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History & today

Somerset House

In December 2009, King’s College London signed an agreement with the Somerset House trust to acquire the East Wing of Somerset House, one of London's most beautiful and iconic buildings.

This provides a unique opportunity to create a new cultural hub for Londoners, as well as extending the College’s existing Strand Campus which has long been home to the most innovate teaching and research.

From the moment it opened its doors to students in 1831, King's College set its sights on acquiring the neighbouring East Wing - an ambition that has lasted 180 years. The relationship between the College and the Crown offices that occupied the East Wing were sometimes difficult.

In 1875, for example, a dispute blew up when new windows were added to the façade overlooking King's. When the College Council complained at the loss of privacy, the Board of Works tersely replied that 'the terms under which the college is held are not such as to enable the Council to restrict Her Majesty from opening windows in Somerset House whenever she may think proper...'

Efforts to acquire the East Wing started in earnest after the First World War when the College began to outgrow its premises. It was even suggested at this time that it be relocated to new premises in Bloomsbury. When these plans fell through, a new top floor was instead added to the main building to house the Anatomy Department and the College's Surrey Street estate was purchased.

The next major attempt took place in the early 1960s, following the publication of the Robbins Report on Higher Education in 1963. The Report recommended a large expansion in student numbers accommodated by a new building programme. The College dusted off its so-called 'quadrilateral plan' to create a campus stretching from Norfolk Street in the east to Waterloo Bridge Road in the west. Plans were also drawn up for modern high-rise buildings along the Strand and Surrey Street to house a new library and laboratories. A contemporary report declared that that the redevelopment would provide 'London with a university precinct on the Strand of which the capital could be proud'.

The plans were revisited in the early 1970s by the then Principal, Sir John Hackett. Funding problems and the unwillingness of the Government to re-house its civil servants prevented further progress, despite intensive political lobbying.

In 1971 the Evening Standard newspaper led a public campaign for Somerset House to be transformed into a new public arts venue for London. Proposals were also aired for the relocation of the Tate Gallery to the site. This proved to be prescient: during the 1990s the opening of the Courtauld Gallery and river rooms and the replacement of the car park by the Fountain Court did indeed mark the next stage in the transformation of Somerset House.

These pages celebrate the history of the East Wing and its site - from Saxon port and medieval law school to Tudor Palace and Offices of State - a centre of learning and cultural exchange for centuries.

For more information about the Somerset House East Wing Redevelopment, please visit the Estates section of the website.

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