The Mission House is the backbone of the diplomatic estate.
An early ambassador, if an embassy, or a minister, if a legation, lived and worked in the Mission House, along with his family, official secretary, any attaches, chaplain, nanny and domestic staff – an entourage that could easily add up to 20 people.
The Head of Mission had personal responsibility for finding and leasing the house. In some cases, landlords were prepared to lease over long periods to successive Heads of Mission. In others, each succeeding Head of Mission had to find his own house: in Washington, for example, the legation moved 10 times in 60 years.
It was Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who paved the way for the British Government to relieve Head of Missions of having to provide their own accommodation. Arriving in Constantinople in 1799, and finding the house that had been leased for a century by his predecessors too decrepit to occupy, he induced the Sultan to offer a site, and a sum of money, so that the British Government could build for itself a “fixed establishment”. Elgin set out the full case in a detailed despatch of 1801 and began building the next year to a design based on his own house in Scotland. (2)
Elgin’s building was the foundation stone, so to speak, of the whole diplomatic estate. It was followed by the building of a Mission House in Tehran in 1813. And by the purchase of Paris in 1814. (3)
It was not many years, however, before the trials and penalties of the Govt owning property became apparent: Elgin’s house caught fire in 1831 and its replacement was not completed until 1855 (4). In Tehran, the city area round the house became so congested that it could hardly be reached. And in Paris, it was proving ludicrously expensive to maintain the house, and to keep altering it to suit incumbents’ whims (though one should bear in mind that the few ambassadorial incumbents at that time were ranked as the equals of cabinet ministers).
The Treasury was appalled by the costs of ownership, and had no faith in the Foreign Office’s ability to manage this new responsibility. So the Treasury turned to the Royal Engineers and the Office of Works to introduce the necessary rigour – with the result that the Office of Works and its various successors remained responsible for the estate for the next 160 years, until 1983.
Permanent Mission Houses
The costs, however, were not the only problem. Many politicians, as well as senior Foreign Office staff, were deeply opposed to the principle of the Government housing its diplomats overseas. It was not until 1872, when a Select Committee Report came down in favour of permanent Mission Houses, that further progress was made in Europe.
What was achieved in Europe between 1850 and 1900 was partly by stealth. Where Ministers’ leases in Europe were coming up for renewal, or new houses were required, the Office of Works took the leases in its own name, and subsequently bought each house when the political coast was clear.
This was the sequence in Lisbon (5). Also the sequence in Madrid, Copenhagen, Athens, Brussels, Rome and Berlin (6). Several Mission Houses were built on acquired land during the same period. Most notably in Vienna (7) and Washington (8).
Heads of Mission remained responsible for maintaining and furnishing their Mission Houses but, as the personal wealth of incumbents declined, the Office of Works picked up more and more of the bills. From the mid-1870s, for example, it became responsible for funding the furnishing of the State Rooms (specifically designated as required for State Receptions) in each Mission House.
It took a long time to convince the Treasury that in much of the world it was not practicable to buy or lease property, least of all Mission Houses, because there was simply nothing suitable available. In these places, acquiring a site and building on it was the only option. This applied pre-eminently in the Far East. In China alone, Britain opened 48 consulates (and a legation) in the eighty or so years following the First Opium War of 1842.
First experiences in China were dreadful, and drove the Treasury in 1866 to send a Major Crossman of the Royal Engineers to Shanghai to bring order to the property chaos of the dozen or so consulates already established in the Far East. Crossman was soon joined by a Robert Boyce, a civilian surveyor, and they established an Office of Works outstation that lasted in Shanghai until 1950. That office designed and built 35 consulates in China alone, and others all over the Far East.
Their success largely rested on Royal Engineer construction experience in India: simple plans, sturdy construction, plenty of shade and ventilation, and good supervision. Examples include Foochow (9), completed 1869; and Hankow (10), completed 1883. One of the best Far East consulates was at Seoul (11), completed 1891.