• London On The Ground

Bracken House: The Financial Times, Churchill And The Sun

Updated: Mar 29

Named after a friend of Winston Churchill and designed by an architect who preferred candles to electric light.

Bracken House: the former main entrance on Cannon Street
Bracken House: the former main entrance on Cannon Street

Bracken House, the City of London home of the Financial Times newspaper, was built in 1958 in a modern classical style to the design of architect Sir Albert Richardson. It is named after Brendan Bracken, the FT's chairman at the time. The brickwork and sandstone cladding evoke the pink of the paper on which the FT is printed, while the roof's oxidised green copper forms an effective contrast.

Bracken House: the former main entrance on Cannon Street
Bracken House from the corner of Queen Victoria Street and Friday Street

Over the doorway in the north façade on Cannon Street, which used to be the main entrance, is an astrological clock featuring the signs of the zodiac. At its centre a face bearing a distinct resemblance to Winston Churchill looks out from a blazing sun, a tribute to the friendship between Brendan Bracken and Winston Churchill.

Bracken House: the astrological clock on Cannon Street
Bracken House: the astrological clock

The clock was designed in 1959 by designers Frank Dobson and Philip Bentham for clockmakers Thwaites & Reed (which claims to be the world's oldest clock making firm: it made the clock at Horse Guards Parade in 1756). It also shows the time by minute, hour, day and month.

Bracken House: Winston Churchill looks out from the astrological clock
Bracken House: Winston Churchill looks out from the astrological clock

Brendan Bracken was born in Ireland in 1901, the son of a builder and former member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, yet he became a prominent member of the British Establishment as a peer of the realm.


Initially brought up in Ireland, Bracken's widowed mother sent him to live for most of his teenage years with a cousin in Australia. After a brief return to Ireland, he moved to England and talked his way into Sedbergh, a public school in Cumbria, claiming he was an Australian orphan whose parents had died in a bush fire.


His time in Australia and one term at Sedbergh helped Bracken to hide his Irish background, a past that he denied on a number of occasions in his early career in magazines in London. This approach paid off. Bracken became a successful publisher (of the FT , The Economist, The Banker and The Investor's Chronicle) and a Member of Parliament.

Bracken became a friend and confidant of Winston Churchill after assisting him in parliamentary campaigns in the 1920s. Bracken played an important part in Churchill's nomination as Conservative party leader and Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain resigned in 1940.

As Churchill's parliamentary private secretary, Bracken took part in discussions with the US that helped to secure American support for Britain a year before the US entered the war. Bracken then served in Churchill's war-time cabinet as Minister of Information from 1941 until 1945.

Apart from a few months in 1945, Bracken continued as an MP until 1951. He accepted the title Viscount Bracken of Christchurch in 1952, although he did not take up his seat in the House of Lords. Brendan Bracken retired from publishing in 1956 and died of oesophageal cancer in 1958.

Bust of Brandan Bracken in the Cannon Street lobby of Bracken House

Brendan Bracken was known to his staff at the Ministry of Information by his initials 'BB'. This may have been the inspiration for George Orwell to use the same initials for the character Big Brother in his 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.


What is certain is that Orwell's wife Eileen worked for Bracken at the Ministry of Information in its World War II premises in the University of London's Senate House. Moreover, Orwell based his description of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four on Senate House ("an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete").


The Financial Times was founded in 1888, but the modern newspaper could be said to date from 1945, in the aftermath of World War II. That was when Brendan Bracken merged the FT with rival publication the Financial News. To accommodate the bigger organisation and its wider ambitions, Bracken sought new premises.


The location chosen was a bomb site just southeast of St Paul's Cathedral on Cannon Street, still undeveloped when construction began in 1955. It was close both to the financial institutions of the City of London and the newspaper district that was then concentrated in and around Fleet Street. It was also very near to the area around St Paul's that, for centuries until World War II, had been associated with the publishing industry.


As with all of London's newspaper offices at the time, the building housed not only journalists and editors, but also printing presses underneath its central hall. Their operation caused the pavement to rumble as if a tube train were passing.


Architect Sir Albert Richardson had earlier designed Festival Gardens just across the road from Bracken House in the southern part of St Paul's Churchyard. The gardens were the City of London's contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Richardson and Bracken had been friends since the 1920s, when they both campaigned to save Georgian buildings in London.


Richardson was a major English architect, a Professor at University College London, President of the Royal Academy, editor of Architects' Journal and Master of the Art Workers' Guild.

He was also passionate about the Georgian period, but accepted the need to combine his taste for 18th century neoclassicism with the more contemporary Modernism. Bracken House is regarded as a landmark of 20th century design, but he also received a number of commissions to restore Georgian buildings damaged by bombs in World War II (including the library at Sedbergh, the school where Bracken had spent a term and became chairman of the governors).


Richardson's love of all things Georgian was reflected in his choice of an 18th century townhouse in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, as his own home. He refused to install electricity, preferring candle light in order to be true to his 18th century ideals. His wife Elizabeth persuaded him otherwise.


However, it is said that he liked to wear 18th century clothes and to read 18th century newspapers. He even had students or draughtsmen dressed in Georgian livery carry him to parties by sedan chair.


Albert Richardson died in 1964, aged 83, almost eight years after Bracken House was completed.


The Financial Times occupied Bracken House for more than 30 years, but moved out after its parent company Pearson sold the building to Japanese developer Obayashi in 1987. The newspaper's editorial staff moved to an office building at One Southwark Bridge, while its print works relocated first to London's Docklands and then to Bow in east London. Bracken House received a substantial makeover to adapt to the needs of its new occupant, the Industrial Bank of Japan (now the Mizuho Financial Group).


The architectural firm Michael Hopkins & Partners rebuilt the central printing hall, replacing the brick and sandstone with new glass and gunmetal façades to the east and west on Distaff Lane and Friday Street. To help it blend in with the original parts of the building, the new section incorporated sandstone plinths at the base, using sandstone from the same Staffordshire quarry that provided the original.

Bracken House: the east façade on Friday Street
Bracken House: the east façade on Friday Street

The new façades were given protruding bay windows ('oriel' windows) to illuminate open plan offices and trading floors for the bank. The northern and southern façades of the building, on Cannon Street and Queen Victoria Street, were left unchanged, but the main entrance was moved to Friday Street in the eastern façade.

Bracken House: the east façade below oriel windows on Friday Street
Bracken House: the main entrance on Friday Street

Hopkins had originally planned a complete replacement of Bracken House with a new glass and steel building, but English Heritage gave it a Grade II listing in 1987 in order to provide an obstacle to its demolition. It was the first building in England built after World War II to receive listed status.


The combination of Richardson's original work and Hopkins' modifications led to an upgrade in Bracken House's listing to Grade II* in 2013. This is the second highest level of listed building status, meaning that the building is "particularly important, of more than special interest".


After a 30 year absence the Financial Times (since 2015 owned by Japanese business publisher Nikkei) returned to Bracken House in 2019. Renovations by John Robertson Architects helped to welcome the FT back to its ancestral home. These include an enlarged entrance hall, indoor courtyards, partially glazed roofing and a roof garden with a running track.


Bracken House combines a number of themes that infuse the City of London: business and finance, publishing, exuberant architecture, the combination of old and new and some fascinating personalities.

 

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