Post Office Tower

Post Office Tower

Today is the anniversary of the topping out of the BT (or Telecom) Tower and for some its still known as the Post Office Tower. Besides the images showing early designs for the tower itself, the structure was going to be known as the Museum Radio Tower. The rather grandiose name came from the fact the site of the new building itself was part of the Museum Telephone Exchange on the corner of Cleveland and Howland Streets.

The tower had four opening ceremonies and that in July 1964 was only undertaken at the insistence of the then Postmaster General J. R. Bevins. He wanted to show the world the new tower was led by the Post Office and not the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, who were its actual designers.

However the GPO’s Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, said there was little point organising events before any equipment had been installed, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.” 

Billy Butlin at the tower for the official topping out ceremony 15th June 1964. Source: Twitter

Crane operator Jimmy Wheelan checking out his crane the day the topping out ceremony took place. Notice the lack of harness or other safety equipment! Source: Daily Mirror

Jimmy Wheelan on his crane 14th July 1964. Source: Twitter.

Our crane operator, Jimmy Wheelan, would have been able to see parts of the Victoria Line being constructed during his working hours. This would include the ongoing works at Euston, the nearby Great Titchfield Street shaft and the works in Cavendish Square.

The ceremony itself, topping out the tower with an inscribed silver trowel, was performed by the Minster of Public Buildings and Works Geoffrey Rippon (later Lord Rippon of Hexham.) Source: National Archives.

A Different Tower

The initial plans for what became the Post Office Tower were totally different to what was eventually designed. In these early plans it was always intended the new tower would be around five hundred feet in height.

A tower had been mooted as early as 1957. Up to that point a series of radio masts ad been considered but deemed not high enough in view of the new skyscrapers then being proposed in London. Those initial plans were quite radical compared to what was eventually produced, being more in the style of those towers found elsewhere around the world. Eventually a sort of Britishness design was drawn up, no doubt helped by the fact the new tower had to be extremely rigid and the reason for its cylindrical shape.

The designers for the new Museum Radio Tower were Eric Bedford and G. R. Yeats, and work began on the structure in June 1961. Bedford says ‘My idea was, if it’s a tower it should be as tall and slim as possible. We kept trying to slenderise the structure.’ This explains why the earlier plans were rejected in favour of a cylindrical structure.

The first Museum Radio Tower plans – around 498 feet in height. Source: Post War Infrastructure

The name had during 1963 certainly become the GPO Radio Tower before further changing to the G.P.O. Museum Tower. However reports and publications were still using the old names in 1965, the year the tower was opened.

The GPO itself had an internal competion among staff to find out any preferred names that might be used for the tower. Among these were Pointer, Spindle, Liaiser and Telebeacon!

Pointer, Spindle, Liaiser and Telebeacon among the suggestions for the new tower. Source: British Telecom.

As has been mentioned earlier, the tower wasn’t planned to be as high, however tall skyscrapers were becoming the forte in early sixties London (there were surprisingly quite a few being planned or under construction – for example Centre Point, Shell Centre, St Helens Tower) thus it was decided to alter the design and make it even higher. The original height for the Museum Radio Tower seems to have been planned at 498 feet high (or 507 feet as some sources claim.)

The bottom half is now recognisable, with the top taller but still in part as per the earlier plan shown above. Source: Twitter (Note: The Twitter account no longer exists thus an archived image is used here.)

These other new buildings going up in London would clearly affect the radio transmissions from the new tower. Centre Point was just under four hundred feet however it would have been sufficient to affect the transmitters on the new Museum Radio Tower.

Another early 60’s plan for a tower with a height of at least 500 feet. Source: Post War Infrastructure

The plans for Centre Point had been approved in 1959 thus the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works’ designers for the new GPO tower were in fact a little behind with their own plans! I think perhaps they soon realised the number of new skyscrapers being proposed would affect their own plans, so up they went!

Early model of the proposed tower. Note the lattice mast at the top. This would be incorporated into the final designs. Source: National Archives

The top most of the transmitter galleries were to be 362 feet in the original plans for the Museum Radio Tower, so it was obvious the design would have to be altered considerably.

What happened is the galleries, instead of topping out at 362 feet, would in fact begin somewhere above that earlier height and this would rise as far as around 470 feet where the lowest of the observation platform would begin.

The picture below shows a newer version with the top bit being the observation and radio receiver galleries. The earlier mast has now been changed.

A model of the same tower with the current tower’s structure visible ((except there’s sixteen instead of the fifteen lower floors that were built) in the entire model from bottom to where the present aerial galleries are.

In the final design that bit was moved higher upwards and the galleries and restaurant given their own exclusive domain on top of that newly extended section. And that mast from the earlier plans was used too.

