Bush House on the World Stage

With the SE Wing now finally open to students, Roar examines Bush House’s history as a world player, from International Trade Hall to BBC World Service Headquarters to King’s’ Acquisition in 2015.

This summer saw the KCLSU’s move from their brutalist monolith on Surrey Street to the echo-y marbled halls of Bush House’s newly renovated southeast wing. Meanwhile, student media has traded its top floor mezzanine views of the Thames for a spacious 7th floor suite over the Strand.

 

Turns out 7th floor SE has a long tradition of journalism. Before student media, it was home to the BBC German Language Service, where for a period of 70 years each day began with an 0600 programme of the news, pre-recorded features, and an English lesson. The floor was a flurry of multilingual activity as some worked on the afternoon current affairs segment Heute Aktuell while others translated English news despatches, sending them to other German-speaking partner stations. ‘Tipps fuer Tourists was a common tape one had to play,’ remembers Andy Popperwell, who joined the BBC World Service as a Studio Manager in 1975.

Andy Popperwell, hired as Studio Manager in 1975 and Recruitment and Training Manager in 1988.

Bush House was never owned by the BBC, yet it was home to the World Service for 70 years, issuing its last broadcast there in 2012 before moving back to its original location at Broadcasting House, the BBC’s Portland Place headquarters. Three years later, King’s College London took over the building with a 50-year lease. Relics of Bush House’s former tenant still remain, however—mail slots labelled ‘Country Letters’ and ‘London & Abroad’ can be seen in the atriums of most floors, while a blue heritage plaque outside reads ‘International radio, television and online content made here.’

 

A Hub of International Commerce

 

The BBC’s time at Bush House began in the 40s when a bomb destroyed part of Broadcasting House, calling for rapid ad hoc expansion. Though the BBC had little time to be picky, Bush House’s layout and functions were at the time ill-equipped for broadcasting. After all, this was a building designed not for efficiency but ostentatious grandiosity when it opened as an international trade hall in 1919 by New York transportation magnate Irving T. Bush.

 

Bush had bought the site at the intersection of Aldwych and the newly-constructed Kingsway (previously home to the Eagle Hut, a social services centre for American soldiers during WWI) with plans to build a London counterpart to his Bush Tower trade centre in Manhattan. However, as British authorities were not keen at the time on American-style skyscrapers, Bush’s architect Harvey Corbett instead opted for an 8-storey neoclassical structure, with a resplendent façade of columns and an illuminated portico. As further embellishment, Corbett commissioned a Romanesque statue from the artist Malvina Hoffman, depicting the human representations of America and Britain triumphantly raising a torch, and the inscription “to the friendship of English-speaking peoples” (fitting for an Anglo-American trade centre, though later rather embarrassing for the multilingual BBC World Service). No expense was spared—with construction totalling $10 million, Bush House was at the time considered to be the most expensive building in the world.

 

The building thus opened with great fanfare on the 4 July 1925 (American Independence Day), in a ceremony led by Lord Balfour and large enough to halt traffic on Kingsway. The event was so spectacular that Malvina Hoffman purportedly broke down in tears. Unfortunately, Irving T. Bush’s plans for Bush House as a bustling centre of commerce were never realised—the building struggled to hold tenants during the Depression and quickly lost its prestige. When the BBC European Service first came to Bush House to ‘borrow’ an advertising agency’s recording studio, Bush’s vision of an International Trade Centre was long-forgotten. However, Bush House’s presence on the world stage had only just begun. In time, the European Service would be joined by the rest of the Overseas Service, and Bush House would become the main nerve centre for the world’s largest international broadcaster.

 

 

The Sun Never Sets on the BBC World Service

 

Many think of the BBC World Service’s mission as being a bastion of impartiality, broadcasting news to distant lands where local networks could not always be trusted. While this was true for much of the 20th century—especially during the Cold War—the founding mission in 1932 was simply to provide news to expats across the British Empire, something reflected in the original title of ‘BBC Empire Service.’ However, the target audience began to shift in the wake of decolonisation, first to English speakers not necessarily of British descent, then to an even wider audience. At its height, the World Service was broadcasting from Bush House in 44 languages, from Finnish to Somali to a Welsh service for Patagonia and a Portuguese Service for the Channel Islands.

