Opened in July, 1937, 8, Albert Embankment, often referred to as ‘Lambeth Fire Station’, served as the London Fire Brigade (L.F.B.) Headquarters for more than 70 years, before the ‘Art Deco’ building was vacated in 2007.
Since then the prominent riverside site has stood largely empty, yet in positive news this week, on 3rd December, 2019, Lambeth Council’s Planning Applications Committee granted permission to developer U+I, in partnership with the London Fire Commissioner (L.F.C.) for the site’s redevelopment.
As a Grade II-listed building, the historic fabric of ‘Lambeth Fire Station’ will be retained under the new scheme.
The history of 8, Albert Embankment starts in the late 1920’s, where following the rapid expansion of the L.F.B. in the immediate years after the First World War, the Brigade’s need for a new headquarters building was becoming increasingly apparent. The existing headquarters on Southwark Bridge Road, S.E.1, completed in 1878, was deemed out-of-date, with staff accommodation falling well short of modern standards, and the drill ground too small.
With the decision made to find a new site on which a purpose-built headquarters could be constructed, in 1934 the London County Council (L.C.C.) purchased 2.5 acres of land in neighbouring Lambeth, fronting the Albert Embankment.
The main part of the site had previously served as a pipe works for Doulton & Co., Ltd., before production had been transferred to a new plant in Erith, Kent, as part of a broader effort by the ceramics manufacturer to move work out of London and away from their sprawling Lambeth works.
A similar sale of land to W. H. Smith & Son, Ltd., had seen the construction of ‘Bridge House’, adjacent to the L.F.B. site, whilst a later and final sale would see ‘Lambeth Bridge House’ constructed, next to Doulton’s own new head office building, ‘Doulton House’.
Dissected by Lambeth High Street, which effectively split the L.F.B. site in two, and incorporating the railway arches of the Southern Railway, the new development was loosely bounded by Whitgift Street to the north, Newport Street to the east, Black Prince Road to the south and the Albert Embankment to the west.
As such, the complex site incorporates two principal buildings, referred to simply as the front and rear blocks. The planning and design of the two new blocks was the responsibility of E. P. Wheeler, F.R.I.B.A., whilst Mr G. Weald, F.RI.B.A., Assistant Architect, was in charge of the work.
Born in 1874, Edwin Paul Wheeler was Architect to the L.C.C. He had served as a Captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, spending seven months in France.
Excavation works across the entire site were carried out by the London firm of Walter Lawrence* & Son, Ltd. Both buildings sit on reinforced concrete raft foundations, however responsibility for their construction was split between two firms, with Gee, Walker & Slater, Ltd. working on the front block and Higgs & Hill, Ltd., the rear.
By early 1936, the steel structures of both buildings were well advanced. In a reversal of roles, Higgs & Hill were responsible for the superstructure of the front block and Gee, Walker & Slater, the rear. British steel was used across the site and came from Dawnays, Ltd., whose own head office was in nearby Battersea on the appropriately named, Steelworks Road, S.W.11.
Stretching for 210 ft. along the Albert Embankment, the imposing front block rises to a height of 100 ft., with nine floors above ground. Portland stone, sourced from the South Western Stone Co., was used to face the ground floor, the central part of the first floor, and the cornice across the upper storeys, with light-coloured bricks used elsewhere.
The otherwise simple Albert Embankment elevation was elevated via a series of sculptured reliefs from some of the leading sculptors of the era. Commissions were awarded by the L.C.C. to Mr. Gilbert Bayes, Royal British Society of Sculptors (R.B.S.), Mr. Stanley Nicholson Babb (F.R.B.S.), and F. P. Morton.
Babb produced two sculptured panels, depicting fire fighting scenes, which surmount the main wooden entrance doors. Bayes’ work included three reliefs that run up the centre of the building from the first to third floors, atop which is a final sculptural relief of the L.C.C.’s own coat of arms, executed in stone and coloured mosaic by Morton.
Dominating the front block at ground level is the appliance room, which featured seven “run-outs” on to the Albert Embankment. In the event of a “turn-out”, crews on the upper floors could descend one of four sliding poles to reach the appliance room.
The new fire station was equipped with a range of modern appliances that included a breakdown lorry, a canteen van, a dual-purpose appliance, an emergency tender, a hose lorry, a pump, and a turntable ladder.
To assist the staff on duty, a large electrically lighted indicator, smaller reproductions of which were installed across the building, would display the appliance/s required and in certain instances, the location of the alarm pulled.
To ensure a safe and timely turn-out, traffic control signals, operated from the ground floor watch room, were installed at both ends of the front block, allowing the management of traffic on both the Albert Embankment and Lambeth Bridge.
