It all began one day in early 1979 when I first really noticed the lovely derelict building of the old OXO Tower. It was no longer lit up and sat perched, empty and sad above Stamford Wharf on the South Bank beside the River Thames.
I was looking over from my little roof-garden in 22, Roupell Street, Waterloo, and I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could have my writing-room in the top ‘O’ of the Oxo Tower. Then I wouldn’t have to work with the crashing and banging of the scrap-yard right behind me in Brad Street, or hear the trains rumbling along over the Waterloo East viaduct. And my address could be: ‘Jane Waller, ‘Top O’, The Oxo Tower, Waterloo, London … the universe”.
But then I discovered that Richard Rogers, the famous architect, was planning to build a line of tower blocks for the Heron Corporation all along the South Bank, starting eastwards from the National Theatre. Horrified, I decided to do some-thing about it immediately.
So I jumped on my bike, rode to Richard Roger’s studio, then walked straight in through the door and up to his desk. “Why are you going to pull down the Oxo Tower – one of the finest examples of Art Deco in London?”
His reply (verbatim) was ‘What Oxo-Tower?’ And I realised that the man had designed his great row of blocks on paper, and didn’t even know what would be destroyed if he went ahead and built them. So it was to be a race between him and myself.
First I needed to know all about Stamford Wharf, and who now owned it.
It seemed that it had originally been built back in the 1890s, using strong ‘cherry reds’ and ‘railway blue’ bricks, as an electricity Power Station for the Post Office; then in the 1920’s it became a cold store for the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, creators of Oxo-Cubes, the company and wharf being eventually bought by the Vestey Group, owners of the Dewhurst the Butchers chain.
I visited their office in east London, where they were pleased to present me with the architect’s design-plan of the beautiful building built between 1929 – 1930. Initially, their architect, Albert Moore, not being allowed blatant advertising along the south bank by the then London County Council, got away with designing a smart Art Deco Tower on the roof of the wharf … complete with ‘windows’, which just happened to read ‘OXO’ vertically.
I was also given the name of the man who had the rather lonely job of ‘keeping an eye’ on the derelict building, and he said he would show me around. This was fascinating as the whole place was rather ghostly and completely derelict – as I thought. But to my surprise, there was still one small on-going ‘factory’, responsible for making what he termed ‘long eggs’ inside a roly-poly-type of long tin. This squashed the eggs together and steamed them, so that when they were placed in the middle of a pork pie it meant that everyone would always find a piece of yolk as well as white inside each slice.
Upstairs, another empty room intrigued me – one which I now often quiz people about by asking. ‘What do you think you would find in a large room, which had 2 to 3 inches of cork placed over everything: doors, windows, floors, ceiling as well as walls?’ Hardly anyone guesses correctly that this was where caviar was stored – to be kept at an exact temperature.
Next, I was lucky enough to be shown inside the OXO-Tower itself! There are 5 square rooms, each connected by a cast iron spiral staircase – all in excellent order, being built with the new pre-stressed concrete. Around the third, are large O-shaped windows on each side from floor to ceiling; then on up a spiral staircase to another, with the four windows forming giant Xs; and, finally, you go spiralling upwards to a smaller square with the top O’s (where I wanted my studio-writing–room). This had a door opening onto a parapet where you can walk all around the outside of the Tower with fantastic views – maybe the best in London – as the Tower reaches out from a bend in the river with views up to Big Ben on one side, and down to the Tower of London on the other. (When the tower was first built, it was the second tallest commercial building in London).
Above me, now, a copper cupola and spire shot up heavenwards from there. These rooms were reasonably large and had a square opening all the way down to the wharf-roof, which could be used for a lift. ‘It was so lovely when the magenta-coloured lights from the OXO shifted its rippling pattern on the river outside,’ said my caretaker sadly.
Now, thoroughly excited, I decided to launch a One-Woman Campaign to save the building. (I’d had practice: when going along the Strand to a dinner-party in 1969, when I saw that they were pulling down the beautiful mirrored Art Deco Entrance to the Strand Palace Hotel. It just so happened that Roy Strong, future Director of the V & A, was at the dinner, and my alerting him prompted him to set about saving it. The beautiful Entrance was dismantled and is now stored in the museum’s Battersea depot – until, in 2003, the doors were reconstructed for the exhibition ‘Art Deco 1910-1939’).
