Explosive History at the Great Pagoda

In 1757, the Dowager Princess of Wales, Augusta, employed the architect William Chambers and embarked upon an adventurous construction scheme of garden buildings for her Pleasure Gardens at Kew.  Within a period of six years, Chambers designed and built over seventeen garden buildings in Augusta’s garden.  Arguably the most impressive of these buildings was the Great Pagoda, inspired by William Chambers’ visit to China and constructed within a period of six months during autumn 1761 and spring 1762. The pagoda was elaborately decorated, Chambers stating that it was “covered with plates of varnished iron of different colours…all the angles of the roofs are adorned with large dragons, being eighty in number, covered with a kind of thin glass of various colours, which produces a most dazzling reflection”.


When completed, the Great Pagoda stood at a towering ten storeys (163 feet) and was the tallest Chinese architectural style building in Europe.

In a letter to the Earl of Strafford in 1761, Horace Walpole, the historian and politician, sarcastically commented “we begin to perceive the Tower of Kew from Montpellier Row; in a fortnight you will see it in Yorkshire”.

It was precisely for its towering height that in 1940, during the Second World War, the pagoda became of interest to The Royal Aircraft Establishment who wanted to use it for model bomb dropping experiments!

Despite the fact that this goes against all modern principles of building conservation, permission for the experiments was granted, plans were drawn up and instructions given for the following alterations to be made:

  1. A shelf inserted at south window on top floor.
  2. Holes cut in the floors directly beneath position of the shelf.
  3. A box of sand to be positioned at the bottom underneath the holes.

Today the only evidence for this explosive period in the pagoda’s history are some cuts in the floorboards where they were reinstated once the experiments had been completed in 1945.

Discover more about Royal Kew at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/KewPalace/kewstories

Mary Gillespie, Assistant Curator.

Further Reading