The College of Arms: History after 1688

Survey of London Monograph 16, College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1963.

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Walter H Godfrey. Anthony Wagner, 'The College of Arms: History after 1688', in Survey of London Monograph 16, College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, (London, 1963) pp. 20-28. British History Online [accessed 26 May 2024].

Walter H Godfrey. Anthony Wagner. "The College of Arms: History after 1688", in Survey of London Monograph 16, College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, (London, 1963) 20-28. British History Online, accessed May 26, 2024,

Godfrey, Walter H. Wagner, Anthony. "The College of Arms: History after 1688", Survey of London Monograph 16, College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, (London, 1963). 20-28. British History Online. Web. 26 May 2024,


The leases of the three houses which formed the east side of the courtyard fell in in 1748 when the College let the houses out on successive short leases until 1866, when the curtailment of the south part of the College for the construction of Queen Victoria Street made it necessary to incorporate into the College itself what remained of these three houses. At the time of the building of the new Record room in 1842–3 part of the College being for the time uninhabitable two of the houses were used as part of the office. They were latterly numbered 1–3 Peter's Hill. They were occasionally let to officers of the College and a list of the tenants could be worked out from the College books.

The hall, which is now the Earl Marshal's Court, seems to have been used as a library at least down to 1699. The remains of an old fireplace came to light in 1940 when the Earl Marshal's throne was removed for safety. The fitting up of the hall as a Court room, for the Court of Chivalry, with panelling, rails and throne was apparently not completed until after the Union of 1707 (though probably soon after) since the carved royal arms above the throne are of that date. (fn. 1) The seventeenth-century exterior pediments and eaves cornice were replaced by a parapet in 1776.

On 6 May 1756 the chapter agreed with the consent of Windsor that Mr Hayes, who was then building a house on Benet's Hill adjoining the western end of the College to the north, might stop up a light in Windsor's kitchen, 'he making a skylight in the stead thereof in a workmanlike manner'. Part of the roof was uncovered for the purpose 'and not being covered in so soon as it might have been nor any precaution to guard against bad weather, and a violent shower of rain falling, about 100 pails of water were taken up in the Hall, the ceiling being greatly damaged thereby as well as the joyces of Windsor's lodgings'. Mr Hayes, though he promised to make good the damage, never did so, and the lighting of Windsor's kitchen has been insufficient ever since.

About 1742 a Sugar House eight stories high was built where a tavern had formerly stood against the north side of the College at the eastern end, approximately on the site of the present Record room. The risk of fire from this was thought to be great and a petition was presented to the Treasury that the Crown should provide a safer office to keep the records in. The Lords of the Treasury, without committing themselves, suggested that the heralds should look for a suitable place and undertook, if one were found, to go into the matter further. A room at Westminster or in Somerset House had been thought possible, but was not forthcoming. Essex House and Exeter Change were considered, but not being Crown property the government would have had to put up money. Certain houses in the Savoy fronting on the Strand were considered, which, though part of the Duchy of Lancaster estate, had long been occupied rent-free on a doubtful title. Nothing really suitable was found, however, doubts were expressed about the principle of removal and the matter dropped.

In 1775 the College surveyor drew attention to the fact that the owner of the Sugar House, not content with the enjoyment of the College north wall to enclose him on the south, had recently run girders for his own building into it and had built a wall of his own on top of it, thus increasing the risk to the College if fire should break out in the Sugar House (Chapter Book 6, 2 March 1775). In 1800 the College were asked for a return on the state of their records by the select committee of the House of Commons on the Public Records and in making this they drew attention to the danger arising from the proximity of the Sugar House. The committee made an inspection and reported to the House of Commons that it was necessary either to remove the College to some public building or to secure the present building against the danger of fire. Nothing was done, however, though in 1807 the College put in a further memorial on the subject. In 1812 water was found to be seeping through the north wall into the back of the library presses, where it was damaging the records, and into Garter's kitchen below. This was traced by the College surveyor to a leaking cistern in a shed recently erected in the Sugar House yard backing on that part of the College. Alderman Smith (apparently the well known Joshua Jonathan Smith), (fn. 2) the owner of the Sugar House, declared himself willing to do everything in his power, but when it came to the point was prepared to do little, and tried to deny responsibility. In 1813 the College put in a fresh memorial to the commissioners of the Public Records (Chapter Book 7, p. 279). In 1814 Alderman Smith at length replaced the old cisterns by new ones so constructed that when full they would overflow on the side away from the College and rendered his side of the wall with cement (Chapter Book 7, pp. 261, 269, 270, 272, 274, 276, 277, 279, 296, 300, 308, 310).

