Calling a head office "[company] Towers" - where does that come from?
June 1, 2015 5:16 AM   Subscribe

I have noticed that in the UK people will sometimes refer to the (head) office of a company as "[Company name] Towers", even if the building is not in a tower, and it's not officially called a tower. Where does this come from?

I first encountered it a few years ago on an internet forum for scientists, where some people referred to the offices of Nature Publishing Group as "Nature Towers". I thought it was just a funny phrase introduced by some people there, but ever since I moved to the UK I am seeing and hearing it in different contexts. For example, the Twitter account handle for popular UK parenting site Mumsnet is @MumsnetTowers

I tried Googling the phrase with some other big companies, and found online references to "BBC Towers" and "Google Towers" - the latter for the office in Dublin, so it seems to extend to Ireland as well. In all cases, it was often how people who work at an office called their own office. Although I searched for bog companies (to make sure I found something), I've heard people use it for tiny businesses, jokingly. It's worth noting that in most cases there is no actual tower involved. The company might even share the building with other companies and still call their office "[company] Towers".

I asked on Twitter if someone knew where this phrase came from, and got a variety of answers, none of which seemed 100% satisfying. This is what Twitter said:

-Something to do with Fawlty Towers. (I doubt this. rather, it seems that they named Basil Fawlty's little hotel according to this "Towers" phrasing.)
-Ivory towers. (Seems too academic for most of these uses.)
-Dating from a time when companies built skyscrapers for offices. (This one seems plausible, but where does the joke of naming even small companies "X Towers" come from then?)
-Some connection to the BT/Post Office tower? (I don't think so. That's a REAL tower.)
-Someone mentioned seeing it for the first time in the 1990s, in ST Format Magazine.
-Someone else suggested it's a joke originating in some post-war comedy, such as Round The Horne.

Here's my tweet with all these responses.

Does anyone at Metafilter Towers have any definitive source for this phrase?

So far I'm most convinced by it originating in a post-war comedy, and then entering popular speech (and the Fawlty Towers writing room).
posted by easternblot to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of very big companies have/had offices in towers. For me, referring to a small company as being in a tower is just a joke.
posted by gorcha at 5:24 AM on June 1, 2015

Response by poster: But where does the joke come from? And why does it seem to be so UK-specific?
The first time I saw it I thought someone just made it up as their own joke until I saw it so many times. It's a meme, it started somewhere.
posted by easternblot at 5:29 AM on June 1, 2015

Referring to a small office as a grandiose Company Towers is classic British irony I guess, but I have no idea of the origin. My first frame of reference is innocent drinks who always refer to their HQ as Fruit Towers, but I was certainly aware of the joke/meme formation before then.

I asked innocent if they are aware of an etymology, (Since they tend to engage on these sorts of matters) so I'll let you know what they say.

Actually, this is an excellent question for Answer Me This, so I asked them too.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:15 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

There is also the original Doctor Who episode where a hellish apartment block that kills people is ironically called "Paradise Towers." That's from 1987 but I'm sure it was an old joke by then.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:19 AM on June 1, 2015

Best answer: Someone mentioned seeing it for the first time in the 1990s, in ST Format Magazine.

It was definitely used in the 80s among 8-bit magazines. I think the reference derives to some extent from IPC's Kings Reach Tower, aka IPC Towers. That's partly because of its place in the 2000AD alien mythos, but mainly because IPC was such a huge publisher, responsible for all sorts of magazines. Smaller magazine outfits, especially those outside London, called themselves 'Towers' in jesting emulation. It doesn't quite explain the plural.
posted by holgate at 6:19 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

ITV use it internally. Ironically.
posted by Leon at 6:23 AM on June 1, 2015

My guess would be that its ironic usage based on "x towers" being an ancestral family home indicating high class background (and hence why Fawlty Towers). Don't really have any evidence though, except to mention Enid Blyton's Malory Towers books where its the name of the school.
posted by crocomancer at 6:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

A number of stately homes have "towers" in their name, most often in the plural. I wonder if the idea of calling a headquarters by the name "Soandso Towers" is a mocking reference to the time when businesses were personally controlled by wealthy individual owners. This kind of ownership and control existed at least into the 1950s.
posted by Thing at 6:30 AM on June 1, 2015

Vickers Tower - '63. Shell Tower = '61.

Could we be looking at 60s companies aping academia's "Ivory Towers", in the same way that the MSGoogleApplePlex have campuses? An odd kind of corporate social climbing?

(On preview I think I prefer crcomancer's theory).

