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In the Beginning ...

Somerset House

Engraving of Somerset House showing the Thames at bottom with river traffic, large gardens leading up from the river, then a large neo-classical structure with courtyards behindSomerset House (1707)The site of King's and Somerset House was home to a complex of such ecclesiastical buildings in the middle ages: the residences of the bishops of Chester, Llandaff and Worcester and the legal Inn of Chancery known as Chester's Inn or Strand Inn.

These were demolished in 1549 to make way for the Protector Somerset's new palace. Part of the King's area contained a mound of refuse and rubble from the medieval buildings and remained so until Inigo Jones's improvements of the early 17th century.

Two new wings of the Palace were then built - a western long gallery used for dances, and a northern 'cross gallery' or presence chamber when the palace was occupied by royalty - extended over the north-eastern portion of the King's site behind a busy frontage of town houses.

These wings enclosed a private and formal area called 'the water garden'. It was this ground, or an area nearby, that was granted to the herbalist, John Gerrard, in 1604, constituting one of the country's oldest physic gardens.

The southern flank of the King's and Somerset House estate comprised a series of lawns, bowling greens and walks beside the river.

The first Somerset House was pulled down in 1775 and replaced by the existing buildings designed by Sir William Chambers. These housed government revenue departments and the Navy Board, and learned societies including The Royal Society.

The eastern parcel of land running parallel with Strand Lane was earmarked for development but left largely as a dumping ground from the demolition of the old galleries. A report from this time describes the hollow shell with its 'audience-chamber…hung with silk, which was in tatters'. In another part lay 'the vestiges of a throne and canopy of state'. Ivy clad statuary stood in the rubbish-strewn gardens.

The site was being used as a builder's yard until work began on clearing the area in the autumn of 1829.

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