Somerset House is a large Neoclassical building situated on the south
side of the Strand in central London, overlooking the River Thames,
just east of Waterloo Bridge. The building, originally the site of a
Tudor palace, was designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776, and
further extended with Victorian wings to the east and west in 1831 and
1856 respectively. The East Wing forms part of the adjacent
Strand campus of King's College London.
1.1 Old Somerset House
1.1.1 16th century
1.1.2 17th century
Somerset House (Sir William Chambers, 1776)
220.127.116.11 Influence of Chambers' design
1.2.3 19th century expansion
1.2.4 20th century
2 Historic use of the building
2.1 A home for arts and learning
2.2 Government use
2.2.1 Navy Office
2.2.2 Inland Revenue
2.2.3 Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths
Somerset House Laboratory
3.1 Filming location
3.2 Alternative proposal
5 External links
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Old Somerset House
In the sixteenth century, the Strand, the north bank of the Thames
between the City of
London and the
Palace of Westminster was a
favoured site for the mansions of bishops and aristocrats, who could
commute from their own landing stages up-river to the court or
down-river to the City and beyond. In 1539 Edward Seymour, 1st Earl
of Hertford (d.1552), obtained a grant of land at "Chester Place,
outside Temple Bar, London" from his brother-in-law King Henry VIII.
When his nephew the boy-king Edward VI came to the throne in 1547,
Duke of Somerset
Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. In about 1549 he
pulled down an old
Inn of Chancery and other houses which stood on the
site and began to build himself a palatial residence, making liberal
use of other nearby buildings including some of the chantry chapels
and cloisters at St. Paul's Cathedral, which were demolished partly at
his behest as part of the ongoing Dissolution of the Monasteries. It
was a two-story house built around a quadrangle with a gateway rising
to three stories and was one of the earliest examples of Renaissance
architecture in England. It is not known who designed the building.
Before it was finished, however, the
Duke of Somerset
Duke of Somerset was overthrown,
attainted by Parliament and in 1552 was executed on Tower Hill.
"Somerset Place" then came into the possession of the Crown. His royal
nephew's half-sister the future Queen Elizabeth I lived there during
the reign of her half-sister Queen Mary I (1553–1558). The process
of completion and improvement was slow and costly. As late as 1598
Stow refers to it as "yet unfinished".
Old Somerset House, in a drawing by
Jan Kip published in 1722, was a
sprawling and irregular complex with wings from different periods in a
mixture of styles. The buildings behind all four square gardens belong
to Somerset House.
The view from the river terrace towards
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral painted by
In the 17th century, the house was used as a residence by queens
consort. During the reign of King James I, the building became the
London residence of his wife, Anne of Denmark, and was renamed Denmark
House. She commissioned a number of expensive additions and
improvements, some to designs by Inigo Jones. In particular, during
the period between 1630 and 1635 he built a Chapel where Henrietta
Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, could exercise her Roman
Catholic religion. This was in the care of the Capuchin Order and was
on a site to the south-west of the Great Court. A small cemetery was
attached and some of the tombstones are still to be seen built into
one of the walls of a passage under the present quadrangle.
Royal occupation of
Somerset House was interrupted by the English
Civil War and in 1649 Parliament tried to sell it. They failed to find
a buyer, though a sale of the contents realised the very considerable
sum (for that time) of £118,000. Use was still found for it however.
Part of it served as an Army headquarters, General Fairfax (the
Parliamentary Commander-in-Chief) being given official quarters there;
lodgings were also provided for certain other Parliamentary notables.
It was in
Somerset House that Oliver Cromwell's body lay in state
after his death in 1658.
Two years later, with the Restoration, Queen Henrietta Maria returned
and in 1661 began a considerable programme of rebuilding, the main
feature of which was a magnificent new river front, again to the
design of the late Inigo Jones, who had died at
Somerset House in
1652. However she returned to France in 1665 before it was finished.
It was then used as an occasional residence by Catherine of Braganza,
wife of King Charles II. During her time it received a certain
notoriety as being, in the popular mind, a hot-bed of Catholic
Titus Oates made full use of this prejudice in the
fabricated details of the
Popish Plot and it was alleged that Sir
Edmund Berry Godfrey, whose murder was one of the great mysteries of
the age, had been killed in
Somerset House before his body had been
smuggled out and thrown into a ditch below Primrose Hill.
