Switzerland in London: 200 years of Anglo/Swiss History

The link between Britain and Switzerland has always been a strong one.

Lacking in mountains, Britons have always found the Alps a powerful draw, and without a coastline, the Swiss have found the island of Great Britain fascinating.

In 1865, Briton Edward Whymper became the first man to summit Zermatt’s Matterhorn and six years later in 1871, Lucy Walker was the first woman to reach the peak (a feat that celebrates its 150th anniversary this year).

However, it hasn’t been one-way traffic. In the early 18th century, several families emigrated from Switzerland to England and by the late-19th century a Swiss community had developed around Leicester Square in central London.

(c) Financial Times

The Swiss Centre, Leicester Square

Now better known by children as the location of ‘M&M’s World’, The Swiss Centre building in Leicester Square was created to showcase Swiss culture and encourage tourists to visit Switzerland.

The Swiss Centre, designed by David Aberdeen in the Modernist style of architecture, opened in 1968.

It featured a Swiss bank, the London branches of Switzerland Tourism and Swiss Air, a café, several Swiss-themed restaurants and a souvenir shop (stocked with lots of chocolate, naturally).

The building was demolished in 2008. The Glockenspiel (see below) from the facade was preserved and reconstructed. The area officially renamed ‘Swiss Court’ by the Lord Mayor of Westminster as a token of the lasting friendship between Switzerland and the UK.

The Swiss Glockenspiel

This famous working glockenspiel was fitted at the Swiss Centre in 1985 and remained there until 2008 when the building was knocked down.

In 2010, the Glockenspiel was redesigned and restored by clockmakers Smith of Derby.  

It features Swiss figures that move against a traditional Swiss backdrop, with images of all the Swiss cantons. With 27 bells and four bell ringers make sure you take the time to enjoy the five-minute performance when the bells chime at certain points during the day.

Charlie Chaplin Statue, Leicester Square

Another sign of the connections between Switzerland and Great Britain is the statue of Charlie Chaplin, also in Leicester Square.

Chaplin lived from 1952 until his death in 1977 in Vevey on the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). His former home in Switzerland is now a museum dedicated to his life’s work.

The work of sculptor John Doubleday, the statue portrays the actor and director in his best-known role as ‘The Tramp’ with his signature cane. It was unveiled in 1981.

‘The Sun and 13 Cantons’

From the mid-19th century, a distinct community of Swiss nationals grew around Soho and Leicester Square.

The Sun and 13 Cantons‘ pub on Great Pulteney Street in London opened in 1756. The unique name comes from the pub’s association with the Swiss watch-making community that worked in the area.

The word ‘Canton’ refers to the Swiss word for their equivalent ‘counties’. At the time there were 12 cantons in Switzerland, and Soho’s large Swiss community became known as the ‘13th Canton’.

The building that housed the original pub was rebuilt after a fire, and when it reopened in 1882, the ‘13 Cantons’ was added as a tribute to its Swiss patrons.

The Swiss Church (Eglise Helvétique)

The ‘Eglise Helvétique’ was founded in 1762 by a group of expatriate Swiss and the first ‘Helvetic Chapel’ was built near Moor Street in Soho in 1775.

Funded by contributions from the cities of Geneva and Bern, the church was an integral part of the Swiss community and until 1817, the pastor was even the official issuer of passports to Swiss citizens in London.

swiss church

‘Swiss Cottage’

‘The Swiss Tavern’ was an inn built in 1841, in the traditional Swiss style on Finchley Road.

Due to its distinctive appearance, the cottage became associated with the area and eventually gave the district its name. The building is now a public house, charmingly called ‘Ye Olde Swiss Cottage’.


Anton Mosimann was the only child of restauranteurs in the Jura area of Switzerland.

When he came to London, he was appointed Maitre Chef des Cuisines at the Dorchester at the age of 28 – the youngest ever to hold this position. While at the Dorchester, it became the first restaurant outside France to receive two Michelin stars.

In 1988, he founded the private dining club ‘Mosimann’s‘ in Belgravia, offering exemplary cuisine, wines and bespoke service, set in a stunningly-converted 19th century Scottish Presbyterian church.

Over the years, Mosimann’s has cooked for many important state functions and since 2000 has held a Royal Warrant of Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales for Catering Services.

Holidays in Zermatt

If you’d like to make your own links with Switzerland – whether British or not – then please contact Ed or Suzanne at Matterhorn Chalets.

We offer self-catered apartments and serviced chalets as well as offering a concierge service.

chalets in Zermatt

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