Searching this page for the word "towers" suggests a simpler explanation - "tower block" is a British synonym for "skyscraper", lots of them have "Towers" in their name, and lots of them have large company headquarters in them.
posted by Leon at 6:33 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've not read it (yet) but Trollope wrote Barchester Towers (1857); it seems to revolve around a cathedral.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:34 AM on June 1, 2015

In French a company headquarters is a "siège" or seat - this is the same sort of usage as we see in English applied to the stately homes of aristocratic families. If you go back far enough these were literally towers - and they have continued to feature them in architectural reference since Tudor times. I think it is this kind of tower - rather than an American skyscraper - which people are talking about in the UK - one works for Snodgrass Limited which is owned by Lord Snodgrass resident of Snodgrass Towers. I don't think there is a particular meme here - just a long tradition.
posted by rongorongo at 6:47 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ooh this is such an interesting question. I (UK) have used it myself when making light-hearted posts from work social media accounts. To me it's an ironic use, joking that your company/organisation is much grander than it is - implying that it's both large enough and ancient enough to occupy some kind of stately home (and enjoying the ridiculousness of that suggestion), rather than the reality of a mundane serviced office in an out-of-town business park. Hadn't occurred to me that it might be taken to mean a kind of 60s office tower block.

It has a kind of Wodehousian ring to me - I can imagine Bertie Wooster getting back to his flat in London and refering to them as "Wooster Towers" as a jokey echo of somewhere like Totleigh Towers.
posted by penguin pie at 6:47 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To second holgate's suggestion that this may have been popularised by 1980s journalism, even if it didn't originate there. Growing up in that decade I saw this phrase used first in 8-bit computer magazines, then into 16-bit versions (like ST Format) as journalists from the former migrated onto the latter - and then into other magazines more widely. I seem to remember seeing it in the NME in the 1990s, for example.

Towers certainly were symbolic of a particular kind of British company in the 1960s, though (there's Millbank Tower in addition to those listed above, which was seen as sufficiently futuristic to be used in Dr Who and other series in the 1960s). I suppose part of what makes it so long-lived is that it gestures back both to that period and to the nineteenth-century usage as the suffix for a large country house.
posted by greycap at 6:52 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I seem to remember seeing it in the NME in the 1990s, for example.

NME is an IPC magazine, so it came out of Kings Reach Tower. So did Melody Maker, for that matter. Print magazines had a huge influence on 80s culture, especially those aimed at young men (music and computers) and growing up far away from London, the idea of so many of them coming out of a big tower carried some mystique.
posted by holgate at 7:19 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Google books turns up a 1983 reference to ‘IPC Towers’ in a snippet from The Illustrated London News.
posted by misteraitch at 7:27 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think you are collectively onto something here, and I think there are TWO uses of "Towers": Fawlty Towers is parodying the grand and stately homes with "Towers" in the name, but the "Company Towers" expression looks like it might indeed have been popularised in 1980s publishing as a reference to big-companies-in-towers.
posted by easternblot at 8:37 AM on June 1, 2015

Google books turns up a 1983 reference to ‘IPC Towers’

Although I think the plural there is referring to both Kent House and King's Reach Tower collectively, so isn't being used in quite the same way.

Here is an example of the sort holgate cites dating back to 1986 - the magazine being Zzap!64, which was published by Newsfield, a Shropshire-based publisher specialising in computer magazines. So its use there is almost definitely a self-disparaging nod to bigger publications. I have tried googling back issues of the NME and other IPC titles to find an earlier use of the suffix, but without luck - am pretty sure there will be examples from earlier in the 1980s, though.
posted by greycap at 1:10 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ooh, ooh - all this talk of 1980s music publishing has suddenly rung another bell for me - Peel Acres is how the late, and much lamented, DJ John Peel used to refer to his family home in Suffolk, with exactly the same ring of irony.

It's really relevant here I think, because he would have been broadcasting to exactly the same audience as the magazine readership we're talking about - youth in the suburbs, dreaming of London.

From that link:

"Sheila [his wife] notes, however, that originally the name 'was simply the light-hearted title John gave to wherever he happened to be living' (he used it for his Fulham flat in his 1967-68 International Times columns, and in a 1966 column for the KMENtertainer referred to his then home in Southern California as "fabled Ravencroft* Acres")
*Ravenscroft was Peel's real surname

Which points to this kind of usage being common in that world at least as far back as the mid 60s.
posted by penguin pie at 1:30 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sorry, that link to Zzap!64 is not working - this one ought to do it. Content of the article reproduced here.
posted by greycap at 1:36 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great question!

I do this (as do a few of my writers) frequently over on London Reconnections, refering to "LR Towers." The usage is always a self-disparaging nod to bigger publications, and - having now properly throught about why for the first time - it is absolutely because of seeing it in old games mags / NME etc. whilst growing up.

Checking with a few of the writers confirms that chimes with them as well that way, although for the slightly older ones it is more about music magazines than games magazines.

So I'd absolutely agree that, whatever the origin it is, at least for a fair few people, something we saw done in the eighties / early nineties that stuck in our minds subconsciously and has thus entered our own writing styles.

How fascinating.
posted by garius at 5:47 AM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

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