In 1815 the chapter notified the Public Record commissioners that a circumstance had lately occurred which compels them to implore your instant attention, if they may presume to use that expression, to the dreadful consequences to which their own persons and property as well as the public treasure of Records of which they have the custody are continually exposed by the recent erection and use of a steam engine of considerable force in the said Sugar House, and that the anxiety and terror which the contiguity of such a formidable apparatus would have at any time excited in the minds of your Memorialists has been aggravated to the utmost by the contemplation of that awful and instantaneous calamity which had in a few weeks past occurred in Goodman's Fields in this metropolis, by which at least twelve persons lost their lives in the application of such an apparatus for purposes precisely similar in a Sugar House (Chapter Book 8, p. 26).

After an interview with the secretary to the commissioners about this a memorial was sent to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, setting out the story again and adding that 'having been informed that it is in contemplation to pull down at no very distant period the remains of the ancient Palace of St James and that the said Palace is at the disposal of the Crown they pray His Lordship to move His Majesty to grant them such part of the remains of the Palace for so long as it may please Him for the reception of their Records and their residence' (Chapter Book 8, p. 29). On Lord Sidmouth's instructions a regular survey of the College building was then made by a Surveyor of the Phœnix Fire Office, and an inquiry in 1816 by the Treasury seems to show that the authorities seriously contemplated facilitating a removal. Nothing more happened for some time, however, and in 1818 Alderman Smith decided to sell his property and the College entered into negotiations for its purchase. Agreement was reached on a price of £1500 and a loan was raised for the purpose. Though this purchase relieved the worst anxieties the heralds still looked on removal to a new and more conveniently sited building as the true and radical solution to their problems, and the plans for the new street to connect what became the Regent's Park with Westminster appeared to offer the opportunity, for the authorities were anxious to procure suitable occupants for sites along the route and so offered them on favourable terms. On 16 March 1822 chapter agreed to ask the Deputy Earl Marshal to present a memorial to the government to grant the College a portion of land for a new building to house their records. The Deputy Earl Marshal had already been in correspondence with Mr Huskisson and the heralds had been given reason to hope that the King might grant them land near the royal palaces and the Houses of Parliament. Within a fortnight Sir George Nayler, then Clarenceux and soon after Garter, had been asked to procure a plan for such a building from Nash, who wrote to him:

My dear Sir

Your paper of instructions were these—eight Garter, seven Clarenceux, six Norroy, four for each of the Heralds, three for each of four Pursuivants, the ground which I propose will not hold a greater number, the front and depth being limited. You do not mention which style of architecture is preferred. I sent you by post the slightest sketch of Grecian and Gothic. I think on the whole I prefer the latter. If you want more ground you must go into some Mews on the east side or in the Pall Mall, in either of which situations the design must be Grecian. The ground required is 120 feet by 45.
Ever my dear Sir,
Faithfully Yours
Jno. Nash.
Stoke Farm, 12 April.
To Sir George Nayler, Clarenceux, Heralds College, London. (fn. 3)

The College wanted more room than this, however, eight rooms for Garter, seven each for Clarenceux and Norroy, six for each herald and four for each pursuivant, making seventy-four in all exclusive of kitchens and porter's lodge. Nash was asked to prepare a plan and estimate.

In May 1822 a petition was presented to the Treasury representing the heralds' anxiety for the safety of their records and adding 'that the local situation of the College is so widely detached from the proper scene of the actual duties and occupations of your Memorialists and the residences of that class of person by whom the Records in their charge were chiefly and most frequently consulted is not less inconvenient to the Public than to themselves'.

The heralds estimated the value of their building (which they said was decaying rapidly) and its site at £14,500, and expressed the hope that the sale together with the sums which they might raise would suffice for the erection of a suitable building with such ground as might be granted them. They asked for a plot in the vicinity of the royal mews. With the Treasury reply in July came a plan and elevation for the proposed new building prepared by Nash, on application made to him, so the commissioners of the New Street Act understood, by the members of the College. These plans are still preserved in the College. Chapter made certain criticisms of them, but at the same time invited tenders for building in accordance with them. The highest was from Thomas Lane of Hoxton for £20,319, the lowest from John Truscott of Cannon Row, Westminster, £15,995. There was one tender for the purchase of the freehold of existing buildings from J. A. Robbins of Queen Square, Bloomsbury, who offered £11,350 for them. This left a gap of about £5000 to be filled between the money which could be raised by the sale and what would have to be spent on a new building, and the heralds seem to have put this down to Nash's insistence on a more ambitious plan than was necessary. The proposed site faced the College of Physicians and the Union Club across an open space and was about the middle of what is now Trafalgar Square.

