A Walk Round The Shell Centre Viewing Gallery

Shell Centre is an office complex on the Southbank, located between Hungerford Bridge and the old London County Council building. The most obvious part of the complex is the 26 storey tower.

Designed by Sir Howard Robertson and built between 1957 and 1962 for the Royal Dutch Shell group of oil companies, the office complex set new standards for staff facilities and building automation. Originally two main blocks, one either side of Hungerford Bridge, the “downstream” building to the east of Hungerford Bridge was sold during the 1990’s and converted to apartments.

Although large buildings above ground, there is a significant part of the complex below ground with a large swimming pool, theatre and bar being among the facilities for the original 5,000 staff to enjoy. Two underground tunnels connected the upstream and downstream buildings, running underneath the rail arches leading to Hungerford Bridge and being just above the underground train tunnels running north from Waterloo.

The building also had a tunnel out to the Thames so that river water could be used for cooling.

The “upstream” building to the west of Hungerford Bridge has a “U” shape set of 10 storey offices with the 26 storey, 351 foot tower block being the most obvious feature of the complex.

Shell has temporarily moved out of the complex and there is a proposed redevelopment of the site that will significantly change this part of the Southbank, more on this at the end of this post.

Long before the Shard and the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street, one of the innovations for the time was that the tower had a public viewing gallery. This was when there were very few tall buildings across London and certainly nothing built or planned in this part of the city. The viewing gallery provided almost continuous all round views of London.

The viewing gallery closed not that long after opening. I was told this was because that sadly there had been a suicide (although I have no verification of this). I was able to visit the viewing gallery in 1980 and took the following photos which show a very different London skyline to that of today. It always surprises me that it was not that long ago that there were very few tall buildings across London.

We will start with the view across to the Houses of Parliament and walk round the viewing gallery.

This was long before the construction of the London Eye which would now be the main feature of this view:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 3

Moving further to the right we can look straight across the river. The large building to the right are the offices of the Ministry of Defence. Buckingham Palace is to the left of centre:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 15

And further to the right, this is the original Charing Cross Station at the end of Hungerford Railway Bridge. In the years after this photo was taken, in common with many other main London stations, office buildings were constructed on top of the station. This was also before the Golden Jubilee foot bridges were added to either side of Hungerford Railway Bridge. At the time the photo was taken there was a single, relatively narrow foot bridge on the east side of the bridge.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 4

Looking directly onto Charing Cross Station with the Post Office Tower in the background and Centre Point to the right:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 2

Further to the right, the building left of centre is Shell-Mex House. This was occupied by the UK operating company of Shell. To the right is Waterloo Bridge.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 14

And further to the right with the full width of Waterloo Bridge:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 13

We are now starting to look over towards the City of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral can be seen to the upper right of centre and the three towers of the Barbican to the left.

The L shaped building in the lower foreground is the downstream building of the Shell Centre complex, and just above this building is the tower that was for London Weekend Television. The base of this tower still consists of TV studios, one of the few buildings that have had the same function over the last 35 years.

To the right of this is Kings Reach Tower, occupied at the time by IPC Magazines, publishers of magazines ranging from Loaded to Country Life. IPC Magazines vacated this tower block some years ago and it is now in the process of being converted into, yes you have probably guessed, more apartments. The height of the building is being raised with additional floors being constructed in top.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 7

And slightly further to the right, the tower in the distance was at the time the tallest office block in the City of London, the recently completed NatWest Tower, built for the NatWest Bank, now renamed as Tower 42.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 1

This photo is looking down onto the roundabout at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. The large space in the centre of the roundabout is now occupied by an IMAX Cinema. The church to the right is St. John’s, Waterloo. The church was built between 1822 and 1824 and due to the marshy land had to be built on piles.  I was told at the time that one of the reasons for so much space below ground level at Shell Centre was also due to the marshy ground and the need to keep the overall weight on the site equal. Excavating below ground level to remove sufficient weight of earth equal to the weight of building on top. No idea if this is true, but it does seem plausible.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 5

This photo is looking straight across to the City and Southwark. There is nothing of any height in the far distance. The buildings of Canary Wharf would now be very visible in the distance.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 9

Continuing to move to the right, this is looking over south-east London with the roof of Waterloo Station occupying the bottom right corner of the photo.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 8

And round to the right again looking over south London with the extensive network of tracks leading into Waterloo Station. The lower section of tracks at the bottom part of the photo would soon be converted to the London terminus of Eurostar prior to the completion of the HS1 rail route which transferred Eurostar trains into St. Pancras.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 11

Detail from the above photo showing British Rail rolling stock prior to privatisation of the rail network:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 18And a final view over to south west London. This was as far as the viewing gallery would allow, the gallery did not run along the western side of the tower:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 12

I cannot remember why I was using Black and White film when I took these photos from the viewing gallery. Shortly after taking the above, I took the following photo in colour showing Shell Centre from the north bank of the Thames. The north facing part of the viewing gallery can be clearly seen at the very top.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 17

The building is one of the few immediate post war developments that works well. If the proposed redevelopment of the site gets approval, it will be very different. The plans propose the demolition of the “U” shaped 10 storey office block at the base of the tower, and a whole new cluster of towers built around the original tower.

To see the proposed development, look here.

It was quite a surprise to see how much this area will change, and in my view, the close proximity of towers of very different materials and design to the original tower just does not look right.

It was fascinating to look back on these photos of the London skyline from 1980. It looks very different now, and the almost continuous development of tower blocks look set to continue transforming the skyline for many years to come, although unlike the original Shell Centre complex, with almost identical glass and steel towers that are removing so much of the local character of London.


