite sides of Horseferry Road, Millbank – one was Nobel House built for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) while Thames House was built for government use.”]

…It now houses the UK Security Service (MI5) – as opposed to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) across the river on the other side of Lambeth Bridge at Vauxhall.

Thames House and its neighbour across the foot of the bridge are Baines’ best known works. He was interested too in conservation of older buildings and was an expert adviser on Westminster Hall. He perpetuated the Arts and Crafts movement into the C20th. 

Thames House is not unlike many of our fine public and commercial buildings of the early C20th. It was built on the site of a poor, run-down district that was widely regarded as a slum, which had been devastated by the Thames floods of 7 January 1928 in which 14 people died. The buildings were subsequently demolished, freeing up land for Thames House.

“John Dalton FRS (5 or 6 September 1766 – 27 July 1844) was an English chemist, physicist and meteorologist. He is best known for introducing the atomic theory into chemistry, and for his research into colour blindness, which he had. Colour blindness is known as Daltonism in several languages, being named after him.” (Wikipedia)
“Thames House was built at the same time as a number of other office buildings in the Millbank area. Its design is similar – though not identical – to that of Nobel House, Smith Square, London SW1, on the other side of Horseferry Road. The two buildings were constructed at the same time to serve as headquarters for Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI). Nobel House is now occupied by Ofgem, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets.”
(2014 Panorama of the Thames project)

The design of Thames House owes much to the Imperial Neoclassical style of Sir Edwin Lutyens, designer of the Cenotaph on Whitehall among much else. It also ties in with the Imperial design of Lambeth Bridge (built 1930-32). The Portland stone façade is decorated with sculptures by Charles Sargeant Jagger, a prominent British sculptor of the early C20th, who also designed the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

Thames House was extensively refurbished for use by the Security Service. Some major structural changes were made, such the construction of a new link block between the two formerly separate wings of the building. The refurbished Thames House was officially opened on 30 November 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major MP.”

From the Look Up London website:

“…Pevsner – the architectural critic – wasn’t too kind about Thames House, commenting on its “unfortunate cheese-coloured tile roof”.”

By Luxury London, 24 Jan 2022:

9 Millbank (Norwest House) was designed by Sir Frank Baines, chief architect at the British Office of Works, and constructed between 1927 and 1929.

Keystone: “Mercury (Latin: Mercurius) is a major god in Roman religion and mythology, being one of the 12 Dii Consentes within the ancient Roman pantheon. He is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld.” (Wikipedia)

It was then known as Imperial Chemical House, built for Imperial Chemical Industries which was, for a long time, the largest manufacturer in Britain. ICI erected the building on Millbank (a name which refers to the 14th Century mill that served Westminster Abbey and the banks of earth that held back the Thames water) because it was a trade route to the Continent.

Imperial Chemical House cost nearly £1,800,000 to build – equivalent to approximately £120.5 million today. New building innovations meant it was to go up within two and a half years, half the time expected for a building of its size, while the finished product was also breathtakingly advanced: it was lit by ‘artificial daylight’, and employees would breathe air freshened by an ozone plant.

The most pioneering materials and equipment were used: marble lined the walls and floors and limed Austrian oak was used for the doorways, doors, dados and panelling along two miles of corridors. This Neoclassical stone structure of 9 Millbank, from its provenance to execution, is a living symbol of Britain’s industrial innovation.

The Heritage Collection apartments reside on 9 Millbank’s upper floors – the former boardrooms and offices of the ICI chairman, directors and officials. In its curation, developer St Edward has taken great pains to retain the building’s history, with master artisans were commissioned to restore, and in some cases replicate, the original 1920s features.

For example, the entrance of 9 Millbank is flanked by two 20ft doors designed in 1927 by William Bateman Fagan (reminiscent of the bronze gates made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence). Weighing 21 tons, each door is divided into six panels which illustrate the progress of industry: the left panels show primitive man engaged in activities such as hunting, building and agriculture,

“A prehistoric scene of homo sapiens attempting to hunt a mammoth.”
(Look Up London)
“the construction of a basic tented home starting with building the frame onwards to completion. The final panel includes the completed tent with Stonehenge being seen in the background.”
(A London Inheritance)
“The material is a silvery nickel-copper alloy which was developed by the ICI.” (Look Up London)
“Born in Bermondsey in 1860, Fagan trained locally at Lambeth School of Art.” (Look Up London)

while the right panels illustrate how these activities have evolved with science.

