It's been other businesses.
But now it's personal.

The story of Africa House (before it became our house).

There's no place like Holborn

We weren't exactly new to the area when we moved to Africa House in 2015. In fact, our association with this part of London stretches back more than half a century when Victor Mishcon & Co and its 15 employees arrived at 125 High Holborn.

Back then the possibility that a small law firm would make its home in the landmark building at 70 Kingsway seemed unlikely. So, who did? As this Grade II listed building prepares to celebrate its hundredth birthday, this is the story of those who went before us and the place from which they did it.

Foundations

Good stories have improbable beginnings. In 1937 few would have advised a 22-year old law graduate to launch his own firm, without any experience, in a room over a shop in Brixton. At the end of the 19th Century few could have envisaged a brand new thoroughfare, one fit for a King (hence Kingsway), and in due course adorned by several notable buildings, blazing a trail through Central London.

Holborn in 1898 was a maze of small streets and slum dwellings. London City Council decided it was time for change. The slums would be cleared and a major road would be built connecting High Holborn in the north and The Strand in the south. It would be like the wide, tree-lined boulevards of Paris, and in 1905 Kingsway, 'the most prestigious of the LCC's Edwardian street improvements', was ready to be opened by King Edward VII.

New at Number 70

Along with the likes of Bush House, Kingsway Hall and 61 Aldwych, Africa House would be one of the new road's architectural jewels. The patchwork of small buildings just off Little Queen Street was demolished and the site, one of several along Kingsway, entrusted to the architectural practice of Messrs Trehearne and Norman. Their brief: 1 x large office block.

What they created reflected the times: politically, economically, socially and culturally. It was 1921: a quarter of the planet was Empire, Winston Churchill was about to be appointed Colonial Secretary, Ernest Shackleton had just begun his last expedition to Antarctica and Charlie Chaplin would be mobbed by thousands on a visit to London.

Signs of the times

The six-storied Africa House captured the prevailing mood of British success and confidence. Next time you walk into the double-height entrance hall, note the doubleheight screen of Doric columns, which covers the front of the ground floor. Pause to admire the triumphal arch-style entrance, inscribed 'Africa House' and surmounted by two stone sculpted lions. And take the stairs instead of the lift. You have, after all, a choice of two 'divided' flights, this being a prime example of an 'imperial staircase'. For the facade of the building the architects chose Portland stone, only the finest building stone quarried in Britain and the choice of Wren (St. Paul's Cathedral, 1677) and Lutyens (The Cenotaph, 1920). All the metalwork came from the foundry of J.W. Singer & Sons, renowned the world over for their artistry in metals and for casting statues and sculptures in their hometown of Frome, Somerset.

However, nothing was more indicative of the times than the large sculpture on the fifth floor. At the centre of the group of figures and animals, you'll see Britannia, female and seated, carrying a sword and crested shield. To her left, two men in Arab dress (one seated, one standing), a camel, a lion and the obligatory recumbent crocodile. To the right, an African man, a seated colonial officer with a rifle, the head of an elephant, a wildebeest and a snake surrounded by reeds. This was diversity circa 1922, as Africa House opened its doors to its first occupants and businesses.

A timeline of points from the history of Africa House from 1921 to 2008

So many names over the door

Hardly surprisingly they were connected with Empire. There was the Niger Company, a trading company operating in what today is Nigeria, and which in 1929 became part of the United Africa Company. The same year Mining and Industrial Publications of Africa Ltd moved in too. It was not long, though, before businesses without imperial connections arrived. Perhaps it foretold of what then must have seemed unimaginable, the end of Empire. Before long traders in African goods were joined by traders in numbers (Chantrey Button & Co, chartered accountants); purveyors of boilers and pulverising mills (International Combustion Ltd); and a bunch of 1930's techies (Pye Radio).

The cast only became more varied during the 1930s: a perfume company, an industrial roofing firm, the London Brick Company, Special Knitting Services, and those selfless citizens who risked all for the noble British spud, the Potato Marketing Board. During the Second World War Africa House was home to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, yet also intriguingly to German multinational pharmaceutical and chemicals company, Bayer. After the war firms of solicitors and accountants came and went, Sinclaire Air Conditioning breezed in for the '70s and for a short while in the late noughties the British Ports Association dropped anchor here.

A Happy Beginning

In 2015 a law firm, originally housed in a single room in Brixton, moved in to the building first opened in 1922. We needed more space for our now 900-plus people. Holborn had been our home since 1961, and we wanted to stay. Maybe a building that had once changed the face of London was just the place for a firm that has always been ready to challenge convention.

Now it's our home.

Africa House
It's been many businesses.
But now it's personal.

The story
of Africa House

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