Dolphin Square

Above: View looking west at the 10-storey front which overlooks the Thames beside Grosvenor Road.

It may be a good idea to start by explaining that the name Dolphin Square is not the name for a London square – like Trafalgar Square or Parliament Square. The estate stands near the River Thames, in Pimlico. It is, in fact, the name for a very large block of flats which when built were laid out in the form of a square around a very large garden. When completed, the 7.5-acre site, with 1,250 flats was the largest apartment block in Europe, designed by Cecil Eve and Gordon Jeeves.

Dolphin Square stands on the site of the former works of the developer and builder Thomas Cubitt who created the surrounding Pimlico district in the 19th century. The Royal Army Clothing Depot was built on the site after Cubitt’s death and stood there until 1933 when the leasehold on the site reverted to the Duke of Westminster. An American company, the Fred F French Companies, bought the freehold for the site from the Duke with plans to build a large residential development but after finding they lacked the funds to continue they sold the site to Richard Costain Ltd, run by Richard Rylands Costain. New plans were drawn up by the architect S Gordon Jeeves and construction started in September 1935. It was officially opened by Lord Amulree on 25 November 1936.

In 1958, Costain sold Dolphin Square for £2.4 million to Sir Maxwell Joseph, who sold it to Lintang Investments in 1959 for £3.1 million. Westminster City Council then bought the lease of the block for £4.5 million in the mid-1960s and subsequently sub-let it to the Dolphin Square Trust, which acted as a housing association, newly created for the purpose. In January 2006, the Trust and the Council sold Dolphin Square to the American Westbrook Holdings group for £200 million.

Accommodation is provided in 13 blocks, each named after a famous navigator or admiral. On the south side (facing the Thames) the names are Grenville, Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins. Names on the west side are Nelson, Howard, Beatty and Duncan. A hotel and administrative offices occupy Dolphin House, on the north side of the Square, previously known as Rodney. On the east side, the names are Keyes, Hood, Collingwood and Frobisher. Each block of flats had its own porter, a service that continued until 2005. The estate contains a swimming pool, bar, brasserie, gymnasium and shopping arcade. In the basement are a launderette and a car park.

Dolphin Square was designed in neo-Georgian style, having a reinforced concrete frame with external facings of brick and stone. Original soundproofing was provided by compressed cork insulation on the floors. The original cost for construction was about £2 million. In total, it was estimated that 200,000 tonnes of earth were moved, 125,000 tons of concrete used, 12 million bricks used on the external walls and 6,700 Crittal windows installed during construction.

When it opened, Dolphin Square had flats varying in size from one-bedroom suites to flats with five bedrooms, a maid’s room and three bathrooms. On-site facilities provided for residents when completed included shops, a children’s centre and nursery, a library, a swimming pool and, in the basement, a garage for up to 300 cars. The planned riverside wharf, which would have included a cafe, marina and a terraced garden leading from Grosvenor Road to the Thames, was planned but never built.

Dolphin Square was built decades before the first council blocks appeared in Britain. At that time, apartment buildings in Britain were sufficiently unusual that some people referred to them as “French flats”. Whereas previous city housing blocks had been built for the very rich (like the vast Kensington apartments with seven or eight rooms apiece) or the very poor (like charitable blocks on the Peabody estates that replaced Victorian slums), Dolphin Square was part of a new phenomenon.

At the centre of the estate, the communal gardens were designed by Richard Sudell, president of the Institute of Landscape Architects. The gardens were listed Grade II in 2018. The surrounding buildings have not been listed. The gardens are a mix of formal and informal planting with expanses of lawn, with areas themed to reflect garden styles from different parts of the world. There are also a tennis court and croquet lawn which overlook the Thames. The gardens and buildings form part of the Dolphin Square conservation area.

Across the river from Dolphin Square stands Battersea Power Station. It was one of many power stations built beside the Thames. Essentially, there were two reasons for siting them beside the river. Firstly, they were initially coal-powered and the coal could be transported by sea and then up the Thames for easy delivery. Secondly, the power stations were built beside the river to provide them with a plentiful source of water cooling. Instead of just dissipating the heat from Battersea Power Station into the Thames, from 1950, the hot water from the power station was piped under the Thames to provide hot water and heating for the flats at Dolphin Square. All that came to an end in 1975 when the power station was decommissioned.

About 4,000 people live at Dolphin Square. Its proximity to (1) the Palace of Westminster, (2) the headquarters of the intelligence agencies MI5 (at Thames House) and (3) MI6 (at Vauxhall Cross) has attracted many politicians, peers, civil servants and intelligence agency personnel as residents. In 1940, at the start of the Second World War, the ‘blackshirt’ leader Oswald Mosley was arrested in his Dolphin Square flat and driven to Holloway Prison. During the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle based his Free France government at Dolphin Square. It acted as the headquarters for the French Army.