24 thoughts on “A Walk Round The Shell Centre Viewing Gallery

  1. Donna Reeves

    It did surprise me to see how much change there has been within the past 35 years; who would of thought we would be nostalgic for the London skyline of the 1980’s? I do like some of the buildings that have been built over the past few decades, but still find it difficult to get my head round the idea that office blocks are being built, to replace the office blocks being turned into apartments? Perhaps it’s just me that thinks there must be an easier way of getting offices & housing? A good, thought provoking Sunday read – as always!

  2. Anne Guy

    Fascinating views of the city from not so many years ago…it is remarkably different without the landmarks that are so familiar today…many thanks for this interesting article!

  3. Sara James

    I started work straight from school in 1966 at the Shell Centre. In September a river pageant commemmoration of the 300th anniversary of the Great Fire of London took place and Shell allowed members of staff to watch from the viewing gallery. The pageant took place from early evening onwards and there were fireworks to add to our excitement.

    1. admin Post author

      That must have been quite a sight. I often think when watching the New Year firework displays on the Thames that the viewing gallery would be a great place to watch them.

  4. Lisa

    I worked at shell-mex house in 1990 and we would often use the underground tunnels to walk direct to shell centre and back again….

    1. admin Post author

      Hi Lisa, thanks for the comment. I did not realise there were tunnels between Shell-Mex House and Shell Centre. I knew about the tunnels between the Shell Centre Upstream and Downstream building, but not these.

    2. Rodney Hughes

      Shell Centre was not connected to Shell Mex by tunnel, you are getting confused with the tunnel that connected the Upstream and Downstream buildings at Shell Centre. i worked in the Theatre complex and TV Studio complex, Shell Centre.

  5. David

    Lisa there are no tunnels from Shell mex to Shell centre ?.. There are the River water tunnels but no access to members of staff. I think you mean the Pedestrian tunnels that linked the Downstream building to the upstream building . Also there was a a trucking tunnel and a pipe tunnel for services.

  6. Ruth WILDE (nee Whitton)

    I joined Shell in 1965 working initially in the Downstrram a Building and still have that Panorama Book. Took many a friend and relative up to the viewing gallery. Such fond memories of my years there

    1. Sarah Jane

      My grandad Albert samuel macfadyen was the tool maker who supplied the workers to build the clock on the shell mex/ BP house in 1962 I was shocked when I found out as he helped build the the clock on the BT tower aswel, certainly left a mark on our history. Hope this was useful information

  7. Paddy Briggs

    The Viewing Gallery in Shell Centre was not closed shortly after opening but remained open for many years – a decade or more I think. I first visited it in 1964 and often returned with friends and family. I can find out when it closed and why when I get back to the U.K. – I’m abroad at the moment.

  8. Dave Binder

    There was a pedestrian tunnel under the Thames from Shell next to Savoy Hotel over to the Southbank as a messenger for Shells ad agency Mather and Crowther I used it many times there was a swimming pool underground at the south bank end and various other staff facilities I used thi around 1963/64

  9. Martin Garrad

    I don’t know about any suicides,,but I remember a report of a member of Shell staff ,returning the day after his retirement to take pictures from the viewing gallery, and sadly fell to his death!

    1. Mike

      Hi Martin,
      I worked for Shell for many years and I can assure you that the gentleman in question would have had to climb a chest high bar, over a basket grill and then on to the wide concrete top plate to get to the edge, there is only one reason to do that and it’s not for taking pictures.

  10. Ted Hart

    I worked for a publishing house in Stamford Street in around 1965 and one day I and a couple of colleagues visited the Shell Centre and approached a door way in on side of the building. On pressing a button on the wall lift doors opened and on entering we were transported at some speed to the viewing gallery. It was a wonderful place where it seems you could view all London.

    When next I am in town I will see if there is any way of getting up there again.

    All the very best

    Ted Hart

  11. Peter little

    Oh gosh. My dad worked for Shell and we lived in Surrey when Shell Center was completed. What a sensation it caused then! What a flood of memories this has brought back. I was 13 when we returned to the US in 1964. We had all become a bit too English to fit back in very easily. What a glorious time to have grown up in England. Can’t regret that.
    Thanks for this.

  12. Mark Usher

    Fantastic photos! From Sept-Oct 1999 I worked briefly as a consultant to Shell and was based in the York Room on the Shell Centre Ground Floor next to the old Lensbury Bar (I think it was the Ground Floor, it could have been the Basement). Every few days we would have project status meetings with Shell senior management on one of the upper floors. I particularly remember one meeting in an office that looked out on the Thames. At that time the London Eye was semi-finished (I think) and it completely dominated the view from the window. Quite a memory.

  13. Peter Carrington

    I worked at The Shell Centre in the early 90’s for Otis Elevators refurbishing the lifts in the downstream building. It was a huge building and it took some time to get to know your way around. There were transit tunnels linking the buildings and loading bay and there was always background music playing in them. The decor was very sixties but i remember they even had a small market and their own video hire shop. Happy times.

  14. Iain Shepherd

    I was taken to that observation deck in the 00s by a relative who worked at Shell at the time.

    It had been closed to the public for ages, and naturally was not being cleaned, but still was serviceable with already-anachronistic interpretation boards. I wonder if they are still there.

  15. William Halliday

    I worked at Shell Centre in 1980-90, and when I often worked weekends myself and work colleagues would head onto the roof of 9 story upstream building to have have some lunch, and we would also often head over to the main building and have lunch up in the viewing gallery. Great memories, and great views, especially on clear sunny summer days.


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