Inside the main entrance stands a memorial, presented to the Brigade by the underwriters of Lloyd’s and executed in bronze and marble by Bayes.
The inscription reads “To the memory of the officers and men of the London Fire Brigade who throughout the years lay down their lives whilst doing their duty.” with the names listed on two panels either side of a carved centre panel. Immediately in front of the memorial is a floor mosaic, depicting the ‘Great Fire of London’.
At first floor level was the control room, the nerve centre from which the entire Brigade was directed. The room was soundproofed, with the main switchboard running almost the entire length of one wall, connecting the station with others across London.
Along with the watch room below, the control room had its own emergency lighting systems, to enable the continuous operation of the building in the event of an interruption of the main supply.
At the rear of the front block is a tiled drill yard, measuring approximately 112 x230 ft. This was originally used for training, competitions, and a weekly public drill, which took place every Wednesday afternoon.
Elsewhere within the yard, a bandstand was erected, along with a drill tower of nine-storeys, or 100 ft., exactly matching the height of the front block. Also built by Higgs & Hill, the brick-faced tower was the first across the Brigade to feature an internal staircase.
At just five-storeys, the brick-faced rear block is considerably shorter than the front, and lacks any of its architectural detailing. The building previously housed a garage and appliance room on the ground floor, with approximately 34,000 sq. ft. of mainly single-storey workshop space behind. The Brigade Training School was based on the first floor with accommodation above, consisting of six suites of officers quarters.
Behind the workshops are the railway arches of what was, at the time of completion, the Southern Railway, which were adapted for storage by J. & C. Bowyer, Ltd.
The new headquarters was formally opened by His Majesty The King George VI, accompanied by Her Majesty The Queen, at 03.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 21 July, 1937. The entire development had cost a reported £389,000, of which £291,000 related to the buildings and equipment, with the rest being the acquisition of land.
Having opened in 1937, the Brigade’s new headquarters would soon be put to the ultimate test, as London bore the brunt of the German bombing campaign against Britain. Remarkably, the building survived the Blitz unscathed.
In the 1980’s, a large and unsympathetic side extension was added to the front block, which led to the unfortunate demolition of the original bandstand and canteen, however beyond that both the front and rear blocks exist largely as-built with few of the changes that have blighted other public buildings from the era, such as replacement uPVC windows.
As the sole survivor of the four ‘Art Deco’ buildings that were constructed on the former works of Doulton & Co., Ltd., the front block, referred to as ‘Lambeth Fire Station’ was duly designated as a Listed Building on 2 December, 2002.
Heritage England noted its “special architectural interest as a well-composed and externally unaltered 1930s building which, while in the streamlined Moderne idiom, upholds the Arts and Crafts ideal of collaboration between architecture and sculpture.”
The building remained the headquarters of the L.F.B. for more than 70 years, until their return to neighbouring Southwark in 2008. The Brigade is now based at 169, Union Street, S.E.1., a former Royal Mail sorting office.
On 9 August, 2007, it was announced that the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (L.F.E.P.A.) had agreed to sell the 2.5 acre Lambeth site to Native Land, Ltd., subject to the developer being able to secure planning permission for its redevelopment.
Lifschutz Davidson Sandiland were appointed as architects and drew up plans for a mixed use scheme. The plans were rejected by Lambeth Council owing to what they saw as an issue of both scale and the potential loss of light for neighbouring properties.
With a subsequent planning appeal having also failed, the L.F.E.P.A. terminated the deal with Native Land in December, 2013, with U+I brought on as their replacement in 2016. With the L.F.E.P.A. subsequently abolished, U+I worked in partnership with the new London Fire Commissioner (L.F.C.).
Pilbrow and Partners were brought on as the architects for the new development, a planning application for which was submitted earlier this year. The revised scheme will include a new modern fire station, and a L.F.B. museum, a hotel and 443 new homes of which 172 will be affordable. With plans now approved, work is expected to commence on site in 2021.
As part of the plans, a single-storey glass extension will be added to the front block in order to facilitate a public rooftop restaurant. Both the rear block and the 1980’s extension will be demolished. Whilst the glass box was opposed by the Twentieth Century Society, if executed well, it could prove to be another notable addition to London’s riverside skyline.
Most important of all, however, is the fact that the redevelopment will bring back in to use, one of London’s outstanding public buildings of the interwar period, which can only be a positive.
*Walter Lawrence will be familiar to English cricket fans, for the trophy that shares his name, awarded to the batsman that made the fastest first-Class century during the season.