Dolphin Square was also associated with the Profumo affair, topless showgirls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. Keeler had a flat at the square. The Profumo affair was one of the largest British political scandals of the 20th century. John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, had an extramarital affair with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler beginning in 1961. All that seems a long time ago and is probably best laid to rest.

Being such a large estate, it is hard to characterise Dolphin Square in a few sentences. When built, it led the way in 1930s living – being designed for those from different classes of society and many varied occupations to live in and enjoy. With its up-market image today, it is now home to the more well members of society.


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Huskisson, William (Memorial)

Above: Statue of William Huskisson in Pimlico Gardens.

William Huskisson (11 March 1770 – 15 September 1830), British statesman, financier and Member of Parliament for several constituencies, including Liverpool. He became a distinguished MP who led a busy life. He is remembered for his tragic death as the result of a railway accident.

Huskisson’s Political Career

Huskisson became a politician at the time of William Pitt the Younger, who was Prime Minister of the day. On the retirement of Pitt in 1801, Huskisson also resigned from office. Having been chosen to represent Liskeard in 1804, he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, on the restoration of the Pitt administration, holding the office until it ended, on the death of Pitt in January 1806. After being elected for Harwich in 1807, he accepted the same office under the Duke of Portland but he withdrew from the appointment along with Canning in 1809.

When in 1814 Huskisson re-entered public service, this time as First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, his influence was more important in commercial and financial legislation. He took a prominent part in the debates over the Corn Laws in 1814 and 1815. In 1819 he presented a memorandum to Lord Liverpool advocating a large reduction in the unfunded debt and devised a method for the resumption of cash payments, which was embodied in the Act passed the same year. In 1821 he was a member of the committee appointed to enquire into the causes of the agricultural distress at the time and the proposed relaxation of the Corn Laws embodied in the report was understood to have been chiefly due to his constant lobbying.

In 1823 he was appointed President of the Board of Trade and Treasurer of the Navy. Shortly afterwards he received a seat in the Cabinet. In the same year, he was returned as MP for Liverpool as the successor to Canning. He was seen as the only man who could reconcile the Tory merchants to a free trade policy. Among the more important legislative changes for which he became responsible, was a reform of the Navigation Acts, admitting other nations to full equality and reciprocity of shipping duties; the repeal of the labour laws; the introduction of a new sinking fund; the reduction of the duties on manufactures and on the importation of foreign goods; and the repeal of the quarantine duties.

In accordance with his suggestion, Canning in 1827 introduced a measure on the Corn Laws proposing the adoption of a sliding scale to regulate the amount of duty. After the death of Canning in the same year Huskisson accepted the secretaryship of the colonies under Lord Goderich, an office which he continued to hold in the new cabinet formed by the Duke of Wellington the following year.

If you have never heard of Huskisson – and very few people have – the above preamble will make you aware that he was once an important name in the Government of the day and certainly held posts of responsibility.

Details of the Railway Accident

Huskisson had been diagnosed with strangury (inflammation of the kidneys) which causes severe pain. In 1830, he had undergone surgery for his condition and was then advised by a royal doctor, William George Maton, to cancel all forthcoming appointments. The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was due to take place a few weeks later (15 September) and Huskisson chose to ignore the medical advice, believing that the opening was too important to cancel. On the day of the opening, he rode in a special train constructed for the Duke of Wellington and his guests and dignitaries, pulled by the locomotive ‘Northumbrian’ which was driven by none other than the famous engineer George Stephenson. At Parkside Station, near the midpoint of the line, the locomotive made a scheduled stop to take on coal and water. Although the company had explicitly warned passengers to remain on the trains while this took place, around fifty of the dignitaries on board alighted when the Duke of Wellington’s special train was seen arriving. Huskisson was among those who alighted.

Wellington’s train was being pulled by the engine called ‘Rocket’ and approached on a nearby line. It was being driven by Joseph Locke, George Stephenson’s assistant, who later became an eminent engineer. A shout went up, “An engine is approaching. Take care, gentlemen!” Those who had got down on the track either climbed back into their seats or stepped over the lines to be clear of the approaching train. Huskisson was known to be clumsy and had suffered a long list of injuries from several trips and falls, having twice broken his arm and never fully recovered the use of it.