I call it a One-Woman Campaign because, at first, I had little support, even among other people living in Waterloo. The Coin Street Action Group (CSAG) was certainly against the proposal to build one of the tallest hotels in Europe, a million square feet of offices, and 200 flats together with sports and entertainment facilities; but their alternative plan for the 7.4 acre site saw no role in it for the Oxo Tower. “It’s an interesting building, but I don’t see how it could be incorporated in the housing scheme”, said a spokesperson for the CSAG. “The acute need in this area is for housing.”
So what I had to do was make many more people, both in and outside the area, aware of why the Tower needed saving: and for that I had to enlist the help of the press, as well as other influential bodies
London’s most popular evening paper, the Evening Standard, came up trumps, with a half-page piece, written by Ewen Maclachlan, on May 22, 1979, and headed ‘Turn the Oxo Tower into a tourist draw’. It included the above plan, a view of the Tower from the water, and a photo of me (by Graham Morris) sitting in front of one of the X windows, with the following text: ‘CAMPAIGNER: Jane Waller inside the Art-Deco OXO Tower she is fighting to save’.
By the following March the same paper (now just called The Standard) ran another piece, this time by Angus McGill, who referred to ‘A Stitch in Time’, my recently published history of knitting from the 1920s to the 50s, as well as my career as a ceramicist, then went on to write that…
When she is not doing all this she is campaigning to save the Oxo tower. For years it was a one-woman campaign. There was only her, writing letters, distributing Oxo tower badges, collecting signatures. Once she heckled Prince Charles, shouting “Save the Oxo Tower” at him. He smiled and said, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard that one.”
Slowly, slowly she has made her point, and now a great many other people also wish to save the Oxo tower. Here, for instance, is the view of the Thirties Society.
“We regard the Oxo tower as a witty and particularly successful piece of riverside architecture,” wrote Clive Aslet, the secretary. “It is that rare thing, a 20th century folly. We should all weep to see it go …”
McGill mentioned other supporters, including Sir John Betjeman, who said that, if only he wasn’t so frail, he would have saved the tower single-handed.
Sadly, McGill went on to say, the tower is still unlisted.
It could still come tumbling down, OXO, cupola, parapet and all; but Jane Waller begins to think it may not. Perhaps it is the approach of spring, but somehow she feels she might be winning. I hope she’s right.
Luckily, it was around that time that Michael Vaughan-Rees (who became my husband in 1983) moved in with me and gave me his firm support from the word go.
Michael Vaughan-Rees writer and teacher
It was coming up to Christmas, 1979, and I was visiting friends who were lodging with Jane in Roupell Street, when she happened to mention the Oxo Tower, which I’d never heard of.
She promptly grabbed my hand, took me upstairs and out onto the little front roof-garden she’d built right at the top, from which the Tower was clearly visible. ‘That’s the Oxo Tower!’ she exclaimed. ‘Isn’t it beautiful!’ I couldn’t do anything but agree. A few months later, by which time I had moved in with Jane, I had taken over much of the PR work for the ‘Save the Oxo Tower Campaign’, starting with a number of pieces written to attract the attention of specific writers in the press.
On May 4th, 1983, the PHS column in the Times, together with a drawing of the Tower, ran:
Another London tower, one of the city’s best-known riverside landmarks, is threatened by a planning application. The Oxo tower is part of the empty Stamford Wharf on the South Bank just west of Blackfriars Bridge. …… The magenta stained glass windows spell Oxo on all four sides of this witty Art Deco building, which relieves a rather grim stretch of riverbank. It will be pulled down if permission is granted for a large office building proposed by the Greycoats/Commercial consortium. Oxo lovers who want to put beef into the campaign to save it should write to 22 Roupell St, SE1.
And a week later, another Times writer added,
Meanwhile, on the box, Roy Jenkins, interviewed by Sir Robin Day on Panorama, sported a blueish tie whose noughts and crosses pattern spelt out OXO, OXO, OXO all the way down. Is this sponsorship? Is Oxo now the preferred beverage to beef up the SDP campaign? Or has Jenkins determined to save the Oxo tower on London’s South Bank and determined to push it to the fore as an election issue?
