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UK in Thailand

London 15:51, 25 Feb 2013
Bangkok 22:51, 25 Feb 2013
Last updated at 11:48 (UK time) 11 Aug 2010

Embassy history

Ambassador's residence

The Ambassador's Residence

The first British Consul in Bangkok

Mr. Charles Batten Hillier, took up his post in 1856 shortly after the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1855, negotiated by Sir John Bowring, came into force (5 April 1856). Weakened by dysentery, he went to convalesce in the South, but on returning to attend to urgent business he died on 18 October 1856. Mr. Hillier is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok. His place was taken by Mr Bell, who remained Acting Consul until Sir John Bowring, British Ambassador to Siam, (Resident in Hong Kong), sent Mr Gingell to Bangkok to succeed Mr.Hillier.

The first Consuls appointed to Siam rented premises in the Bang Kholaem District of Southern Bangkok, but Mr Gingell looked for more permanent quarters. As a gesture of generosity, King Mongkut assisted in the appropriation of land (on a piece of ground adjacent to the Portuguese Consulate on the bank of the river,) as a site for the British Consulate and presented it to Mr Gingell. As a further mark of generosity King Mongkut made a loan of Ticals 16,000 to enable Mr Gingell to construct a building on the new site while waiting for the transfer of funds from the Foreign Office in London.  

The first British Consul to inhabit the British Consulate, completed about 1876, was Sir Robert Schomburgk. Other buildings later added included a row of servants’ quarters, two jails in 1880 and 1890, two courthouses in 1902 and 1907,  a house for the Consular Assistant, an office building in 1890, and eventually a house for the Minister when the Consulate was raised to the status of a Legation in 1895.

When Sir Ralph Paget arrived in Bangkok in 1902 to take charge of the Legation he found the position of the Legation both noisy and polluted. River craft of various kinds including steam launches passed up and down throughout the day and night, sounding their sirens continuously. Opposite the Legation on the opposite bank two rice mills were in operation and a third under construction. The two active rice mills had hooters which they constantly sounded, and whenever the wind blew from the East the whole compound was smothered with paddy-ash. By 1905 electrical trams were plying up and down New Road rattling and clanging their bells. An Italian lady by the name of Madame Staro, assisted by a bevy of younger ladies, ran a bar immediately opposite the Legation. Performances on the piano and other musical instruments, quite apart from other entertainments, attracted an enthusiastic clientele. A temple of uncertain religious persuasion next to the Consulate rang a bell for morning prayers at 5 o’clock each day.

When eventually Sir Ralph Paget had been confirmed in his appointment and rose to the rank of Minister Plenipotentiary, he proposed to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Works in London that the time had come for a change of site. His idea at the time was to acquire land in the vicinity of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. The response from London was neither enthusiastic nor helpful; indeed, in the time-honoured way of handling unwelcome requests for funds, London avoided any commitment or even comment. But as Sir Ralph became progressively involved with so many other important matters, particularly the negotiations on the abolition of extra-territorial jurisdiction and border problems, he found that he had little time to worry about river noises, the constant ash-plague and the activities of neighbouring young ladies.

The Thai authorities had however by this time appreciated that the British Government were not all that satisfied with the site of the Legation and proposals were put forward that, if a new site was found, then the present site would be ideal to establish Bangkok’s Central Post Office. But the wheels of the bureaucratic machine in both Bangkok and London continued to grind at a snail’s pace. In 1914 World War I broke out and it was not until the end of the war in 1919, when Mr Richard Sturgis Seymour arrived as Minister, that the Thai Government made a definite offer to provide a new site in exchange for the old Legation compound. But when Sir Robert (Hyde) Greg became Minister at the end of 1921 he was at first not particularly excited with the idea of a change of site. He and his wife were both people of artistic taste and the archaic buildings of the old compound and the river site appealed to their aesthetic taste. Sir Robert in particular was horrified at the thought of being obliged to live in a house designed by an architect from the Ministry of Works.