On realising his danger he panicked and made two attempts to cross the other line but changed his mind and returned to the Duke’s carriage. At this point, Joseph Locke became aware of Huskisson on the line and threw the engine into reverse. Being of such great weight, it did not stop for some distance. Huskisson panicked seeing that the gap between the two trains was not wide enough and tried to clamber into the Duke’s carriage. However, the carriage door had not been latched which meant that it slowly swung open, leaving him hanging directly in the path of the oncoming engine which hit the door, throwing Huskisson onto the tracks in front of the train. When he fell, his leg was very seriously damaged by the locomotive.

He was quickly conveyed by another train waiting nearby on a makeshift stretcher to the vicarage at Eccles and a doctor was called. A tourniquet had been applied but it was not deemed possible to do an amputation. He was made comfortable with the assistance of the vicar’s wife Emma Blackburne, whose “activity, sense and conduct” were mentioned in ‘The Manchester Courier’ and ‘The Times’ and remembered with gratitude by Huskisson’s widow Emily who arrived at the vicarage from Liverpool, where she had been waiting for the official opening. Huskisson had time to make his will before he died at 9.00 pm of his injuries. He was 60 years old.

Huskisson is known for being the world’s first railway passenger casualty to be run over and wounded by a steam engine. The death and funeral of Huskisson led to wide reporting on the opening of the new railway, making people aware that cheap and rapid transport by train was now possible, even though it could be dangerous.

His remains lie buried in a monument which is the centrepiece of St James Cemetery, Liverpool. A marble statue of him was housed in a mausoleum until 1968 when it was transferred to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

The Statue in Pimlico

His wife, Emily, commissioned a second marble statue for the Customs House, in Liverpool, which was carved in 1836 by John Gibson from Carrara marble. It portrays Huskisson in Roman senator’s robes. In 1844, when Gibson travelled to England, he was not satisfied with the intended location and in 1847 Mrs Huskisson gave the statue to Lloyds of London for their offices at the Royal Exchange. Nearly 70 years later, Lloyds donated the statue to the London County Council (LCC) in 1915, who placed it in its current location in Pimlico Gardens, off Grosvenor Road. The statue is still in the gardens which are beside the River Thames.

In case you are wondering, people who knew Huskisson said that the face on the statue did not look like him. It seems that the artist treated the statue project as an exercise in Classical design with little regard for creating a personal statue.


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Neat Houses

Above: John Rocque’s small scale map of 1746 showing part of what is now Pimlico.

John Rocque’s two maps – the large scale version and the small scale one – both published in 1746 contain an enormous amount of detail which provides a rich source of information for historians and casual readers alike. One label that is hard to miss on the map (in the Pimlico area) is ‘NEAT HOUSES GARDENS’ which is written in very large letters across one of the pages. While considering this part of the map, it will be noticed that the join of the two sheets does not really align at any point. The three words are written across a large area covered with market gardens which are shown in some detail with carefully set rows of vegetables. Because the land was so marshy, small ditches can be seen which helped to drain the land of water. The market gardens end abruptly on the northern side of the lower sheet with pasture shown on the upper sheet. Further market gardens are to be seen further east – to the south of St John’s church which stands in Smith Square. In passing, notice that on the Lambeth side of the Thames were more market gardens, extending south towards Vauxhall.

So, what were the Neat Houses? The name ‘Neat’ was corrupted from ‘Neyte’ which was the name for much of the land near the western boundary of what is now the City of Westminster. The land was known as the Manor of Neyte. Towards the banks of the Thames, the land was low-lying, marshy and subject to flooding. Until the 16th century, it was mainly used for pasture. Only a few farmers lived there, tending their animals. Most of the land was open, with nearly all the residents in Westminster clustered around Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster. The households obtained fresh fruit and vegetables from the monks at Westminster Abbey who grew the food to feed themselves and sold any excess – of which there was usually plenty – to the local residents.

Market gardening – or growing for-profit – developed in the 16th century in the countryside and even in what is now Central London as communities became large enough to allow making a living as a commercial grower a viable occupation. When religious houses were abolished in the early 16th century, residents had to find other sources for their fresh fruit and vegetables. Gradually, market gardeners acquired land and built houses where they could live. In the case of Pimlico, these were called Neat Houses. The Neat House Gardens were named after the Manor of Neyte and occupied approximately 100 acres, growing cauliflowers, asparagus, artichokes, spinach, radishes as well as other produce. The land which became Pimlico was ideal for gardening as it was low-lying with a high water table. The open pasture was not far away, which meant there was also easy access to large quantities of manure.

