First three residencies, c.1808-1921
The first residency, from about 1808 until 1818, was on the east (left) bank of the Tigris, just off what is now Mustansir Street, on a site that later became part of the Lynch offices site. It was described by a traveller, James Silk Buckingham, in 1816 as being
‘formed of a number of dwellings thrown into one, and, as a residence, is certainly one of the largest, best and most commodious in the city. It consists of two large courts, one of them used as a riding ground, having numerous rooms and galleries around it, with walled terraces for sleeping at night in the open air: and a set of vaulted subterranean cellars, called serdaub, for avoiding the intense heat of the summer during the day; besides spacious and good stables, kitchens and offices of every description.’
The second residency, from 1818 until 1905, was in another large building nearby on the east bank of the Tigris, leased from a rich landowner of Indian origin, the Nawab Sir Iqbal ud-Dawlah. In 1878 it was described by Lady Anne Blunt as
‘By far the pleasantest place in Baghdad … a beautiful old house built around two courtyards and having a long frontage to the river. There is a delightful terrace overlooking the water, with an alley of old orange trees and a Kiosque or summer-house and steps leading down to a little quay where the consular boats are moored. Inside, the house is decorated in the Persian style of the last century … walls panelled in minute cabinet work, sometimes inlaid with looking glass, sometimes richly gilt. Only the dining room is studiously English, in deference to Anglo-Indian prejudice, its decorations, apparently fresh from Maple’s, forming a theme for admiration for the Baghdadis who come to pay their respects to Her Majesty’s Consul-General.’
By the 1890s, this building was seriously deteriorating. The Nawab had died and the property had passed to Agha Muhammed, as had also the property that the old Nawab himself had lived in, which would make a far preferable residency. The second residency building was accordingly vacated in 1905: it was converted into an hotel, was destroyed in the 1950s, and the Baghdad chamber of commerce was built on its site. [?still there.]
The third residency, the Nawab’s own former property, was eventually bought for 36,000 rupees in 1900, in the name of the British embassy at Constantinople. It comprised three acres on the same, east, river bank, provided a good anchorage for the residency steamer, the Comet, and offered opportunities to build a fine new house on the site of the Nawab’s old house, and to convert outbuildings for ancillary purposes. Designs for the development of the site for residence, offices, hospital, barracks, post office and all supporting facilities were quickly produced [? who by] and a contract was let in 1902 to Messrs BR Herman & Co of Karachi for their construction, at about 325,000 rupees. All the buildings were occupied before the end of 1905 (when the second residency was vacated). The new residency proved to be the grandest in Baghdad: Gertrude Bell rejoiced in staying there in 1911, not least ‘the roses and green lawns’ of the garden.
After the British evacuated the residency in October 1914, it was used as a hospital by the Turks, who also took the opportunity of bisecting the residency grounds by driving through them a formerly-resisted road, now called Rashid Street. Baghdad was re-captured by British forces in 1917: General Maude landed at the steps of the residency on 11 March and it became his Army headquarters. The British installed a Civil Commissioner at Baghdad and the appointee, Sir Percy Cox, also moved into the buildings with his staff (which included Gertrude Bell). Successive Civil Commissioners remained in occupation until 1921, after which the military became the sole occupants. Later, when the Royal Air Force was about to move out in 1928, the question arose as to whether or not to dispose of this former residency site. As an interim measure, it was leased to the Iraqi government, and the departments of customs and of posts and telegraphs duly moved in. Seven years later, in 1936, the property was sold to the Iraqi government. [? now what]
In 1920, Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations to govern Mesopotamia. Responsibility for doing so was transferred from the India Office to the Colonial Office, and Cox was appointed High Commissioner. The Amir Faisal became king of Iraq in July 1921.
There was no prospect of the military vacating the former residence in time for the new High Commission. Another property was therefore bought for it by the last Civil Commissioner on the opposite west (right) side of the river at Sharia Salah Ud-Din. It was a large building in about six and a half acres, previously known as the palace of Kadhim Pasha, which was quickly converted into offices. The construction of an entirely new large house on the river bank, next to the original house, had already been started. This compound, which became known as the Tigris compound, was occupied by the High Commission in 1921, although Cox had to remain in temporary quarters for another year before the new residence was completed. (Baghdad had completely overlooked telling the Colonial Office about the purchase of this compound and subsequent expenditure on it. The money was eventually found, but the whole project was ridiculed because it was so expensive (an alleged £165,000) for such an ordinary result.)
Britain’s mandate expired in 1932 and Iraq became an independent country. The High Commission site became Britain’s new embassy and the Office of Works took over responsibility for the property. The compound was enlarged in 1932 by the purchase of just under two acres to regularise the north-west boundary and remove some Arab tenements. The office building was extensively reconstructed in 1935, and the swimming pool was built in 1944.
The Second World War started with Britain and Iraq as allies but events gradually drove them apart. The low point was reached when four hundred or so British and a few other civilians had to take refuge in the embassy compound throughout May 1941. There were numerous proposals and discussions during the next ten years about new embassy buildings. Most ambassadors disliked the 1922 residence, not least because it was now the wrong way round: the house was designed for arrival by launch and entry on the river side, whereas arrival later became mostly by car and through the back door. The addition of the ballroom, billiards room and so-called Palm Court in [?when] had also left many of the rooms too dark. The ambassador in 1946, Hugh Stonehewer-Bird, favoured extensive rebuilding of the residence and offices around the existing buildings while they remained in use. Kenneth Judd, the Ministry of Works architect in Cairo, produced a scheme later that year but it was too awful to find any favour. JM Wilson, of Wilson and Mason Partners, private architects of 3 Chandos Place, London W1, was brought in to do better. He proposed a new residence at the north end of the riverbank and a three [?] storey curved office building at the other side of the site, facing a road circus (and moving the statue of General Maude to the centre of the circus).
No scheme came to anything, mainly because the Baghdad embassy could not command sufficient priority to justify the capital expenditure. The offices therefore remained over-crowded and outmoded, and overspill space was provided by some of the outbuildings and by renting premises elsewhere for the consulate and other public sections.
The termination of the mandate in 1932 enabled an entirely separate property deal to be done, though it turned into a tortured transaction. In 1920, the British government had bought, as part of its holdings in the Iraqi railways, a 24 acre site in West Baghdad, at Sharia el Mansour, about half a mile due south of the embassy. In 1932, it asked for this site to be withdrawn from railway assets, so as to be available for future embassy use. The freehold was accordingly transferred and registered in 1933, though doubts about the validity of the transaction lingered on until finally cleared in 1949. The embassy was keen to make good use of the site quickly and in 1934 proposed that thirteen staff houses should be built on it but the Office of Works turned them down as uneconomic. In 1937, the Treasury rejected a case for building just a single counsellor’s house. In the event, only St George’s church and a vicarage were built before the Second World War, in 1936 and 1939 respectively, on a sub-leased part of the site at the north corner.
After Britain re-occupied Iraq in 1941, its armed forces used the West Bank site (by then, often referred to as the Church site) as a rest camp until 1947. In 1948, Wilson and Mason Partners superseded another poor Cairo design for about twenty houses and as many flats for the West site. The Treasury did at one stage give approval for thirty flats at the site but more detailed work showed that they would be uneconomic compared to current rental rates. There was, however, one positive event at this site: in late-1954, it was the venue for a large trade fair organised by the Federation of British Industries.