By Asha Gage, IET Archivist

In 2013 the IET’s London home, Savoy Place, underwent a major refurbishment project to adapt the building to the needs of modern-day events and its members. As part of this a condition was stipulated that an archaeological investigation was to be undertaken on the site. This was carried out between October 2013 and November 2014 by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology).

The current building was built between 1886 and 1889 to serve as an examination hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons. This is the modified building that the IET now occupies but the area of The Savoy has seen multiple transformations from the 13th century, most notably a palace, hospital and military barracks.

Savoy Place 1908

A site of many transformations

The area of the Savoy Manor takes its name from Peter, Count of Savoy, who was given the land by Henry III on 12 February 1246. He built a palace on this site but after his death in 1268 the property was left to a hospice in Savoy. However, his niece, Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III, bought back the land. The land was given to her son, Edmund Plantagenet, the first earl of Lancaster. The original layout of the palace is unknown but was extended by successive Earls of Lancaster. It was partially destroyed during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

More information about the Savoy Palace and its later conversions can be read about in the history of the Savoy and the IET London: Savoy Place. One of the most significant alterations of the Palace was the creation of a hospital in the early 16th century. This large complex was founded by Henry VII in 1508. It was built to provide relief for up to 100 paupers a night with a staff of doctors and nursing sisters. The last poor were admitted in 1642, the hospital then being used as barracks.

A plan of the vicinity dated 1736 shows that private houses were present in the southern part of the site. In the south-western section, there was a military prison, private dwellings and the river stairs. There were several churches located in different parts of the old hospital buildings (French Church, German Lutheran Church – previously the Sisters’ Hall in the hospital until 1694, and the Church of St Mary).

Plan of The Savoy 1736


The construction of the first Waterloo Bridge between 1811 and 1817 and then the Victoria Embankment between 1864 and 1870 removed all the hospital buildings except for the chapel of St John which still survives.

The current building was built between 1886 and 1889 to serve as an examination hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons. This is the building that the current Institution of Engineering and Technology now occupies.

Waterloo Bridge c1817

The archaeological dig

In October 2013 a total seven trenches were dug and examined with the excavation restricted to new pile positions, a new lift pit and a new drainage tank. Several exciting finds were made dating back to the medieval period.

In addition to the earlier stonework and walls that were discovered in the trenches, there were a number of smaller items that were of particular interest.

Many mid-late 14th century Penn floor tiles (from Penn, Buckinghamshire) were found. The vast majority were decorated but a few yellow and brown glazed examples were also present. It is possible that Penn tiles were laid when the palace was occupied by John of Gaunt after 1362. The surviving tiles suggest the floors comprised strips of decorated examples separated by thin rows of plain glazed tiles.

Another tile found was a Low Countries ‘Flemish’ fragment dating probably from the 14th – late 15th century. The surviving top corner has a round nail hole. There was also a thinner, possibly Tudor, tile that had a plain green glaze above a white slip. The Low Countries floor tiles were probably installed in the hospital in the early 16th century. They were most likely laid in a chequerboard pattern with plain yellow glaze tiles alternating with green/brown tiles.

The ceramic building material possibly provides the first evidence of the types of flooring installed in the Savoy Palace.


Some 24 sherds from 20 vessels were found. The condition of the sherds was poor but because they were found in isolation they are of value providing a date range of 13th-14th century land use.

432 sherds recovered in other areas of the excavation date from the post-medieval period (1480-1900). They are characterised by the factory made wares of the Midlands and north England, such as creamware and blue transfer-printed pearlwares. Later examples include 17th century dated Surrey-Hampshire border wares and London made delftware.

A large collection of pottery is London-area redware with a selection of one or two-handled flared bowls, deep bowls and rounded dishes, decorated in a variety of Chinoiserie and foliate designs.

A small number of vessels used for taking hot drinks consist of imported blue and white Chinese porcelain teabowls and handled cups; other drinking vessels include white salt-glazed stoneware tankards with London made stoneware gorges and tankards.

Clay tobacco pipes

28 pipe bowls and two stem fragments were uncovered on the site. They were all of typical London manufacture and most had been smoked. They range in date from c1700 to the 1770s but four pipe bowls dated between c1660-1710. Four of the 18th-century examples have a maker’s mark, with at least four different pipe makers represented. Three of these are decorated – a thistle, the Prince of Wales Feathers and the Act of the Union.

Items such as pottery, pipes, vessels, wig-curlers were casually discarded over time, but their discovery means we can imagine an area busy with people going about their daily lives eating, drinking, entertaining, trading and travelling.

Remains of a Watergate

Lying south of the main river wall a stone wall was discovered with an arch that was 2.40m wide. The arch was built on thick timber baulks partially dug in into the foreshore. The arched wall found in front of the main river wall is part of the Watergate stairs. The arch would have originally supported stairs down to the river. Today the river wall lies 75 metres away from the river Thames, but prior to the construction of the Victorian Embankment, the river would have been wider, extending right up to the water gate of Savoy Place.

It has local and regional significance. Such a large, well-built example of stone river frontage dating from the early 16th century was previously unknown in this area of Westminster.

A view of the Savoy from the river Thames, engraved 1760.

Understanding our past

The refurbishment of Savoy Place provided an opportunity to study the history of the site via the archaeological excavation by MOLA.

Archaeological discoveries have given us a greater understanding of how the site has transformed over the centuries. It has witnessed the rise and fall of a great palace. The building has been re-purposed as a hospital, military barracks and a prison. The site has been reclaimed and extended by successive Earls of Lancaster. Private houses and churches have been built and demolished to make way for Victorian public works and regeneration. Archaeological finds have helped us to interpret how these buildings were decorated and used.

This information has been taken from the MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) post-excavation assessment and updated project design report in July 2015. A copy of the full report is available, please contact the IET Archives for more information. 

Feature image: Savoy Place, watercolour by A Bryett 1939.