Somerset House was refurbished by
Sir Christopher Wren
Sir Christopher Wren in 1685. After
Glorious Revolution in 1688,
Somerset House entered on a long
period of decline, being used (after Queen Catherine left England in
1692) for grace and favour residences. In the conditions of the time
this meant almost inevitably that little money could be found for its
upkeep, and a slow process of decay crept in. During the 18th century,
however, the building ceased its royal associations. Though the view
from its terraced riverfront garden, open to the public, was painted
twice on his
London visit by
Canaletto (looking upriver and down), it
was used for storage, as a residence for visiting overseas dignitaries
and as a barracks for troops. Suffering from neglect, Old Somerset
House began to be demolished in 1775.
Somerset House (Sir William Chambers, 1776)
The south wing of Chambers' Somerset House
Since the middle of the 18th century there had been growing criticism
London had no great public buildings. Government departments and
the learned societies were huddled away in small old buildings all
over the city. Developing national pride found comparison with the
capitals of the Continent disquieting.
Edmund Burke was the leading
proponent of the scheme for a "national building", and in 1775
Parliament passed an Act for the purpose of, inter alia, "erecting and
establishing Publick Offices in Somerset House, and for embanking
Parts of the
River Thames lying within the bounds of the Manor of
Savoy". The list of "Publick Offices" mentioned in the Act comprised
"The Salt Office, The Stamp Office, The Tax Office, The Navy Office,
The Navy Victualling Office, The Publick Lottery Office, The Hawkers
and Pedlar Office, The
Hackney Coach Office, The Surveyor General of
the Crown Lands Office, The Auditors of the Imprest Office, The Pipe
Office, The Office of the Duchy of Lancaster, The Office of the Duchy
of Cornwall, The Office of Ordnance, The King's Bargemaster's House,
The King's Bargehouses".
Somerset House was still technically a royal palace and Crown
property. By an earlier Act of Parliament, it had been placed in trust
for the use of
Queen Charlotte in the event that her husband the King
predecease her. Therefore the 1775 Act annulled this arrangement and
instead provided for another property, Buckingham House, to be vested
in trust for the Queen on the same terms. (Provision was made for the
King, who had privately purchased Buckingham House some years earlier,
to be duly compensated). In due course, the King outlived the Queen
and the property (later known as Buckingham Palace) reverted 'to the
use of His Majesty, his heirs and successors'.
Night view from beneath the Strand entrance
Sir William Chambers, Surveyor-General of Works was appointed at a
salary of £2,000 p.a. to design and build the new Somerset House. He
spent the last two decades of his life, beginning in 1775, in several
phases of building at the present Somerset House. Thomas Telford, then
a stonemason, but later an eminent civil engineer, was among those who
worked on its construction. One of Chambers's most famous pupils,
Thomas Hardwick Jr, helped build parts of the building during his
period of training and later wrote a short biography of Chambers. By
1780 the North Wing, fronting the Strand, was complete; its design was
based on Inigo Jones's drawings for the riverfront of the former
building. Construction of the riverside wing followed; it was
completed in 1786 and the East and West wings were occupied from
It is not certain at what pace the rest of the construction
progressed, but it is clear that the outbreak of war with France
caused delays through lack of money. Chambers died in 1796, whereupon
James Wyatt took over as architect. By 1801 the building was deemed to
be complete, but there are indications that as late as 1819 some
decorative work still needed to be completed. The building (which did
not yet include the "New Wing" and King's College London, situated
behind the West and East Wings of the quadrangle respectively) cost
At that time of construction, the river was not embanked and the
Thames lapped the South Wing where three great arches allowed boats
and barges to penetrate to landing places within the building.
Influence of Chambers' design
Charles Bulfinch's Massachusetts State House, begun in 1795, is a work
"frankly derivative" of Somerset House.
The Strand façade of Chambers'
Somerset House and the church of St
Mary-le-Strand, shown in a view of 1836
The Strand façade today
Somerset House in 1817, showing how the Thames originally flowed
directly past the building.