It appears that while Nash's plan was under consideration the Deputy Earl Marshal obtained a second set of plans from Robert Abraham, who had been employed by the Duke of Norfolk on work at Arundel and elsewhere. These were produced to the chapter of the College in April 1823, which, after considering them, resolved unanimously that they appeared fully to meet the purposes required and should be adopted in lieu of those submitted by Nash. (They, like his, are still preserved in the College.) When Nash heard that another architect had been approached behind his back he was extremely angry and protested vigorously, but without effect. The Register of the College was asked to convey to him the heralds' regret that he should not have found their explanation of the peculiar circumstances sufficiently explanatory. Three days later this answer was received from him:


If I understand your letter rightly it is to impress on me that the College are not concerned in the unprofessional treatment I seem about to experience. I considered the College an independent body or not under such controul as could oblige or induce them to do an act which they cannot but feel unjust towards me and I should have expected that they would have strongly remonstrated with the Earl Marshal against such a measure. I cannot bring myself to believe that if the services I have rendered the College in suggesting in the first instance the situation and instructing them in the means to obtain the ground, in varying the original plan of the street to accommodate to what they required, in making presenting and obtaining the approbation of the Commissioners as far as related to the elevation and subsequently being regularly and professionally employed by them to the extent of making every working drawing necessary to its execution and in drawing out a specification on which estimates have been made, that his Lordship would for a moment think of introducing a different professional man. I have not the honour of knowing Lord Henry Howard, but it is sufficient that he is Lord Henry Howard to be assured that he would not and that he must have acted under erroneous impressions as to the situation of the College with regard to me. Any alterations the plans might require I was competent to make instead of which another person with the advantage of my plans and estimates before him is invited to make other designs. I have therefore to request that the College however situated with the Earl Marshall will do me the justice to lay before his Lordship this appeal and if they think proper the private letter to Sir George Nayler and to favor me with the result.
I have the honor to be
Your obedient servant
John Nash.
29 Dover Street, April 23rd 1823

This was done, but without satisfaction to Nash, for a month later he was writing to C. G. Young, York Herald and Register of the College, after receiving Lord Henry's answer 'that it was quite impossible that a nobleman of his character should have been acquainted of the length to which the College had gone with me otherwise he would never have allowed himself to recommend another professional man'. In fact the heralds do not seem to have known that Lord Henry was approaching Abraham, until after he had done so. Nash scouted as mere excuses the statements made to him that the building he proposed would be too expensive and that his plans did not in all respects commend themselves.

Abraham's elevation in the meantime was sent to the New Street commissioners and approved by them with some alterations. The execution of his plans was estimated to cost £23,600. The financial difficulty now halted progress, but the Earl Marshal continued to press the matter behind the scenes and at one time secured, or thought he had secured, a promise that the plot of ground opposite that appropriated to the United Service Club should be given to the College. In June 1826, however, he learnt that this had been successfully applied for by the Athenaeum Club, who were ready with the funds for building. The Earl Marshal, however, was offered yet another plot on the east side of the Duke of Buckingham's, apparently the site ultimately occupied by the Carlton Club. In December 1826 accordingly, the Duke of Norfolk came to the College and laid before the heralds a new set of plans by Nash, who had evidently been placated, and intimated that he would add £1000 to the College funds if they were carried into effect. An elaborate plan for raising the funds needed was thereupon worked out, but the College could not agree upon it. At length in 1827 the project of removal was dropped. One's regret that the College did not acquire a fine and much larger new Regency home in the west end is tempered by the reflection that the present seventeenth-century building would have been lost and that a College on the site finally offered would have suffered the destruction by bombing which overtook the Carlton Club in 1940. Substantial payments had to be made to Nash and Abraham for the work they had done.

Abraham, however, remained the College architect and in 1842, when sufficient funds were at length available, prepared plans for a new Record room to be erected on the former site of the Sugar House. This was built by Cubitt at a cost of about £5000 and on 28 April 1844 the Illustrated London News published an interior view of it as just completed (Plate 11). The structure as there shown remains unaltered to the present time, but the great fireplaces which then occupied the centre of the north and south walls have long since been replaced by presses uniform with those which then occupied the east and west ends only. New presses have been placed in the centre and still more added in the gallery. It was during the 1842 repairs that the seventeenth-century leaded casements in the Court room were replaced by the present sash windows, most or all of those elsewhere in the building having been replaced earlier.

In December 1861 the College had notice of an application to Parliament for an Act to authorize the embankment of the river Thames and the construction of a new street between Blackfriars Bridge and the Mansion House. The College protested and the original line of the street, which would have involved its demolition, was modified so that it passed further south at a lower level and required the demolition only of the south-east and southwest wings. This took place in 1867. The architect for the alterations was George Plucknett. The old entrance on Benet's Hill was stopped up, the level of the courtyard was lowered and a new entrance was made to the new street on the south side. The construction of a new portico entrance with terrace and curved steps to the central block was made necessary by the lowering of the courtyard level. The porch was surmounted by the royal arms and below it were the College arms forming a keystone to the central window. The work was completed by 1868, and the consequent redistribution of some of the rooms took place in 1870 when the new ground floor library was fitted up in the room at the west end of the Earl Marshal's Court.