While the future of the Tower wasn’t actually debated in Parliament, its preservation did become the subject of what is called an Early Day Motion (EDM), which is defined as ‘a formal proposal submitted by a Member of Parliament for debate in the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity but at no fixed time. Early Day Motions are rarely actually debated: their main purpose is to draw attention to a particular subject or area of interest’. (Mind you, the EDM was submitted by a Lib Dem member, which meant that our natural allies, Labour MPs, refused to have anything to do with it.)
Having approached journalists and politicians, we decided to focus on an entirely different type of audience: artists, contacting all the art colleges in London, as well as people we knew, to launch the “Paint the Oxo Tower Campaign”.
That, in fact, was a snappy version of the actual brief which set out the reasons for helping to save the Tower, urging artists to depict it in any way they fancied: in oils, watercolours, charcoal or pencil; as a piece of sculpture; in photographs or as a film, or whatever the artist could come up with. And here are just a few examples of what was created.
Jan Truman (Jane’s partner in ‘Woolly Thinking’, who helped Jane come up with 30s and 40s jumpers for ‘A Stitch in Time’) knitted a foot-high Oxo Tower; Stephen McCabe (now an Art Director in Hollywood), made one in paper origami; Jane’s former boyfriend, Mick Dunn, did a lovely painting of the Stamford Wharf and Tower from across the river; and, finally, Jane did a large 2 foot clay model of it, which she first cast in a 2-piece plaster mould, then asked the wonderful Gaffer, Fred Daden, at the Royal College of Art (where she was doing an MA in ceramics with some glass) to blow a glass Oxo tower inside this – which he did.
Separately, we got the local schools involved, and pupils in the area made a number of models (as in the photo below), which we used on Wednesday the 4th of March 1983 as part of the mammoth Blackfriars Bridge sign-in.
We knew that, every morning during rush hour, thousands of commuters arrived at Waterloo Station, crossed Waterloo Road, then walked along Roupell Street, heading towards Blackfriars Bridge to get to their jobs in the City. On that particular day, by the time they reached the bridge, they would have seen dozens of signs saying Save the Oxo Tower or Oxo Tower in Danger, then – as they approached the bridge – Got your pen out? or Ready to sign?.
It was an exhilarating morning, and hundreds of signatures were collected. There was some coverage in the press, but it was mainly local stuff; and I was disappointed that there was nothing from two well-known columnists whom I had contacted: Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mirror, and Bernard Levin in The Times.
To Waterhouse I wrote, “It’s a shame you didn’t stroll down from the Mirror’s office [in Fleet Street] to Blackfriars Bridge on Wednesday; you would have seen hundreds of ordinary people queuing up to add their signatures to our petition to Save the Oxo Tower.” Well, he made up for it a few days later, with a piece called ‘Chirpy Towers’.
In every city there is - or, more likely, there was before it was pulled down – some exuberant oddball landmark which has insinuated itself into the affections of the people.
Such a feature is the Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank. Thousands of commuters perk up daily as they see it on their way to work. No visitor to the capital who has ever strolled along the Embankment can have failed to smile at it. It is as much a part of the scenery as Tower Bridge – only even sillier.
Built in the architecturally inventive Thirties, the tower’s three rose-coloured stained glass windows spell out the word OXO, thus ingeniously getting round the disapproving planners who would never have allowed a neon sign. You can’t help but admire its cheek.
Even though it no longer chirpily lights up at night, the Oxo Tower still immensely cheers up an otherwise drab stretch of the river, and so it will come as no surprise that it is in imminent danger of demolition. The Environment Department have refused to list it, which means that its only protectors are those passers-by who love it. If you are one of them, don’t write to me, write to the Save the Oxo Tower Campaign, 22 Roupell Street, Waterloo, SE1.