The river front of
Somerset House today, seen from the Victoria
Courtyard view of the East and South wings.
19th century expansion
Part of the New Wing (main entrance facing Lancaster Place).
Magnificent as the new building was, it was something short of what
Chambers had intended, for he had planned for additional wings to the
east and west of the quadrangle. Cost had been the inhibiting factor.
Eventually King's College
London was erected to the east (the
Government granting the land on condition that the design conformed to
Chambers' original design) by subscription between 1829 and 1834.
Then, increasing demand for space led to another and last step. The
western edge of the site was occupied by a row of houses used as
Admiralty officials who worked in the South Wing.
Between 1851 and 1856 these were demolished and a further wing
erected. 150 years later this part of the building is still known as
the "New Wing".
Somerset House now presents more of the aspect of a
terrace than Chambers would have intended.
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Civil Service Rifles
Civil Service Rifles War Memorial: installed in the main courtyard in
1919, relocated to the Terrace in 2002.
Somerset House had its share of trials and tribulations during World
War II. Apart from comparatively minor blast effects at various times,
sixteen rooms and the handsome rotunda staircase (the Nelson Stair)
were completely destroyed in the South Wing, and a further 27 damaged
in the West Wing by a direct hit in October 1940. Still more windows
were shattered and balustrades toppled, but the worst was over by the
end of May 1941.
It was not until the 1950s that this damage to the South Wing was
repaired. The work required skilled masons, whose services were hard
to come by in the early post-war years. Sir
Albert Richardson was
appointed architect for the reconstruction. He skillfully recreated
the Nelson Room and rebuilt the Nelson Stair. The work was completed
in 1952 at a cost of (then) £84,000. The newly restored part of the
South Wing was taken by the Inland Revenue's Solicitor's Office and
"Establishments" (now commonly "HR") Division, augmenting their
existing accommodation in the West Wing.
In 1984 the
Somerset House Act was passed, legislating the way for
Somerset House to be redeveloped as a centre for the arts. In 1997 the
Somerset House Trust was established as a charity to maintain the
building and develop it as a centre for arts and culture.
Historic use of the building
A home for arts and learning
The Exhibition Room at
Somerset House by
Thomas Rowlandson and
Augustus Charles Pugin
Augustus Charles Pugin (1800). This room is now part of the Courtauld
The North Wing of
Somerset House was initially fitted out to house the
Royal Academy, the
Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The
Royal Academy took up residence first, in 1779, followed by the other
two institutions the following year. The
Royal Academy occupied the
western half of the wing and the
Royal Society the eastern half; their
main entrances faced each other across the central vestibule leading
from the Strand to the courtyard, topped by busts (of
Isaac Newton respectively) which are still in place today. The Society
of Antiquaries was also accommodated in the eastern half of the wing,
though its premises were limited to a first-floor meeting room, a
ground-floor library, an apartment in the attic and a kitchen in the
Geological Society was also accommodated in the Somerset House
from 1828, as was the
Royal Astronomical Society
Royal Astronomical Society from 1834.
Royal Academy Exhibition was held in
Somerset House from
1780 onwards, until the Academy moved out in 1837 (initially to rooms
in the new National Gallery, then to Burlington House, Piccadilly).
Its former accommodation was given over to a newly-established
Government School of Design (which was much later to become the Royal
College of Art); it remained in the complex from 1837 until, in 1853,
the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths needed to expand its
office space and the School relocated to Marlborough House.
In 1857, the
Royal Society moved out of Somerset House, followed in
1874 by the Society of Antiquaries, the
Geological Society and the
Royal Astronomical Society; they were all provided with new
purpose-built accommodation in Burlington House.
A key reason for rebuilding
Somerset House was to provide
accommodation for a diverse variety of government offices.
In 1789 the
Navy Board moved into grand riverside rooms in the western
half of the newly-completed South Wing. It was soon followed by its
subsidiary Boards, the
Victualling Commissioners and the Sick and Hurt
Commissioners, which (along with the Navy Pay Office) occupied the
West Wing; they had all hitherto been based in the City of London.
