The Marble Hall
06 Sep 2018
Posted by: Thomas Barnes
It's Heritage Opens Days and Surrey House is open to the public today. I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some information about Surrey House and the Marble Hall.
Surrey House was designed by George Skipper (1856–1948) and built as the head offices of the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. In short, the Life Society had outgrown their accommodation across the road, which they shared with the Fire Society, and sought offices of their own.
Marble Hall circa 1908
They didn’t move far, but the event was commemorated in this illustrative cartoon from the time, entitled “The New Exodus”.
Some key dates:
- 19 Nov 1900 - design competition announced and invitations sent out to architects
- 19 Feb 1901 - George Skipper's design, "Utility", selected as the winner
- 04 Nov 1901 - foundation stone laid
- 17 Dec 1904 - the building opens to staff (albeit incomplete)
- 01 Jan 1905 - the building first opens to the public
Final works were completed by July 1908.
The font, or fountain, is an ornate part of a more general ventilation system designed to provide warm air in the colder months and cool air during the summer. The design is replete with Siena marble columns, carved motifs, and a bronze statuette (atop the canopy) created by the sculptor Henry Charles Fehr.
The photograph below was taken circa 1905, soon after the building first opened. It depicts the font in its original state, before various alterations were made.
Intended as part of the directors' processional way, in contrast to the clerks' entrance, the main staircase is decorated opulently, making best use of four types of marble and featuring stained glass windows by A J Dix and a painted ceiling by George Murray.
Formerly belonging to the Law Department, this room was occupied from 1904 by successive chief solicitors, and includes a number of interesting window panes that feature heraldic glass taken from the old Surrey House, which used to stand on the site.
Made by John Moore & Son of Clerkenwell specially for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the chiming skeleton clock was bought by a Mr Joseph Langhorn, coincidentally a policy holder, and subsequently gifted to Norwich Union in 1878. It chimes each quarter and strikes on the hour; the clock is complemented by a music box capable of playing 12 operatic tunes.
Here's a short clip of it in action: https://www.instagram.com/p/BYvoAcUHYSE/?taken-by=avivaplc
Reminders of longevity, both actual and metaphorical, are abundant here: e.g. the idea of time is expressed in the signs of the zodiac painted on the ceiling and the three fates are represented in the forms of Clotho (birth), Lachesis (life), and Atropos (death); the chairs, which date from the late eighteenth century, originally graced the offices of the Amicable Society, whose business amalgamated with Norwich Union Life Insurance Society in 1866.