In the Second World War the College narrowly escaped destruction, when all the buildings to the east of it on the north side of Queen Victoria Street, as far as the tower of St Mildred's, Bread Street and including the church of St Nicholas Cole Abbey, were destroyed by fire. This was in the fire raid on the night of 10 and 11 May 1941. The fire came down the street towards the College with an east wind behind it and the building was given up for lost. Two things saved it, a change in the wind and the fact that the building next to it across Peter's Hill had been gutted by fire on 26 June 1939. This local fire had itself at the time appeared to threaten the College and had blistered the east side.

On more than one occasion in 1941 fire bombs fell on the College building itself but were dealt with by firewatchers. In the floor of Richmond's room close to the window a deep depression in the boarding preserves the memory of a fire bomb which sizzled there for some time before the College porter found it and pitched it out into the street. The only other direct and visible war damage was the breaking of three windows by a flying bomb explosion on 21–2 June 1944, a remarkable escape from the destruction which overtook so many buildings in the City of London.

Less direct injuries were, however, caused by the war. So old a building needs constant care and in the war years this could not be given. Partly through this neglect, partly through shaking by bombs which fell near by, partly through sheer age, the roof and much of the brickwork were found after the war to be in a parlous state. Such funds as could be claimed from the War Damage Commission and such sums as the College could afford annually were applied to the most urgent matters, but by 1954 it had become clear that a choice had to be made between abandonment of the building and repairs on a scale far beyond the resources of the College. The advice of the Ministry of Works was sought and given, estimates were obtained and the Ministry (under powers then recently conferred by Parliament) promised half the very large sum required if the College could find the rest. A public appeal was launched and the whole sum needed was in due course raised. As after the fire of 1666 the names of benefactors were recorded in a special book. The work was carried out and the opportunity was taken to replace the Victorian slate roof by red tiles more like those which had been there before.

In 1942 the Victorian cast iron gates and railings had been requisitioned and removed to assist in the war effort and their replacement in a manner worthy of the College for some time presented an insoluble problem. At the time of the demolition of Goodrich Court, Herefordshire, in 1949, Mr Bert Crowther of Isleworth had purchased the fine gates and railings, which had apparently been prepared for Goodrich Court in the nineteenth century. The property belonged in 1828 to Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, the first builder of the fabric, with Edward Blore as his architect. It was inherited by his second cousin, Colonel Augustus Meyrick, who sold it in 1870 to George Moffat, who enlarged it greatly, building the chief hall, with George Frederick Bodley as architect, who probably added the gates. His son, Harold Charles Moffat, made over the property during his lifetime to his daughter Dorothy, who married G. R. Trafford. Their son confirms that the gates were made for his grandfather, but since there have been so many changes, it is doubtful whether they were manufactured at this time, although there is a record of the addition of the Moffat arms with the date 1889. Mr J. A. Frere, Bluemantle, saw these at Isleworth and formed the view that they would suit the needs of the College perfectly. This was mentioned by Mr Crowther to an American visitor, Mr Blevins Davis, who with great generosity presented them to the College. The arms on the gates have now been altered to those of the College of Arms and a new date (1956) has been added.

On 24 May 1956 a triple celebration took place; that of the completion of the repairs; that of the 400th anniversary of Queen Mary's gift to the heralds of Derby House (though a year late because in 1955 the College was under scaffolding); and the gift of the gates, which were ceremonially opened by the American Ambassador, Mr Winthrop W. Aldrich, in the presence of the Duke of Norfolk and a large gathering.

The College Records had been removed for safety to Thornbury Castle, Gloucestershire, on 25 August 1939 and were brought back safely six years later. On 31 July 1940 the carved throne in the Earl Marshal's Court, the carved fireplace and overmantel in the Public Office and several pictures were taken to Arundel Castle. When they were brought back after the war the putti which had surmounted the throne were found to be missing. In 1958 they were accordingly replaced by new figures, closely based on the pictures of the old ones, but a little larger, the work of Mr Cecil Thomas.

Thus the College entered its fifth century of incorporation with its ancient building restored and embellished.


  • 1. See frontispiece: Court room from Ackermann's Microcosm of London. A court imagined by Rowlandson before his time.
  • 2. He was Alderman of Castle Baynard Ward from 1803 to 1831, Sheriff, 1806–9, and Lord Mayor, 1810–11. He died on 15 July 1834.
  • 3. Coll. Arm. Chapter Book 9, pp. 708, 711, 712, 713; see also Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xciii (1813), p. 257. This shows a plan.