“Astronomers in an oddly-placed observatory with a view across the Thames. On the far right you can spot the Victoria Tower on the House of Parliament and Imperial Chemical House is visible on the left. The campanile of Westminster Cathedral also makes an appearance in the distance.”
“Modes of transport through time, including an epic steam engine crossing a viaduct.”
(Look Up London)
“a depiction of Michel Faraday lecturing to a packed crowd of scientists including Charles Darwin who looks like he’s tentatively about to raise his hand and ask a question in the middle of the front row.”
(Look Up London)

The sixth floor, meanwhile, is home to eight busts commemorating innovators in chemistry…Also immortalised in sculpture, this time on the corner of 9 Millbank overlooking Lambeth Bridge, are the industries of construction, marine transport, agriculture and chemistry. The pieces were created by Charles Sargeant Jagger…”

From the blog A London Inheritance:

“…below the 5th floor balustrade and there are a series of large windows, each with a carving of a head on the key stone at the top of the window with a name on the balcony below. This provides us with a lesson in both industrial history and chemistry.

Imperial Chemical Industries, or ICI was once one of Britain’s largest industrial companies. ICI employed tens of thousands of people, had a global reach and was active across all the major areas of chemical manufacturing along with an extensive pharmaceutical business, however like so much of British industry, ICI lost its way towards the end of the 20th century, sold off the pharmaceutical business (now AstraZeneca) and ended up being purchased in 2008 by the Dutch chemicals manufacturing business AkzoNobel.

ICI was founded in 1926 by the merger of four chemical companies, Nobel Explosives, United Alkali Company, British Dyestuffs Corporation and Brunner, Mond and Company, and it is to this last company that we find our first name:

Ludwig Mond was born in Germany in 1839 and was active in a range of chemicals businesses, forming his own company, Brunner Mond, along with the industrialist John Brunner to manufacture soda at a factory at Northwich. He also developed a process for the production of pure nickel, building a factory in south Wales to develop this side of the business.

His son was Alfred Mond, the subject of the next window:

Alfred became the managing director of Brunner Mond and it was Alfred who was instrumental in the formation of ICI and became the first chairman of the new company.

The sculptor for the heads along the top of these windows was William Bateman Fagan, a Londoner born in Bermondsey in 1881.

“the main entrance to centre of Millbank front reaching up into first floor with coffered-soffit archivolt arch in architrave surround rising to entablature and cornice”
(Historic England)

The next key figure in the formation of ICI was Harry McGowan: Harry McGowan started work as an office boy at the age of 15 at the Nobel Explosives Company (founded in 1870 by the chemist Alfred Nobel, who was to use part of his estate to establish the Nobel Prize). McGowan worked he way to the top of Nobel Explosives to become Chairman and Managing Director when Nobel was one of the four companies to merge to form ICI. He became the second Chairman and Managing Director of ICI after Alfred Mond.

Now we come to the scientists who discovered the processes and the key elements that were the foundations of ICI’s business.

The first is Liebig, or Justus von Liebig to give him his full name, a German chemist who lived from 1803 to 1873. Liebig’s work in the field of organic chemistry and the application of chemistry to agriculture were significant. It was Liebig who discovered that the element Nitrogen was a critical nutrient for plants, and therefore a key component in the production of agricultural fertilisers.

Apart from the ICI building, Liebig has another prominent connection with London. His work in agriculture and foods resulted in his development of a process for the manufacture of beef extracts. To commercialise this process he founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Company which went on to produce Oxo, and in London built a factory where the Oxo Tower stands to this day on the southbank of the Thames.

Next we come to Joseph Priestley, an English theologian and scientist (or more correctly for the time a natural philosopher) who lived from 1733 to 1804. It was Priestley who discovered Oxygen, however his insistence in continuing to support an earlier theory that attempted to explain how fires burnt in air by the release of material called phlogiston and that fires stopped burning when the air around them could not absorb any more phlogiston, left him somewhat isolated.

Priestley also had controversial religious views for the time, being a religious Dissenter and along with Theophilus Lindsey founded Unitarianism with the first Unitarian service being held in the Essex Street Chapel, located just off the Strand. A fascinating man at a key moment in history at the early stages of the industrial revolution.

Next is the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and the founder of Nobel Industries Limited, one of the four companies that merged to form ICI. Nobel’s lasting legacy is the Nobel prize for which he donated the majority of his estate having been concerned how history would remember him as the inventor of explosives.

Lavoisier was a French chemist born in 1743 and was executed in 1794 by guillotine during the French revolution, a victim of the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the revolution and of anyone connected with authority prior to the revolution. Fortunately his work survived and he was key in understanding the processes of combustion and proving that water was not an element, but made from Oxygen and Hydrogen. His work help to disprove the phlogiston theory which Priestly was desperately trying to support.

Finally we come to Mendeleeff or Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist who lived from 1834 to 1907. His work on the composition of petroleum was key in understanding how oil and petroleum could be used as a feedstock for the chemicals industry, processes on which so much of ICI’s business would depend.

He was also the inventor of the Periodic Table of Elements, the table that classified the ordering of elements according to their key properties. The table not only helped understand elements but also provided a structure to classify future discoveries and to identify where unknown elements must exist to populate the gaps in the table…”

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