Above: View looking west at the 10-storey front which overlooks the Thames beside Grosvenor Road.
It may be a good idea to start by explaining that the name Dolphin Square is not the name for a London square – like Trafalgar Square or Parliament Square. The estate stands near the River Thames, in Pimlico. It is, in fact, the name for a very large block of flats which when built were laid out in the form of a square around a very large garden. When completed, the 7.5-acre site, with 1,250 flats was the largest apartment block in Europe, designed by Cecil Eve and Gordon Jeeves.
Dolphin Square stands on the site of the former works of the developer and builder Thomas Cubitt who created the surrounding Pimlico district in the 19th century. The Royal Army Clothing Depot was built on the site after Cubitt’s death and stood there until 1933 when the leasehold on the site reverted to the Duke of Westminster. An American company, the Fred F French Companies, bought the freehold for the site from the Duke with plans to build a large residential development but after finding they lacked the funds to continue they sold the site to Richard Costain Ltd, run by Richard Rylands Costain. New plans were drawn up by the architect S Gordon Jeeves and construction started in September 1935. It was officially opened by Lord Amulree on 25 November 1936.
In 1958, Costain sold Dolphin Square for £2.4 million to Sir Maxwell Joseph, who sold it to Lintang Investments in 1959 for £3.1 million. Westminster City Council then bought the lease of the block for £4.5 million in the mid-1960s and subsequently sub-let it to the Dolphin Square Trust, which acted as a housing association, newly created for the purpose. In January 2006, the Trust and the Council sold Dolphin Square to the American Westbrook Holdings group for £200 million.
Accommodation is provided in 13 blocks, each named after a famous navigator or admiral. On the south side (facing the Thames) the names are Grenville, Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins. Names on the west side are Nelson, Howard, Beatty and Duncan. A hotel and administrative offices occupy Dolphin House, on the north side of the Square, previously known as Rodney. On the east side, the names are Keyes, Hood, Collingwood and Frobisher. Each block of flats had its own porter, a service that continued until 2005. The estate contains a swimming pool, bar, brasserie, gymnasium and shopping arcade. In the basement are a launderette and a car park.
Dolphin Square was designed in neo-Georgian style, having a reinforced concrete frame with external facings of brick and stone. Original soundproofing was provided by compressed cork insulation on the floors. The original cost for construction was about £2 million. In total, it was estimated that 200,000 tonnes of earth were moved, 125,000 tons of concrete used, 12 million bricks used on the external walls and 6,700 Crittal windows installed during construction.
When it opened, Dolphin Square had flats varying in size from one-bedroom suites to flats with five bedrooms, a maid’s room and three bathrooms. On-site facilities provided for residents when completed included shops, a children’s centre and nursery, a library, a swimming pool and, in the basement, a garage for up to 300 cars. The planned riverside wharf, which would have included a cafe, marina and a terraced garden leading from Grosvenor Road to the Thames, was planned but never built.
Dolphin Square was built decades before the first council blocks appeared in Britain. At that time, apartment buildings in Britain were sufficiently unusual that some people referred to them as “French flats”. Whereas previous city housing blocks had been built for the very rich (like the vast Kensington apartments with seven or eight rooms apiece) or the very poor (like charitable blocks on the Peabody estates that replaced Victorian slums), Dolphin Square was part of a new phenomenon.
At the centre of the estate, the communal gardens were designed by Richard Sudell, president of the Institute of Landscape Architects. The gardens were listed Grade II in 2018. The surrounding buildings have not been listed. The gardens are a mix of formal and informal planting with expanses of lawn, with areas themed to reflect garden styles from different parts of the world. There are also a tennis court and croquet lawn which overlook the Thames. The gardens and buildings form part of the Dolphin Square conservation area.
Across the river from Dolphin Square stands Battersea Power Station. It was one of many power stations built beside the Thames. Essentially, there were two reasons for siting them beside the river. Firstly, they were initially coal-powered and the coal could be transported by sea and then up the Thames for easy delivery. Secondly, the power stations were built beside the river to provide them with a plentiful source of water cooling. Instead of just dissipating the heat from Battersea Power Station into the Thames, from 1950, the hot water from the power station was piped under the Thames to provide hot water and heating for the flats at Dolphin Square. All that came to an end in 1975 when the power station was decommissioned.
About 4,000 people live at Dolphin Square. Its proximity to (1) the Palace of Westminster, (2) the headquarters of the intelligence agencies MI5 (at Thames House) and (3) MI6 (at Vauxhall Cross) has attracted many politicians, peers, civil servants and intelligence agency personnel as residents. In 1940, at the start of the Second World War, the ‘blackshirt’ leader Oswald Mosley was arrested in his Dolphin Square flat and driven to Holloway Prison. During the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle based his Free France government at Dolphin Square. It acted as the headquarters for the French Army.
Dolphin Square was also associated with the Profumo affair, topless showgirls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. Keeler had a flat at the square. The Profumo affair was one of the largest British political scandals of the 20th century. John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, had an extramarital affair with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler beginning in 1961. All that seems a long time ago and is probably best laid to rest.
Being such a large estate, it is hard to characterise Dolphin Square in a few sentences. When built, it led the way in 1930s living – being designed for those from different classes of society and many varied occupations to live in and enjoy. With its up-market image today, it is now home to the more well members of society.