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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

Uniquely Enlightened in Mayfair

The excellent Londonist recently ran a feature on the Top 10 Lifts In London.

I was surprised yesterday to discover yet another, little known but rather interesting, little lift in Mayfair.

This most telegenic of London lifts is in the world famous lecture theatre of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, in Albermarle Street.

This lecture theatre hosts, amongst many other things, the Christmas Lectures that are televised globally each year.

Royal Institution Lecture Theatre
Royal Institution Lecture Theatre (Source and Copyright with

The lift's mechanism is directly above the lecture theatre's roof. You can see the ceiling lighting feature in the picture above. Well, directly above that, high on the roof, is this:

Royal Institution lift exterior
Royal Institution lift exterior

This curious structure houses a bespoke Otis lift. Beneath the dust you can see a steel dome.

Bespoke lift steel dome
Bespoke lift steel dome

This dome can be raised a few metres to allow natural light to diffuse into the otherwise windowless lecture theatre. This bespoke piece of apparatus was installed by Otis during the late 1920's and early 1930's refurbishment of the Royal Institution. It is believed to be an absolutely unique lift design.

Other bespoke work carried out by Otis at this time included building a lift to raise and lower the windows of the Royal Box at Ascot, thus enabling appropriate adjustments to be made without anyone getting in the way of the racing.

The lift motor hasn't worked for a while. When the dome needs to be raised staff have to hand crank the mechanism, a process that can take several hours. There is hope that soon an engineer, who is suitably familiar with bespoke lift mechanisms of the 1920's and 30's, will be climbing through this tiny entrance hatch to repair the motor.

Access shaft to Royal Institution lift
Access shaft to Royal Institution lift

Good luck to him or her. I got vertigo just taking a photo of it.

There is more to see from the roof of the Royal Institution and I am very grateful for the privilege of being given such rare access but I am also useless with heights and had to stay well away from the edges. This is the only other shot I was brave enough to take.

View from the roof of the Royal Institution
View from the roof of the Royal Institution

The Royal Institution of Great Britain is at 21 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BS. Its fantastic free Museum is open Monday to Friday 8.00am – 6.00pm.


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