Looming up on Chancery Lane and extending right across to the plate glass canyon of Fetter Lane in the heart of legal London stands a huge Victorian building which is often passed by without even a cursory glance. It has been rather unkindly described by the great architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner as having “a forbiddingly functional Gothic design”. Its current incarnation is as the Maughan Library, the main student and research library for King’s College London, but like so many places in the City of London the site has played several very different roles through its long and distinguished history.
The Domus Conversorum or House of Converts
Above the main gateway and looking out over the quiet gardens at the back of Cliffords Inn is a statue of Henry III holding his Domus Conversorum, or House of Converts. It was the first building on this site and was constructed in 1232. It was a chapel and school for Jews who converted to Christianity. When doing so they forfeited all their wealth. At the same time Henry III had the right to impose such exorbitant taxes on those of his Jewish subjects who did not renounce their faith that he effectively destroyed their value to the royal exchequer. This in turn led to the expulsion of the Jewish community from the realm under his son Edward I in 1290. The House of Converts continued to be used for its original purpose though the number of converts remained minimal. Its records did not finally end until 1608. Some Jews coming in from Europe during this long span of centuries to work as doctors or merchants needed to convert in order to establish themselves in England. Increasingly the space was used to store the records of the Master of the Rolls whose office was combined with that of the Master of the House of Converts in 1377.
The Master of the Rolls
The Master of the Rolls was the most senior law officer in the land after the Lord Chief Justice. He was responsible for the safe-keeping of charters, patents and records of important court judgments. His name came from the parchment rolls on which these vital documents were written. They were then sewn together head to tail to form long scrolls. He managed petitions on behalf of the King, effectively a kind of royal gatekeeper controlling access to the monarch, and thus became an extremely powerful individual. He retained the title of Master of the House of Converts though this role dwindled into almost nothing over time. Many former Masters were buried in the chapel.
The medieval buildings were replaced by an austerely Palladian house for the Master of the Rolls on Chancery Lane by Colen Campbell built in 1717. Some of the most magnificent monuments of the former grandees who had served in this elevated legal office were incorporated into the new chapel of the Master’s house. The chapel was found to be unsound when the Public Record Office was extended in the 1989s and had to be taken down but the finest of the old monuments can still be seen in the Weston Room which also boasts fine stained glass windows with the coats of arms of former Masters of the Rolls. Here is the monument to Dr John Yonge, Master of the Rolls under Henry VII and Henry VIII. It dates from 1516 and is by Pietro Torrigiani who sculpted the tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in Westminster Abbey. It is the first entirely Renaissance tomb in England. Torrigiani is reputed to have broken Michelangelo’s nose in a bar room brawl in Florence.
Public Record Office
Finally, we come to the building we see today. It was constructed to house the massive quantity of records building up as Britain developed as a modern industrial society in the C19th. The plans for the new Public Records Office were drawn up by Sir James Pennethorne, architect and surveyor of the Crown Estate. The government was acutely aware of the vulnerability of our national records following the disastrous burning of the Palace of Westminster in 1834. The project to create a secure and permanent home for the national archives was undertaken at very much the same time as the construction of the new Houses of Parliament. Fire safety was the paramount consideration in the design. The archives and records were stored in small brick and cast-iron compartments known as cells along narrow corridors. Each cell was self-contained and had a strong iron flame-retardant door. To further minimise fire risk the only lighting that was permitted came from the outside so that explains the plentiful and large windows throughout. The resulting building was proudly known as the strongbox of the Empire. Not everyone was so enthusiastic. The Saturday Review caustically noted in 1855 that the building combines “the general effect of the workhouse, the jail and the Manchester mill.” Sir John Taylor added the Chancery Lane frontage in the 1890s. The old Rolls Chapel was taken down and used as the museum for the Public Records Office. The great complex functioned as the main storehouse for our national archives until 1997 when the last remaining papers were transferred to their new home in Kew.
King’s College Maughan Library
In 2001 King’s College London bought the building from the Crown Estate and converted it at a cost of £35 million into the Maughan library, named after its chief benefactor. Its Grade II listing means that the design retains most of its strong, prison-like iron doors though the former cells now serve as small reading rooms for the studious scholars of KCL. The library houses more than 750,000 items including books, journals and academic papers with 1,250 networked reader places and 26 kilometres of shelving.
The crowning glory of the library is the Round Room. It has two galleries and a glazed, iron-framed roof. It must be an inspiring place to study in the same league as the other great libraries of the land like the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford or the Reading Room of the British Museum.
The view out from the Clock Tower towards the Royal Courts of Justice is spectacular. It’s a shame that from ground level you can hardly see the fine carvings of the four Queens who look out on this splendid view from their eyrie high up on this great tower. They are the Empress Matilda, Elizabeth, Anne and of course Victoria.
Picture 1: Maughan Library from the south (former gardens of Cliffords Inn). Wikimedia Commons /CC BY-SA 4.0
Picture 2: Henry III with Domus Conversorum (from London Remembers website)
Picture 3: Dr John Yonge in the Weston Room Wikimedia Commons /CC BY-SA 4.0
Picture 4: Plans for Chancery Lane wing of PRO by Sir John Taylor 1890s. National Archives Education Service
Picture 5: Students in the Round Room at Maughan Library Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Picture 6: Roof top view. © Richard Cohen 2021