From Kingsway to Bush House – and the story of an Archives intern

My name is Poppy Bignell and I am currently completing a Master’s degree in Contemporary British History at Kings College London. I previously studied History at the University of Nottingham and decided to move home to complete my Master’s in London. My main area of interest lies within gender, social and emotional history. My undergraduate dissertation focussed on male perceptions and understandings of love in 1960s to 1970s Britain.

I decided to apply for the internship with Kings College London Archives, not only because archival work excites me, but because I enjoy a challenge. The internship module offered a range of opportunities compared to a conventional ‘taught’ module. This internship has offered a unique opportunity to direct my own work, guided by my interests whilst producing useful material for the Archive.

As an intern at KCL Archives I was given the archive of architect Arthur Ewart Steevens (1906-1973) to work with. This collection was deposited in 2017 by the architect’s son and includes architectural plans, elevations, blueprints and publicity material for the construction of the West Wing of Bush House, London. The photographs dating from 1927 to 1928 and large blueprint plans make the collection visually engaging. Over the last three months I have been working on a curated online exhibition based on this collection. The exhibition is a great way for KCL Archives to promote the Steevens collection and provides open digital access to the material. The platform I used for the exhibition was ArcGIS’ StoryMaps which sometimes proved frustrating to use. The platform was simple to understand, but often took a long time to load (which seemed to get worse with the more content I added).

Bush House from The Strand, from a watercolour drawing by Hanslip Fletcher, from the Steevens archive (Steevens 3/1/1)

My initial vision for the online exhibition was inspired by a map of Kingsway and Bush House in the Steevens archive, pictured below. I wanted to explore further how Kingsway and Bush House were created in the early 20th Century as a new bustling hub of business in London. Unfortunately, I ran into significant copyright issues with material from London Metropolitan Archives which formed the basis of my research on Kingsway – so I decided to scale down the scope of my exhibition to focus on Bush House, with an introduction on Kingsway to set the scene.

I initially aimed to have a section of my exhibition introducing Arthur Steevens as the architect of the West Wing of Bush House but Steevens has proven to be an elusive man! Steevens was a builder from High Wycombe and I was intrigued to find out why his plans were chosen by Irving Bush for the West Wing of Bush House. I visited the Buckinghamshire Archives where I found numerous documents attributed to the Steevens family in the 19th Century and a couple of his stock-taking books outside of my period of interest. Unfortunately, nothing indicated why he was invited to be the architect of what became known as the most expensive building in the world in 1928. I did though find some interesting material on my own home, meaning my visit was not entirely in vain!

There were some engaging finds within the Steevens archive which did not fit within the theme of my exhibition, which I think deserve attention. Within one of the albums there are photographs of old wooden water pipes which were found during the preliminary excavations of the site. To some this might seem mundane – but it had never occurred to me what water pipes were made from centuries ago and wood seemed a strange choice of material! With a little research I found out that the use of bored elm pipes beneath the houses of the wealthy seems to have begun in London as early as the 13th Century.

Section of old water pipes found in excavations below old Drury Court, 2nd February 1928, Steevens 2/1/1

I have learnt a great deal from my internship with KCL Archives and have enjoyed working with the team there. I have learnt that archival research can be simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. You cannot make assumptions about what you might find in an archive, so I have learnt to be flexible in my research direction and my outputs.

From my research I have curated an online exhibition. I also have plans to create a public talk and presentation from my exhibition which will be both in-person and streamed online for a library local to King’s College London and Bush House.

Here is a link for my online exhibition entitled: From Kingsway to Bush House

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