Levin had actually written back, saying that he would be doing something about it, so I wrote again, thanking him for his interest, adding ‘you’d better get your skates on though, or you’ll be writing an obituary for the Tower: we’ve had no luck getting it listed, and there’s nothing to stop them sending in the demolition boys”. And he, too, came up with the goods, devoting an entire half-page column to the topic on October 22nd, going into great detail about the various plans for the area and the dangers facing the Tower, which he described as
one of the most familiar and best-loved of London’s south bank landmarks, the exact (1929) contemporary of the splendid Carreras factory in Camden Town, with its two giant cats on guard outside, and – like that building – a ripe, living and wholly delightful example of Art Deco. … It is a marvellous creation: before setting down to write this column I went to refresh my memory of it, and experienced that lift of the heart which signals a work of man’s hands that is out of the common run of manufactured objects. So of course it is proposed to pull it down.
He went on to point out that the DoE (Department of the Environment) had managed to give planning permission to two totally incompatible schemes: the Greycoat scheme (mainly offices) and that put forward by the Association of Waterloo Groups (housing, workshops, light industry and recreation areas). Greycoats, however, already owned the area which included the Oxo Tower, which the DOE had refused to ‘list’, for the following reasons, given by the appropriate official:
“The merits of the building have been considered but I am afraid that on neither architectural nor historic grounds has it been found to qualify for listing as a building of special architectural or historic interest. I should add that post-1914 buildings are generally outside the listing period: only a few inter-war buildings have been listed and they are generally post-Edwardian academic essays or early exponents [examples, presumably] of the international modern style.”
Levin added that
This wretched response means that the Oxo Tower is in great danger [ …] If Greycoat can get the approval of Southwark Council they can pull it down the next day, and such an action would be perfectly legal, however disgraceful, because in those circumstance permission from the DoE is not required. And a formal application for permission to demolish has now been made.
Luckily, as Eileen Ballantyne wrote in The Guardian almost exactly three months later, on 23 December 1983,
An application to demolish the Oxo tower, the London landmark which stands between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges, was rejected yesterday by the London Borough of Southwark. The applicants, Greycoat Commercial Estates, said yesterday that they would appeal.
A spokesman for Southwark Council said that there had been unanimous opposition to demolishing the 1930s building from community groups. The council had refused permission to demolish the Tower and surrounding warehouses because it felt that there were already too many office buildings in the area. Southwark had also designated the site as a conservation area.
By this time the Coin Street Action Group (which Jane referred to above) had decided to agree with us that the Tower should become part of any community development scheme, as – eventually -did non-profit Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB), a company set up the following year, in 1984, to undertake the development.
This they were able to do because the Labour-controlled Greater London Council (GLC) also threw their support behind a community-based scheme. In that same year the by now exhausted potential developers sold the tower and adjoining land to the GLC (which owned the remaining development land) for £2.7m. The GLC (before it was abolished by the Thatcher government) then sold the entire 13-acre (5.3 hectare) site to the Coin Street Community Builders for just £750,000
So the Save the Oxo Tower Campaign was no longer needed. But what was actually to become of the Tower, and Stamford Wharf of which it was so prominent a part?
In early 1985, Coin Street Community Builders invited people in the Waterloo area to contact them with suggestions for what should be done with the wharf.
Jane and I sent in a document, the preamble of which went like this.
We began the campaign to save Stamford Wharf and the Oxo Tower, and continue to be active in the campaign, and so have given a great deal of thought to ways for using the building now it is saved.
From the beginning it was intended that part of the wharf should be devoted to workshops. Our proposals concern the nature of such workshops, the type of people who would be in charge of them, the form of training they would offer and, finally, methods of obtaining finance.
It is not our intention to suggest that all the workshops should fit into our suggested scheme. There is room for more than one solution. We do urge members of the Waterloo community to read our proposals carefully.
Jane Waller & Michael Vaughan-Rees 6 March 1985
‘Members of the Waterloo community’ didn’t have an opportunity to read the proposals, carefully or otherwise, however. The exhibition devoted to feedback from the community made no mention at all of our proposals; nor did the inner circle of CSCB contact us to discuss them.
