Canada House: A History

“Canada has had no such day in England before!”
29 June 1925

Peter Larkin, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom

Early in 1922, a Canadian tea merchant named Peter Larkin arrived in London. He was a natural marketer who had created Canada’s iconic Salada Tea brand and he set out to put a new face on Canada in the UK. From the time he was appointed High Commissioner to the United Kingdom on 10 February, by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, he was charged with consolidating all of Canada’s activities in Britain – Larkin found Canadian enterprises and services scattered throughout the city.

It took a year to find the right site, but eventually Larkin settled on the Union Club on the western side of Trafalgar Square. Just a block away from the Grand Trunk Railway building (which is adorned with the crests of Canada’s provinces) and across the road from the Canadian Pacific Railway’s UK headquarters, the Union Club’s stately Greek Revival building was originally constructed between 1823 and 1829 to designs by Sir Robert Smirke, the renowned architect of the British Museum and the Royal Opera House. It had been a prestigious gentlemen’s haunt, frequented by the likes of the Duke of Wellington, Cecil Rhodes, and Charles Dickens, when Canada acquired it in 1923.

Trafalgar Square, 1897 (© The Francis Frith Collection)
Trafalgar Square, 1897 (© The Francis Frith Collection)

Canada bought the building for C$1million. Renovations, under the guidance of architect Septimus Warwick, cost C$1.3million at the time. The building was extensively remodelled, the plumbing system was replaced, the exterior reclad in Portland stone and the entrance moved from Trafalgar Square to Cockspur Street. Warwick was determined that the building should be a window on Canada, and ensured the High Commission’s new home reflected the very best contemporary Canadian craftsmanship.

Entrance hall, 1925
Entrance hall, 1925

On 29 June, 1925, Peter Larkin handed King George V a set of keys fashioned in precious metals from Canadian mines. Keys were also entrusted to Queen Mary, to Larkin himself, and later to Mackenzie King, who had remained in Canada to address the parliamentary budget. With his key, King George unlocked the heavy bronze doors and Canada House was officially open. An assortment of high-ranking officials, dukes and princes of the Empire attended to celebrate the lavish occasion.

The decades that followed saw the Depression, World War II, and the subsequent trade boom. Through it all, Canada’s relationship with the UK flourished. Throughout the Depression and the privations of wartime, thousands of Canadians came to serve the cause of freedom, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their British counterparts. As a result of the heightened diplomatic environment and growth in trade of the post-war years, Canada’s presence in the UK became ever more pronounced. Canada needed more room.

In 1964, Canada House expanded next door, acquiring the lease to the adjacent Royal College of Physicians. Once work to unify the two buildings was complete, Canada occupied the entire western front of Trafalgar Square. Around the same time, Canada also acquired the building that had previously been the American Embassy at 1 Grosvenor Square, and renamed it Macdonald House, in 1963.

In 2012, Canada decided to unite the High Commission once again. It acquired 2–4 Cockspur Street, the former Sun Life Assurance building, immediately west of Canada House. The building was the home of the Canadian Army’s operations in London during World War II. The acquisition was the first step in a plan to bring every facet of the High Commission’s activity under one roof on Trafalgar Square.

Now, as Canada House reopens its doors and the venerable building’s 100th Canadian birthday approaches, Canada can look forward to another century at, in the words of Mackenzie King:

“the finest site in London and, being in London, the finest in the world.”

Mackenzie King

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