Thus the various Navy offices occupied around a third of Chambers'
As well as accommodating the officials and administrative staff of the
Somerset House provided the venue for examinations and
interviews for junior officers seeking promotion (one of the Navy
Board's areas of responsibility).
In 1832 the
Navy Board and its subsidiaries were abolished and their
departments placed under the direct oversight of the Admiralty. Their
administrative staff remained in Somerset House, but communications
Admiralty (based a mile away in Whitehall) were problematic
as what became known as the 'civil departments' of the Admiralty
guarded their independence. In 1868, the
Admiralty took the decision
to move all their staff from
Somerset House to Whitehall; this
necessitated reconfiguring what had been a set of residences there
pertaining to the Lords Commissioners of the
Admiralty into office
accommodation. Nevertheless, the move was completed by 1873, and
Inland Revenue immediately took over the vacated space
in Somerset House.
The Stamp Office, Somerset House: the basement stamping room.
From the beginning of the new
Somerset House there was a fiscal
presence in the shape of the
Stamp Office and the Tax Office, the
former occupying the eastern part of the South Wing from 1789 and the
latter occupying part of the East Wing. These two Offices (which were
merged in 1836) went on to help form the Inland Revenue, which soon
became the largest occupier of the building.
Stamp Office had the task of applying an impressed duty stamp to
various specific items to show that the required duty had been paid.
For example, up until 1855 (when the relevant duty was abolished)
every newspaper produced in the country had to be brought to Somerset
House to be stamped.
The Tax Office administered and collected various taxes, including
income tax (first levied in 1799). Introduced as a means of raising
revenue in wartime, it was collected during the French Revolutionary
Wars and the Napoleonic Wars; though repealed in 1816, it was
reintroduced in peacetime (in 1842) and has been collected ever since.
It later became the main focus of the Revenue officers at Somerset
Inland Revenue was created by a merger of the Stamp and Taxes
Office and the
Excise Office in 1849; in 1854 the
Excise Office staff
were moved from their old headquarters in the City of
London into the
newly-built New Wing.
Somerset House continued in use by the
Inland Revenue throughout the
20th century. In 2005, the
Inland Revenue was merged with HM Customs
and Excise; its successor HM Revenue & Customs continued to occupy
much of the building, although its executive and senior management
moved to 100 Parliament Street shortly after the merger. Various
divisions and directorates of HMRC continued to occupy the East Wing
until 2009, the West Wing until 2011 and the New Wing until March
2013, by which time all staff had been relocated (with most moving
across the street to the south-west wing of Bush House). This brought
to an end a 224-year association of the revenue services with Somerset
Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths
In 1837, following the establishment of civil registration in the
United Kingdom, the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths
set up his office in the North Wing of Somerset House, establishing a
connection that lasted for over 130 years. This office held all birth,
marriage and death certificates in
England and Wales
England and Wales until 1970, when
the Registry and its associated archives were moved to nearby St
Catherine's House at Aldwych.
Somerset House Laboratory
In 1842, the
Excise Office had established a laboratory within its
Broad Street headquarters for the prevention of the adulteration of
tobacco products. It had started as basically a one-man operation by
an employee of the Excise, George Phillips. After the
had been merged with the Office of Stamps and Taxes to form the Inland
Revenue, the latter took over the laboratory; by 1858 it was
Somerset House as the
Inland Revenue Laboratory
(with Phillips remaining in charge). It was also known as the Somerset
House Laboratory. Under the Inland Revenue, the Laboratory's work
expanded to encompass the testing of many different substances,
including food, beer and spirits, as well as tobacco. Its work was
further enhanced by the Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875.
