Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. At 189m, the Tower was the tallest building in London until 1980 and is still an iconic part of the capital’s skyline. Rather than look at the build, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT David Hay recounts the story behind its FOUR official openings and the drama that ensued.
The planning for the Tower opening ceremony, documented at BT Archives, reveals a little known story of inter departmental rivalry and public image concerns. Construction on the Tower began in 1961, and as early as 1963 thought was being given to an official opening. The Postmaster General of the time, J R Bevins, was keen for a ceremony in 1964 “as soon as the shell has been completed”. A major concern was that the project should be seen to be led by the Post Office. The actual construction was managed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and Bevins was “determined to do something about this by the start of March, without M.o.W. [Ministry of Works]” and that “there must be no question of his [MoW] minister organising shows.”
The GPO Chief Public Relations Officer, T. A. O’Brien, had to point out that there was little point in organising an event before any equipment had been installed in the Tower, “….we would only make ourselves look silly if we tried to organise a ceremony which would have no meaning whatever.”
O’Brien’s preferred date for the opening ceremony was April or May 1965 with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding. In case there were delays, Bevins’ successor, Tony Benn, decided to invite Prime Minister Harold Wilson to officiate instead. In his letter, Benn asked Wilson to “draw attention to the role of the Post Office as the central nervous system of the United Kingdom dealing in the transmission of all sorts of information on which the economic life of the community depends”. Downing St was given the choice of April or October and, to O’Brien’s dismay, Wilson gave an October date as his preference. The Post Office had wanted a ceremony sooner rather than later because the physical construction of the Tower had been completed in 1964, and O’Brien was concerned that the public would be wondering why it had not been opened already.
The October date – preferred by the GPO Engineering Department to ensure that all the latest equipment was installed – was seen to be a better option, “it would be rather unfortunate if we were to try to show the way in which the Post Office is installing the most up to date equipment in the world if we had so important a person as the Prime Minister opening the Tower when little equipment is there.”
Ultimately, perhaps reflecting a typical British compromise, there were actually FOUR opening ceremonies:
- The topping out ceremony on 15 July 1964 marking the formal end of the construction, where a Minister of Public Building and Works made a speech “confining himself to the building achievements.”
- The operational opening of the Tower on 8 October 1965.
- An official visit by HM Queen Elizabeth hosted by Tony Benn on 17 May
- The opening of the public areas of the Tower (the restaurant and the observation floor) on 19 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Sir Billy Butlin (who had been awarded the licence to operate the restaurant).
The files also reflect a little of the characters of some of the key players in the Tower’s story. J R Bevins, who had been instrumental in the building of the Tower, declined his invitation because it had been incorrectly addressed to him as ‘Mr’ rather than “the Right Honourable J R Bevins – after all I am a Privy Councillor”. And following the ceremony Tony Benn wrote to O’Brien requesting that special arrangements be made to ensure that official drivers received refreshments at future events, “I believe there was some difficulty about this in connection with the opening of the Post Office Tower”.
Whatever day you see as the ‘official opening’, the BT Tower (formerly the Post Office Tower) is still an iconic landmark in London today and an innovation from the General Post Office.
You can read more on the history of the BT Tower on the BT Archives website