In these pictures it can be seen the styling that forms the bottom part of the Telecom Tower had already been decided in these plans. In the next picture the top of the tower has been increased and a different style of mast added to the topmost section.

What happened is the designers put a new bit on top of this earlier design, and used the space left vacant for the aerials and transmitter dishes.

How the older and newer designs compare.

The original plans accounted for sixteen floors in the main section. This was reduced to fifteen in the final construction, with the lower of these floors being replaced by a substantial concrete collar (as engineers call it) to give the entire tower even more rigidity. The tower’ stability was ever so important if any of the radio or microwave transmitters were to work effectively.

The height of 620 feet seems to have been agreed upon in either late 1961 or early 1962.

They’re building it as planned – except its not 500 feet or so in height – its going to be higher! Source: Twitter.

The new tower, May 1964. A good view showing its very likeness to the early plans except it now has a new extension topwards for the observation platforms and restaurant. Source: Twitter.

When exactly it became the Post Office Tower I do not know, it was probably in 1965 when the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson officially opened it.

The official opening 8th October 1965, with Tony Benn and Clement Attlee present. Source: Twitter

The official opening plaque says:

The Post Office Tower was opened by The Right Honourable Harold Wilson OBE MP Prime Minister on the 8th October 1965.

The official name was the General Post Office Tower (G.P.O. Tower in short as some sources do cite) so its was simply a means of making the building slightly more public conscious. Nevertheless a number of media sources were still at this time calling it the Museum Radio Tower!

Some 1965 first day covers call it the Post Office Communications Tower!

The introduction text in the Post Office Tower guide book (1965.)

Throughout the seventies and eighties official sources continued to use the G.P.O. Tower so it was a matter of personal preference really which name was used for the tower. Personally I still call it the Post Office Tower but when referring it to others it becomes the BT or Telecom Tower!

The tower in 1966 clearly showing the different design stages. This tells us the lower section was designed (and the panels, cladding,) bought earlier than the upper section, which had to constitute a completely new manufacturing stage, including the revolving restaurant – for which new contracts had to be put out. Source: Twitter

How high is the tower? Everyone says 620 feet which is right of course however the total includes that forty foot mast plonked right at the top of the tower. The official height of the building itself is 580 feet (or 580.4 feet) to be exact.

The above image is a photomontage created from the pages of the Post Office Tower book, which I bought probably on my third visit up the tower, that being the one without an adult to supervise me, it was about 1966/67.

In Design Magazine for 1980, written upon the advent of the new name of BT Tower (this being a result of the public authority, the GPO, becoming British Telecommunications or in short BT, in readiness for privatisation.) The author commented it would be a hard sell to have the name accepted by the public, ‘especially as most people still call it the G.P.O. Tower.’

List of acknowledgements including Bedford as the chief architect. Post Office Tower guide book 1965.

The elusive Eric Bedford

Although the tower’s design is credited to Eric Bedford all the references to Bedford don’t even show a single picture of him. Was he an elusive guy I wondered? Was it the fact the tower was an ‘official secret’ prevented Bedford’s name or picture being widely distributed. Certainly one could read in some sources that the architect was Eric Bedford. But finding a picture of him was like looking for a needle in a haystack!

Wikipedia says of Bedford: ‘As the architect responsible for one of London’s most iconic buildings, Bedford achieved surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime, or afterwards, his obituary in The New York Times describing him as; “the British government’s anonymous chief architect, whose works were visible to millions but whose name was scarcely known”.’

It does seems indeed the anonymous aspect of our iconic tower’s designer was perhaps dictated by the fact the Post Office Tower was an official secret. The National Archives says: ‘Despite being the tallest building in London, when it was opened in 1965, the Post Office Tower was kept an official secret: taking or possessing photos of it was an offence under the Official Secrets Act. It didn’t even appear on OS maps until it was officially revealed in 1993!’

I searched and searched and eventually sourced some pics at Getty’s of which here’s one. Indeed very few pictures exist that show Eric Bedford. Its clear from Getty’s pictures Eric Bedford had designed all the special illuminations and decorations for the 1953 Coronation. Although photos of Bedford are exceedingly rare there is this painting entitled Sir David Eccles and Mr Eric Bedford on the Coronation Stands outside Buckingham Palace. Besides those images at Getty’s this artwork is a further example of Bedford at work during the 1953 Coronation. I too found a photograph of Bedford besides a model of his new Post Office Tower. That was a publicity photograph taken in September 1961 when the next to final designs for the new tower had been released – sadly it wasn’t possible to use the image.

Embed from Getty Images

Eric Bedford, Chief Architect of the Ministry of Works and Constance Spry, a noted floral arranger, discuss floral arrangements for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.