19th Century

Funded by Prince Albert’s Royal Patriotic Fund, the building was intended for the ‘Education and Training of three hundred Orphan Daughters of Soldiers, Seamen and Marines who perished in the Russian War, and for those who hereafter may require like succour’ . Originally named as the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum, the building was designed by Major Rhode Hawkins in a heroically ornate Gothic style. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria on 11th July 1857 and the first phase was completed in 1858 to an almost entirely symmetrical plan form. The result was judged to be ‘bold, picturesque and effective’ by The Building News (October 8th,1858) . The first inmates were received on 1st July 1859.

Construction work was extremely rapid, taking only 18 months to complete. This was a result of many innovative features, including the use of iron filler joist floors of standard span, cast iron windows and stone dressings, roof trusses and decorative leadwork, all pre-fabricated off-site.

The Royal Victoria Patriotic Fund had raised the then colossal sum of £1.5 million. No expense was spared in the intricacy of the design and the quality of construction. However, the building cost was only £35,000, the builder being Mr George Myers of Belvedere Road , Lambeth. The symmetrical plan was altered to an asymmetrical Palladian layout by the addition of the dining hall (now used as a theatre), an annexe linked to the main building by a cloister, an infirmary to the south of the building and a chapel to the north. At the same time, an orphanage for boys was also built, this time in the Classical style, and is now used by Emanuel School.

Several small ancillary buildings also sprang up. These included a swimming pool and various small single storey buildings, including a greenhouse. Some of the buildings may have been used in connection with the market garden, which was tended by the orphans.

Life for the orphans was extremely harsh. Their work included pumping water by hand from an underground rainwater system in the rear courtyard up to the lead-lined slate water tanks in the towers. They had to launder all the clothes. Their heads were shaved to discourage head lice and they were made to assemble in the courtyards every morning to be hosed down with cold water. The patented warm air heating system failed to work. Fireplaces were added to the staff rooms but no heating was provided to the dormitories. The orphanage was nearly closed down after a scandal involving physical and sexual abuse by the Rector and the death of one of the orphans. Her ghost still allegedly roams the cloisters of the north and south courtyards.

20th Century
By the First World War the building had been renovated, its roof trusses strengthened, the Welsh slates replaced with Westmoreland, and the brickwork repointed in black mortar. A new heating system was installed and the building had become the South Western General Hospital. In the First World War a temporary railway station was built in front of the building and thousands of wounded troops were treated there. The field behind the building, now the cricket pitch, was filled with marquees full of wounded soldiers – approximately 1800 patients at any one time.After the war the school, still for girls only, reopened until the pupils were evacuated to Wales in 1939.

During the Second World War, the building became the London Reception Centre, a polite name for an alien clearing station run by MI6,under the direction of Colonel Pinto . It was rumoured that suspected spies were incarcerated for years, both in the building and in windowless concrete cells constructed in the south courtyard.

After the war the building was used as a Teachers Training College and then in 1952 purchased by the London County Council for £67,500 for initially Honeywell Secondary Mixed School and then Spencer Park Comprehensive School for Boys. Subsequently the iron filler joist floor in many areas of the building weakened when the timber battens supporting the weak concrete infill began to give way. The school was forced out of the unsafe areas and eventually moved out to occupy the new LCC-designed school in the 1970’s. The Royal Victoria building, still the responsibility of the ILEA but with no budget for maintenance, fell into serious disrepair. Almost every one of the thousands of window panes were smashed and the building became home to thousands of pigeons. Vandals stole the lead finials, the ridges and valleys of the roofs, and lead sheet from the flat roofs and from the water tanks in the towers. Dry rot spread through the water-damaged floors, causing more of the fill to fall out and destroying the timber floors and the doorframes. Much of the roof structure was also damaged. It had been suggested that the building be pulled down to open up a vista for the flats of the Fitzhugh Estate. However after pressure from the Victorian Society and the Wandsworth Society, the building was listed Grade II and could therefore not be demolished in spite of its derelict condition. Thus it became something of a liability to ILEA – too big to mend and too important to demolish.

The building was offered for sale by the GLC in 1980. Several offers were received but all except one was subject to the cost of repair. Surveyors for Wandsworth Council estimated the cost of restoration to be approximately £4 million and advised that the best economic use would be as a bird sanctuary. Eventually a lease was granted to Tuberg Property Company Ltd ( now South of the Border Holdings Ltd) with the right to acquire the freehold for £1 subject to the performance of a schedule of repair and restoration works.

Restoration & Use
Works of restoration and conversion were carried out in stages over a six-year period. A few days before the GLC handed over ownership, arsonists set light to the main hall, completely destroying the highly decorated hammer beam ceiling. By pure chance, a complete photographic survey of the hall had been carried out only two weeks before, and so the restoration was accurate to the last detail, including several errors in the original artwork. A Civic Trust commendation was awarded in 1985 for the restoration works for the Hall 1 ceiling. Another Civic Trust commendation was awarded for the restoration of the whole building in 1987 as was the Europa Nostra Order of Merit.

The brief to the architects , Dickinson, Quarme and Associates was first to stabilise and repair the building to prevent any further decay, and secondly to convert the building into economic use while complying with the local authority’s planning briefs and the restrictions imposed by a listed building. It was to be a mixed use development – providing studios and workshops to designers, artists and craftsmen together with residential spaces. The solution to the use of the two large halls was provided by ALRA who occupied these and other spaces for their drama school.

In addition to the halls the building now provides - 27 flats, 20 studios, 15 workshops and 1 bar & restaurant together with 2 large office units in the Chapel. While the profile of residents has changed over the years, probably due to ever increasing flat prices in London, the intended mix of designers, artists, craftsmen, architects, and of course the drama school has remained amongst the commercial users.