The lost world of Snow Hill

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By | From the Collections

The image above captures the popular conception of London’s reaction to the Blitz, which was arguably at its most fearsome during May and June 70 years ago. During the night-time bombings, lives were lost and buildings were destroyed. But come the morning… a cyclist trundles by, a roadsweeper brushes up: life goes on.

The remains of the building you see here are actually enormously important to the story of our founder Henry Wellcome, as this is the corner of Snow Hill and Holborn Viaduct in London, the site of the head office of the pharmaceutical company he co-founded, Burroughs Wellcome & Co.

Opened in 1883, three years after Silas Mainville Burroughs and Henry Wellcome entered into partnership, the scale of their head office matched the expectations Burroughs and Wellcome had for their nascent pharmaceutical company.

The imposing building was constructed of red brick, with granite pilars guarding the entrance. The tiled mosaic floor of the was illustrated with images of Commerce and Industry and the rich wood used for the walls was best American Walnut. [1]

Henry Wellcome was personally involved in designing and furnishing the interior of the building: no easy task given the building’s curved shape. As the image above shows, Moorish curves were ideal for a building Wellcome himself described as having “not a single right-angle”. The interior arrangements were executed under the direction of Christopher Dresser, now regarded as Britain’s first industrial designer. Snow Hill was also one of the first business houses in London to be lit using electric light.

The interior alluded to Burroughs and Wellcome’s country of birth with models of the Statue of Liberty and the American Eagle (visible towards the back of the image above) and the building captured something of the entrepreneurial get-up-and-go of these two salesmen.

The building also hinted at another aspect of Wellcome’s personality: his growing interest in collecting. This is how Wellcome’s office was described in a praiseworthy report on the building in Chemist and Druggist:

It is furnished as a library, although hunting trophies, works of art from countries visited by the occupant…and a varied selection of general literature give it less the look of a commercial room and more the appearance of a bachelor’s den [1].

Fast forward to 1941 and it seems this example of late Victorian architecture was no longer fit for the purposes of twentieth century business: five years after Henry Wellcome’s death, the Wellcome Foundation still retained Snow Hill as offices, but sought to build new premises elsewhere in London.

On the night of 10-11 May 1941, during one of the heaviest nights of the Blitz, the Snow Hill building was destroyed. Afterwards, staff were temporarily moved to other Wellcome owned sites – such as the main warehouse where Wellcome’s collection was stored in Willesden and to the Wellcome Research Institution on Euston Road (which is now, of course, where the Library and the rest of Wellcome Collection is situated). Not ideal accommodation, but just as for the figures beside the bombed out Snow Hill offices shown above, life had to go on for the employees as well.

But with its carefully designed interior – and his collection-rich office – the lost world of Snow Hill captures something of Henry Wellcome’s – often elusive – personality.

[1] Clues to the furnishings of the Snow Hill office remain through drawings which survive in the papers of the Wellcome Foundation Archive, WF/CA/P/01
[2] Chemist and Druggist, 28th January, 1888

– Burroughs Wellcome & Co Headquarters, Snow Hill, London, after being destroyed in the Blitz, 1941 (Wellcome Images, M0020173)
– Burroughs Wellcome & Co Head Office, Snow Hill, London (Wellcome Images, M0007868)
– Interior of the Burroughs Wellcome & Co building, Snow Hill, London (Chemist & Druggist, 28th January 1888)

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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