 

For World Service listeners around the globe, Bush House was their biggest link to London, but for passers-by the building remained innocuous, only marked as the BBC by an unassuming brass sign. The statue representing America had lost an arm in WWII when hit by a V-1 flying bomb and had not been repaired until the 70s. The building had a notorious mouse infestation and worn, ‘undignified’ carpeting.

 

Still, the building had retained some of its (albeit impractical) grandiosity. ‘Five minutes after I walked into Bush House, I knew it was the place for me,’ recalls Popperwell. ‘Two reasons: I loved the cosmopolitan feel and foreign languages didn’t bother me at all, and secondly there was a sink-or-swim attitude which meant you were given lots of responsibility very quickly.’

 

‘Everyone managed to swim!’ he adds.

 

Tower of Babel

 

In one retrospective put out by the BBC, one former employee described the place as ‘a sort of United Nations of Broadcasting.’ Each floor spoke a different language and the canteen was likened to Babel. Special systems were put in place for multilingual communication. Hand signals were sometimes used in lieu of words in the recording studios to stop, start, or adjust the volume, and mixing desk operators changed broadcasting networks with a 24-way selector switch. A system of pneumatic tubes served communication across language services—news bulletins were rolled up, stamped with the name of the recipient network, and whooshed through a vacuum to the corresponding floor, where they could then be translated and despatched.

 

The basement canteen, meanwhile, was legendary. Just as the news never stopped, kitchens operated around the clock. Remembers Popperwell, ‘The engineers from the Control Room and from Maintenance would indulge in their very special nightshift dinner around 0100 or 0200 – bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, black pudding, chips, extra chips and more.  It would cure any cholesterol deficiency known.’ Popperwell himself went in for scrambled eggs on toast.

 

King’s students may be more intimately familiar with this canteen than they are aware. George Orwell, who joined the Eastern Service as a Talks Producer in 1941 (known around Bush House by his given name, Eric Blair), is said to have based his canteen in 1984 on the Bush House canteen. The same space is now occupied by KCLSU’s new bar, The Vault, where students can enjoy a similarly dank atmosphere.

 

 

Bush House Notables

 

Orwell reportedly disliked his job at the Eastern Service, describing himself at the time as ‘an orange that’s been trodden on, by a very dirty boot.’ Perhaps it was this distaste for the World Service that has led readers to draw further connections between 1984 and Orwell’s experiences at Bush House. Some have surmised that the Ministry of Truth is based on Bush House. Other have touted rumours that the infamous Room 101 is somewhere in the building.

 

Unfortunately, King’s College London contains no hidden torture chambers. Room 101 is instead said to be based on a room in Broadcasting House, where Orwell sat through many lengthy meetings. The Ministry of Truth, meanwhile, was actually inspired by another University of London building: The Senate House Library, where Orwell’s wife Eileen worked for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information (a great example of doublespeak if there ever was one) during WWII.

 

Much closer to the actual year of 1984, Bush House appears in history once again. In September 1978, Georgi Markov, a dissident journalist in the Bulgarian service, was waiting for the bus on the south side of the Waterloo Bridge when a man jabbed him in the thigh with the point of an umbrella and hurried off. Baffled, Markov continued his journey to Bush House (a journey anyone with back-to-back classes at Waterloo and Strand is too familiar with) where he related the strange incident to his colleagues. Three days later he was dead, poisoned by (presumably) the KGB via umbrella.

 

“My memories of Georgi Markov are limited to his face in the studio – a pleasant, friendly man,” says Popperwell. “I remember that there were gutter press journalists in the Canteen after the murder looking for people to talk to – there was little or no security in those days.”

 

Bush House Opens Again

 

By the 90s, radio was on the decline. The World Service began to shift its focus towards TV, for which Broadcasting House was better suited. Thus began the long withdrawal process from Bush House. In 2012, The World Service news in English was the last programme to be broadcasted, drawing Bush House’s world-famous tenure to a close.

 

Former employees still reminisce on the Bush House Appreciation Page on Facebook and gather for the BBC Bushmen Cricket Club (founded 1941, the year Bush House joined the BBC), of which Andy Popperwell is Team Secretary.

 

In 2015, King’s signed its lease on Bush House, just about doubling the size of Strand campus. With students drawn from 150 different countries, Bush House has now gone from international trade centre to international broadcaster to international university. The Tower of Babel is still an apt comparison.

 

Photos: Jared Phanco, Andy Popperwell

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