Phillips retired as principal chemist in 1874. Dr. James Bell was then
the principal chemist of
Somerset House Laboratory until his
retirement in 1894. He was replaced as principal chemist by Sir
Thomas Edward Thorpe. At the same time, the Laboratory was amalgamated
with a similar facility that had been established within HM Customs
and it was renamed the Government Laboratory. In 1897, Thorpe moved
the Government Laboratory from
Somerset House to a new building of his
In addition to the learned societies, the ground floor rooms of the
North wing housed the Hawkers and
Pedlars Office (on the west side)
Hackney Coach Office, the Lottery Office, the Privy Seal and
Signet Offices (on the east side). The
Hackney Coach commissioners
had been established on a permanent footing in 1694,, while the
Board of Commissioners of Hawkers,
Pedlars and Petty
from 1698; the latter was abolished in 1810 and its work taken
over by the
Hackney Coach Office until its abolition in 1831,
whereupon responsibility for licensing both of hackney carriages and
of travelling traders passed to the Stamp Office. The Lottery Office,
established in 1779, was also abolished in 1831 and its residual
business likewise passed to the Stamp Office. The Signet Office
was abolished in 1851 and the
Privy Seal Office
Privy Seal Office in 1884.
One of the first occupants of the building had been the Duchy of
Cornwall Office. It was accommodated in the East Wing along with the
Tax Office and various
Exchequer offices (including the Pipe Office,
the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer's Office and the Office of the Clerk
of the Estreats). As early as 1795 the
Exchequer was requesting that
more space be made available;
Sir John Soane
Sir John Soane was engaged to redesign
their offices, and as part of the scheme the Duchy was relocated to
another part of the east wing, prompting complaints from its
Pipe rolls and other ancient records of the Treasury and
Exchequer (which had been moved to
Somerset House from the
Westminster in 1793) remained stored in the basements until the
establishment of the
Public Record Office
Public Record Office in 1838.
The office of Lord Treasurer's
Remembrancer ceased to exist in 1833
and the Pipe Office was abolished in 1834; however space in Somerset
House continued to be at a premium: in 1854 an Act of Parliament was
Duchy of Cornwall
Duchy of Cornwall Office Act 1854) noting that the Duchy's
Somerset House were now needed 'for the use of the
Commissioners of Inland Revenue, whose present office is insufficient
for the Business thereof, and adjoins the said Office of the Duchy of
Cornwall'. The Act provided for the Duchy Office to move to new,
purpose-built premises in Pimlico: now known as 10 Buckingham Gate,
the building still serves as head office for the Duchy.
The Commissioners for Auditing Public Accounts were also housed in the
East Wing, as was the
Duchy of Lancaster
Duchy of Lancaster Office (having moved there
from accommodation in Gray's Inn) until it moved in 1823 to new
offices across the road in Lancaster Place. The Surveyor of Crown
Lands also had his Office here until the early 19th century. The Salt
Office initially occupied rooms in the West Wing, alongside the naval
offices, but it was abolished in 1798 (administration of the salt tax
having been transferred to the Board of Excise).
During the 19th century
Somerset House contained the offices of the
Poor Law Commissioners
Poor Law Commissioners (1834-47) the Tithe Commissioners
(1836-51) and, from 1859 until 1998, the Principal Registry of the
Court of Probate and its successors. In 1891 a headquarters
building was constructed in the West Court (between the West Wing and
the New Wing) for the Civil Service Rifles, a Rifle Volunteer
The dancing fountains were installed in the 1990s.
In the late 20th century the building began to be reinvigorated as a
centre for the visual arts.
The first institution to move in (in 1989) was the Courtauld Institute
of Art, including the Courtauld Gallery, which has an important
collection of old master and impressionist paintings. The Courtauld
occupies the North Wing.
In the late 1990s the main courtyard ceased to be a civil service
carpark; it and the main terrace overlooking the Thames was
refurbished and opened to the public, these alterations being overseen
by the leading conservation architects Donald Insall & Associates.
Grants from the Heritage Lottery Fundenabled the conversion of the
South Wing in 1999-2003: a visitor centre featuring audio-visual
displays on the history of the building, the gilded state barge of the
Lord Mayor of the City of
London and a shop and café were opened,
overlooking the river. The
Gilbert Collection of decorative arts, and
the Hermitage Rooms, which stage exhibitions of items loaned from the
Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, moved into the same area. The
last Hermitage exhibition took place in 2007 and the Gilbert
Collection galleries closed in 2008; the collection moved into new
galleries at the
Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum in June 2009. Somerset
House now puts on a programme of art exhibitions drawing on various
In stages from 2009-2013, HM Revenue and Customs withdrew from the
other parts of the building; since March 2013 the
Somerset House Trust
has had oversight of the entire complex. Its management policy has
been to rent out the upper floors at a commercial rate to 'creative
businesses' whilst devoting the ground floor to 'public realm'
activities. The trust receives no public subsidy and relies on income
from rent and private hire to fund the upkeep of the estate and relies
on ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship to fund its artistic
and cultural programme.