Land acquired

Fortunately the Vice-Consul at the time, Mr W A R Wood, visited England in 1922 and was able to assist in the preparation of draft plans for the main Residence in the compound. Mr Wood had been responsible for the original draft plans of the new Consulates at Songkhla and Chiang Mai and happily his ideas for Bangkok found favour. On his return to Bangkok, Sir Robert expressed pleasure at Mr Wood’s endeavours and his objections to changing residence were somewhat mollified. And so it was in March 1922 that an agreement was made under which the present site of the British Embassy was acquired from Phraya Pakdi Noraseth, popularly known as Nai Lert, who at that time owned the whole of the park between Ploenchit Road and the large klong which runs parallel with Petchburi Road. The British Government acquired about half of this park, or some 12 acres (28 rai) from Nai Lert (who passed away on 15 December 1945 at the age of 73). His daughter, Khunying Lursakdi, who is married to Khun Binich Sampatisiri, inherited the balance of the estate, part of which is the site of the Nai Lert Park Hotel.

Move to new site

At the time this new site was on the outskirts of Bangkok. Ploenchit Road ended about half a mile further on. Not surprisingly there were complaints that the British Legation was moving too far away from the centre of the city. Sir Robert found it necessary to respond to a critical editorial in one of the Bangkok newspapers. The change was far from popular, particularly with those firms which were connected with the shipping business. The captains of British ships, which then called at Bangkok in considerable numbers, were required to enter and clear their vessels at the British Consulate-General in the Legation and they complained that a great deal of their limited time was wasted in going to and from the new premises. Many British subjects, particularly Indians, Burmese and Malays, also expressed their discontent because buses and trams at that time did not pass near to the new site. Some thought was given to meeting these objections by maintaining a Consular and Shipping Office near the old site, but the expense of obtaining land in the area was found to be too high.

As the new site was on the outskirts of Bangkok, it was possible not only to acquire the land, but also to pay for the cost of the new buildings from the proceeds of the sale of the old river site – about £110,000. Queen Victoria’s statue and the flagpole were both moved to their present positions from the old Legation. Queen Victoria’s statue was, in the words on the plinth, “erected in loving memory by her subjects in Siam 1903”. The statue is particularly respected by Thai students; the late Queen’s intercessions may have assisted academic achievement in Bangkok. The statue was boarded up during World War II, but the Japanese kindly provided a peephole so that Her late Majesty should not be upset. The War Memorial was paid for by British residents in Thailand and was erected at the beginning of 1923. It was in fact the first structure on the new site.

The buildings in the compound were completed in 1926. The Head of Mission, Minister and Envoy Plenipotentiary, Sir Robert Greg, entered into residence on 22 September 1926, a little later than he had hoped. But he remarked philosophically in a letter to the Foreign Office before the end of August, “What is a few weeks’ delay when you have built almost for eternity?”.

An attractive feature of the Residence dining room is the punkah, which was brought from the old Legation Residence. Another curiosity is the “gun emplacement” sited on the corner of Ploenchit and Wireless Roads which marked the limits of Nai Lert’s property.  When Nai Lert bought the land between Ploenchit Road and Klong Saen Saep he marked it off with stone boundary markers shaped like huge cannons stuck in the ground – there were six in all.  Only one remains on the corner of the British Embassy.  A previous marker outside the hotel entrance shaped like a bullet was destroyed in a car crash in 2003.

Sir Robert Greg had urged the importance of open planning for the new compound. He spoke about “the relation of space to health” and went on to report that “the climate of Bangkok is such that none ever goes out of doors if he can help it between 9 a.m. and 4.30 p.m.”. It was largely as a result of his insistence that the attractive klong behind the Residence was included in the compound. This klong had been dug out some years previously in order to provide infill for levelling the whole of the Nai Lert Park and was much used for boating and bathing parties at weekends. Nobody swims there nowadays.

The British Legation became an embassy in 1947

Mr Geoffrey Harrington Thompson, former Minister and Envoy Extraordinary, became the first British Ambassador to Thailand in that year.

In 1974 a new complex was added providing modern air conditioned office accommodation. The foundation stone for this new building was laid by HM Queen Elizabeth II during her State Visit to Thailand in February 1972.

Several members of the British Royal Family have visited the Residence. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II came during her State visit in 1972 and 1996, HRH Prince Philip in 1968 and 1972. HRH Princess Anne in 1978, HRH The Duke of Kent in 1987 HRH Princess Alexandra on several occasions, most recently in 2003, and HRH Prince Andrew in 2006.