Historic Royal… Patchworks?

Historic buildings are a bit like socks. Not because they’re prone to developing holes and can be pongy when damp, but because they share a philosophical conundrum. In the late 17th century the Enlightenment thinker John Locke had a hole in his favourite sock. He wondered whether if he (or, more likely, one imagines, his housekeeper) darned the sock, it would still be the same object. And if it continued to be patched until none of the original sock remained, could the reworked sock still be considered the same sock.

No holes here! Socks worn by Albert Edward Prince of Wales, 1842. ©Historic Royal Palaces
No holes here! Socks worn by Albert Edward Prince of Wales, 1842. ©Historic Royal Palaces

Locke’s sock puzzle, a favourite of the ancient Greeks and now sometimes referred to as the ‘Sugababes paradox’ can also be applied to buildings. The palaces that we look after range in date from the 11th century (the White Tower at the Tower of London), through the early modern period (Hampton Court) to the more recent 18th century Hillsborough. However, no buildings ever survive untouched for this long. During the course of their long history, huge changes have been wrought to the fabric of the buildings. Monarchs have remodelled and updated the palaces to reflect changing needs and changing fashions. Damage and decay have necessitated repair, replacement and even complete rebuilding of parts of the buildings. And in the 19th century a large amount of ‘restoration’ was done at Hampton Court and the Tower, in an effort to counteract the evolution of the buildings and return them to what the Victorians thought of as their ‘original’ state.

2. Bell Tower - Copy
Proposed restoration of the 12th-century Bell Tower, Tower of London, 1903, HM Office of Works. ©Historic Royal Palaces

However, sometimes there have been opportunities to create entirely new buildings within the palaces’ confines. In 1841 a terrible fire completely destroyed the Grand Storehouse, a late-17th century building designed to store supplies for the Office of Ordnance.

One of a series of watercolours depicting the fire of 1841 by J.M.W. Turner. ©Tate
One of a series of watercolours depicting the fire of 1841, by J.M.W. Turner. ©Tate

In its place, the Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington, commissioned an entirely new building. Designed to house a garrison of nearly 1000 soldiers, the Waterloo Barracks was constructed in a castellated Gothic Revival style with ‘Tudor’ windows, intended to complement the surrounding medieval parts of the palace.

Elevation of the Waterloo Barracks, 1955, amended 1980, Ministry of Works. ©Historic Royal Palaces
Elevation of the Waterloo Barracks, 1955, amended 1980, Ministry of Works. ©Historic Royal Palaces

Yet like Locke’s sock, Wellington’s building did not remain in its original state for long. By the 20th century the military functions of the Tower had wound down and the numbers of visitors to the site dramatically increased. In the 1960s the Waterloo Block underwent a profound alteration, as its basement was excavated to provide a new home for the Crown Jewels.

Sketch showing scheme to re-house the Crown Jewels in the Waterloo Block, 1961. ©Historic Royal Palaces
Sketch showing scheme to re-house the Crown Jewels in the Waterloo Block, 1961. ©Historic Royal Palaces

In the early 1990s the interior was remodelled again, as the Jewels were moved to the ground floor where they remain today. The subterranean vault—an impressive example of 1960s architecture at the Tower—is now the home of HRP’s architectural drawings collection.

From the outside, the Waterloo Block still looks largely as it did in the 1840s. It still provides barracks for soldiers stationed at the Tower, and its name still reminds us of Wellington’s most important military achievement. Yet over its relatively short life it has undergone a variety of alterations that make it, like all historic buildings, a patchwork of different times and styles, reflecting changing fashions and diverse uses. So when we look at, and look after, our buildings, it’s worth keeping in mind that they’re not simply one structure, but lots of different layers all jostling for space and recognition, darned together to make a whole.

Roisin Inglesby

Curator of Architectural Drawings

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