Somerset House is now residence to over a hundred tenants, comprising
a large and diverse collection of creative organisations and artists
including the British Fashion Council, 7Wonder, Hofesh Shechter
Company and the
Royal Society of Literature. The largest tenant is
London whose Cultural Institute, Executive Centre and
Dickson Poon School of Law
Dickson Poon School of Law occupy a large part of the East Wing. For a
time the Representative of
Anguilla (the diplomatic mission of the
British Overseas Territory
British Overseas Territory of Anguilla) was accommodated in part of
the west wing.
The ice-skating rink at
Somerset House during Christmas 2004.
In the winter the central courtyard is home to a popular open air ice
rink, as seen during the opening credits of the 2003 Christmas-themed
film Love Actually. At other times, an array of fountains display
55 vertical jets of water rising to random heights.
Mogwai playing live at Somerset House.
The courtyard is also used as a concert venue. A series of music
events called the 'Summer series' are held in July each year. These
have included performances from artists such as Bat For Lashes, Lupe
Fiasco, Snow Patrol, We Are Scientists,
Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse.
Goldfrapp concert was filmed in the courtyard and released on the
Wonderful Electric DVD. There is also an annual summer season of
outdoor film showings.
Somerset House is a popular filming location with its exterior
featuring in several big budget
Hollywood films. Among these include
James Bond films,
Tomorrow Never Dies
Tomorrow Never Dies and GoldenEye, and
several scenes of the 2003 film,
Shanghai Knights starring Jackie Chan
Owen Wilson were filmed in the courtyard of Somerset
House. The courtyard was also used in the 1991 comedy King
Ralph. Elements of the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira
Ralph Fiennes were filmed in October 2007. Somerset
House was also used as a filming location in several Sherlock Holmes
films, including the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,
and more recently,
Sherlock Holmes (2009) starring
Jude Law and Robert
Downey, Jr. directed by Guy Ritchie. Exterior shots of
Somerset House were also used in the 1999
Tim Burton horror film,
Sleepy Hollow starring
Johnny Depp and the 2006 film, Flyboys.
It was used as a filming location in the 2012
Bollywood film Jab Tak
Hai Jaan, starring Shah Rukh Khan,
Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma,
and directed by Yash Chopra.
Somerset House Courtyard was also
used in the 2008 movie
Last Chance Harvey
Last Chance Harvey with
Dustin Hoffman and Emma
Thompson. Emma’s character says she likes to sit and watch the
children play under the fountains. Scenes were filmed in Somerset
House in the
Olympus Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen sequel,
London Has Fallen.
Somerset House was also the main location for the BBC's New Year Live
television show, presented by Natasha Kaplinsky, which celebrated the
arrival of the year 2006. It also stood in for Buckingham Palace
in the episode "Celebrity" of Spooks.
Snow Patrol recorded a DVD at
Somerset House as part of their Final
Straw tour. It was filmed on 8 August 2004 and was released in
In 2004 it was proposed that the newly proposed Supreme Court of the
United Kingdom be housed in the New Wing because of its proximity to
the legal quarter nearby, the
Royal Courts of Justice
Royal Courts of Justice and Inns of
Court; however, a decision was made to use Middlesex Guildhall
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^ "Somerset House. Tithe Commission Office. Plans & Elevation Of
the Proposed Additions". National Archives. Retrieved 5 April
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^ "Somerset House: West Court - Civil Service Volunteers Building".
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^ "Somerset House". Time Out London. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
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^ "The Big Skate: outdoor ice rinks in London". BBC. 25 November 2009.
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^ Humphreys (2003), p. 166
Somerset House - Music Archived 19 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
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Somerset House: The History.
Somerset House Trust/Cultureshock Media.
Media related to
Somerset House at Wikimedia Commons
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