A modern university building behind the British Museum carries a “sincere apology” to a family who don’t own the land.

This is the Brunei Gallery building, part of the University of London’s School of Oriental Studies, and in the 1980s, they commissioned the building to be built on the site, which had remained empty ever since WW2.

Completed in 1997, it’s sympathetic to the area, without being slavishly historic, as the windows and elevation are modern interpretations of Georgian houses that line the streets around it.

So far so normal.

So why is there a stone plaque on the side that reads: “The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of its design”?

After all, while the family used to own the land, they don’t anymore and it’s not normal for a sale to include the right of the former owner to decide what the new owner does with it.

Well, the Russell family are Dukes, and when dealing with aristocracy, things can get a bit complicated.

The University sits on land that is known as the Bedford Estate, which, ever since the 1660s has been owned by the Russell family. The huge estate came into the family holdings thanks to marriage, and they were granted the title of the Duke of Bedford, hence the name of the estate.

Although most of the land was sold off around a century ago, they held onto the core in Bloomsbury, but found themselves facing a stronger foe – in that the British Museum and the Universities had the power of compulsory purchase of land they wanted.

While the family couldn’t prevent the sales, they were able to include a clause granting them the right to approve the design of any buildings that fronted onto certain viewpoints.

The Brunei Gallery overlooks Russell Square, which is still owned by the family, and although they were consulted early in the plans, it seems that the University pushed ahead with the plans for the building without formal approval.

Mark De Rivaz, steward of the Bedford Estates, told the Times Higher Education that continuing rights of approval on buildings fronting on some viewpoints were a condition of the sale of the land to the university in the 1920s.

There had been discussions about the SOAS design, but “the university slightly pre-empted the issue”. Frank Dabell, secretary of SOAS, said the plaque – its wording, size and materials specified – was a condition of their receiving the land from the university.

So, a plaque was demanded which recorded the sincere apologies to the family, as presumably they could have faced the prospect of demolishing the building.

It may possibly irk the family that the following year, the building went on to win an award, which the University then pointedly placed just below the plaque the family insisted on.

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3 comments on “Why a university had to say sorry to a Duke
  1. Matthew Malthouse says:

    I wonder if the plaque is not so much about any affront that might have been felt but a means of maintaining the right of approval.

    Such provisions are usually made by inserting a restrictive covenant into the deeds and covenants can be extinguished; disuse being one possible cause for doing so and building without permission could well be evidence of disuse.

  2. JOHN STEWART says:

    The University of London did not compulsory purchase the land — it paid a fair price for it.

    • ianvisits says:

      Compulsory purchase doesn’t mean getting it cheap, it just means you can force the sale, and you have to pay the market rate for the property you’re buying.

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