We were annoyed to be treated like that, but not especially surprised. To start with, there was absolutely no doubt that CSCB, initially, had no intention to keep the tower. It would have been cheaper to demolish it, together with the whole wharf, and build new from scratch. (How many people, after all, are now aware that there was another building, Nelson’s Wharf, just to the west of Stamford Wharf, the two wharves separated by Old Bargehouse Alley, leading down to Old Bargehouse Stairs which gave on to one of the ancient ‘hards’, projecting into the river, and still visible at low tide?)
So, some within CSCB would have been annoyed that our efforts had brought about a situation where it was no longer possible to demolish the Tower, since it had come – to many people – to represent the Coin Street struggle as a whole.
To read our proposals in full, go to my website michaelvr.com, then to BLOG, where you will find SAVING THE OXO TOWER parts (1) (2) and (3), the last part including on our proposals for workshops in Stamford Wharf.
Meanwhile, here is a summary of what we submitted to CSCB in March 1985.
The term ‘workshop’ can include not just activities with an end-product such as glass-blowing, but also places where skills can be acquired: music, acting, for example.
People in charge of workshops should, ideally, be experts in their field, have experience in running something similar and be committed to providing training from scratch.
A template for the enterprise as a whole exists in New York City, where the building of the Cathedral of St John the Divine (supervised by a master builder and stonemason imported from England) involved the recruiting and training of local people as stonemasons, leading on to workshops for silkscreen printing, ceramics, woodworking and weaving as well as a dance company and graphics study. The wider community benefited from a senior citizens outreach & advocacy programme, as well as after school and summer school care, tutoring and recreational activities for children of working parents.
The Cathedral enterprise also providing a model for obtaining finance from companies and individuals. We pointed out that, within strolling distance of Stamford Wharf were the headquarters of the likes of IBM, IPC, Shell, Unilever and so on. IBM (as we knew from a friend who worked there) had an excellent tradition of donating money to good causes with no strings attached, especially when it involved a charity or other good cause near where they operated. Brooke Bond Oxo Ltd had sent us their written assurance that they would consider favourably contributing towards the restoration of the Oxo Tower if it were saved. And Unilever had written favourably about our campaign in their house magazine.
Finally, we suggested a possible patron for the project, a person who, just a couple of weeks before we submitted our proposals, had made a speech at the Royal Albert Hall including the following points:
Throughout this country today there are many shattered communities, where changes in demand or technology have made the original communities redundant, leaving behind vacant buildings and contaminated, damaged or polluted land …... Last year I commended the growing development of community architecture whereby the architect becomes the central catalyst for a community to take control of its environment and for members of that community to design or renovate their own houses. ……. In the case of
Macclesfield the residents of a crumbling terrace resisted the scheduled demolition of their houses and, with the aid of a pioneering architect, entirely transformed their environment. As a result of learning new building skills, several of the unemployed residents have since embarked on new careers.
Private, public and nationalised businesses should all have a vested interest in building up socially and financially viable communities … If companies continue to avoid the fundamental issues of inner city areas, it will be to their detriment.
It sounds rather like someone firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. But, in fact, the potential patron we had in mind was the Prince of Wales.
Back in 1985, Coin Street Community Builders included people to whom the very idea of seeking private finance would have been unthinkable. And as for Prince Charles …. !
So it is perhaps not surprising that our ideas were disregarded. However, when you see the range of galleries and shops now to be found in Stamford Wharf (sorry, the Oxo Tower Wharf), you can’t help wondering what it might have been like if it had included, say, the IBM Dance Studio, Shell Ceramics, the Unilever Glassworks and so on.
It is obvious that, even without taking up our ideas, Coin Street Community Builders have done an excellent job of redeveloping the area, and their website rightly draws attention to what they have done over the years, both for the local community and visitors to the South Bank.
They write that
”In 1984 the site consisted of derelict buildings and temporary car parks. The old buildings were demolished – apart from Oxo Tower Wharf – the South Bank riverside was completed, and a new park – Bernie Spain Gardens – was created between Stamford Street and the river. These new facilities … were opened to the public in 1988.”
No mention, anywhere on their webpages, of Jane Waller, the person without whose enthusiasm, energy and insight the Oxo Tower might well have been smashed up along with the other ‘old buildings’ now surviving only in the memory of a handful of ageing people.