The Empire shrine that never was

Britain’s pride in its expanding Empire in the nineteenth century led unsurprisingly to calls for the erection of  grand and imposing memorials to it in the imperial capital, London.

In 1838, Sir Robert Smirke, the architect who designed the original Carlton Club building in Pall Mall, proposed that a smaller version of Salisbury Cathedral should be erected beside the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. Later ideas included another ambitious scheme for Hyde Park: a vast pyramid with a crypt for royal burials beneath it.

The great Empire shrine pictured here was designed for the heart of Westminster, between the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, by John Pollard Seddon (1827-1906), a prolific ecclesiastical architect whose many commissions included the restoration and extension of Llandaff Cathedral.

Seddon’s shrine developed and refined various earlier designs  produced by a number of leading architects, including George Gilbert Scott, which had been considered by a Royal Commission in 1891. Seddon’s grandiose plans were exhibited at the Royal Academy in March 1904 at a time of imperial fervour two years after the end of the Boer War and the coronation of Edward VII, a monarch who strongly encouraged pageantry and display.

The Imperial Monumental Halls and Tower, which would have comprised the shrine, were designed to “ form a worthy centre to the metropolis of the Empire upon which the sun never sets.” The Tower would have soared above its neighbours,Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster. At 167 metres—548 feet— it would dwafted  both Victoria Tower and Big Ben. Monuments and imperial trophies would have adorned its lower  floors. Archives would have been housed at the top.

The Halls themselves would have stretched from the Great Cloister of Westminster Abbey to Millbank, occupying the whole of what is now Abingdon Gardens opposite the House of Lords. They would have ended with a transept at the south end, 48 metres wide and 14 metres deep. The total floor space would have been similar to that of Westminster Abbey. One of the chief purposes of the Halls would have been to provide a final resting place for the heroes of Empire after their deaths.

Seddon’s remarkable shrine had its supporters, but attracted many critics. The Builder magazine regarded it as an exercise in megalomania. Everyone baulked at the cost--£800,000 (over a billion today)—and the plans were filed away.

Another even more ambitious attempt to raise monuments to the glory of Empire in Westminster was made after the First World War by a Committee which included the Archbishop of Westminster, Elgar and Lord Leverhulme. The Committee wanted the area between the Abbey and the Tate Gallery to become  a great imperial centre with a picture gallery, theatre, university buildings, a vast war memorial and much else besides along an Empire Avenue.

This too came to nothing after a Commons debate in 1925 when the government was asked whether opponents of the scheme were “anti-nationalist, or German or something anti-English.” Yet they won the argument. Even in the heyday of Empire, it proved impossible to arouse sufficient enthusiasm to bring the great projects proposed for Westminster into being .

SOURCE OF MATERIAL: Most of the information in this article comes from Steven Hicks, Around 1 Millbank: A History of the Area, published in 1998.