In the Clause Rolls (28 Henry VIII or 1537) is a grant which mentions “the manor of Neyte, with the precinct of water called the Mote of the said manor.” Some of the buildings which later occupied the site were known as the “Neat Houses”. John Stow mentions them as “a parcel of houses most seated on the banks of the Thames, and inhabited by gardeners”.

Alehouses began to appear around the gardens and Neat Houses also became used as places of recreation and revelry. People travelled from the City of London and from the urban part of Westminster to the many tea gardens in the area. In August 1667 the diary of Samuel Pepys records that he and his wife “went by coach to the Neat Houses”. They had just seen a play and Pepys decided to enjoy the countryside where “in a box in a tree, we sat and sang, and talked and eat”. By the time of Pepys, places of entertainment and what were would now call ‘pubs’ were to be found on the land. Rents for the land on which they stood were cheap which attracted landlords to the area.

John Strype – in his Survey of 1720 – states that “The Neat Houses are a Parcel of Houses, most seated on the Banks of the River Thames, and inhabited by Gardiners; for which it is of Note, for the supplying London and Westminster Markets with Asparagus, Artichoaks, Cauliflowers, Musmelons, and the like useful Things that the Earth produceth; which by Reason of their keeping the Ground so rich by dunging it, (and through the Nearness to London, they have the Soil cheap) doth make their Crops very forward, to their great Profit in coming to such good Markets.”

By the 1800s, Thomas Cubitt was acquiring land to build housing and the days of the market gardeners were coming to an end. At the turn of the 19th century, the population across London was expanding rapidly, increasing pressure on the gardeners to give up their land to prospective builders. The days of the southern end of Westminster looking like the countryside were swiftly coming to an end and we all know what it looks like today!

The land labelled ’Neat Houses Gardens’ on John Rocque’s map extended west beside the Thames from near today’s Horseferry Road to where the railway lines from Victoria Station cross the river. The ‘Gardens’ shown on Rocque’s map were, of course, market gardens – not the ornamental gardens of stately homes. The map shows the dyke called Millbank with houses spread out along its length. These buildings may have been some of the Neat Houses. At the junction of the modern St George’s Street and Lupus Street is a development of apartments called Neat House. It stands on a small part of the original land but its name is not really significant. Further north on the map, open land is shown marked ‘Tothill Fields’, which would be in the vicinity of today’s Vincent Square.

Above: A print from about 1800 looking along the dyke known as Millbank. It is now a large thoroughfare of the same name. On the left can be seen the Thames.

Further Thoughts on the Neat Houses

Details of the Neat House Gardens are hard to find probably because market gardens were just everyday and ordinary to most observers who took little notice of them. The obvious question to ask is “How did a house which was probably not very grand and built for a market gardener, become an ale-house and attract enough customers to create a business?” The above print of Millbank may be one of the only visual representations of the terrain. It shows cows wandering about the meadow, on top of a dyke which is wide enough for what looks like a farmhouse. It may even have been one of the Neat Houses. As we can see from Rocque’s map, the ground was covered with large plots of land where vegetables and fruit were being cultivated. Alongside many of the plots are shown ditches which filled with water at high tide. The produce, once picked, had to be sold at a market which required transport by a horse and cart. Therefore, each plot of land must have been beside a track large enough to provide access for the cart. These were, presumably, the tracks across which the coaches and their wealthy occupants travelled. Perhaps well-to-do people asked their coach-driver to take them to see the rural setting.

It may be that the wife of a market gardener started selling ale and other beverages to those who visited their land. It would have provided a source of regular income. Perhaps one thing led to another and at some point, the market gardener realised he was making more money from providing a house of entertainment than the income he received from the hard work of growing vegetables and transporting them to market.

Above: Monster Tavern and its adjacent Tea Gardens in 1820. It was one of several hostelries that served food and drink as well as providing other attractions, like duck-shooting.

If all the land was low-lying and subject to flooding, how did they build large houses without them being at risk of falling down? Did any of them fall down?  Many houses in the London area before 1800 were just built on foundations formed from building rubble. The large house shown above, called ‘Monster Tea Gardens’, was one of several buildings to be seen on the land. It looks quite substantial. Did it start as a humble dwelling, lived in by a market gardener who then expanded it and smartened it up to attract wealthy patrons? As you can see, the whole subject leads to more and more questions and they seldom lead to any answers.

The print of the Monster Tea Gardens shows a large garden with attractive trees nearby – not just the rough trees like willows that grow naturally on marshy soil. There is a brick wall along one side of the gardens which implies that the proprietor was making enough money to be able to afford such an expensive structure. While on the surface this is an interesting subject, there are clearly plenty of things that we do not understand. It should also be pointed out that ale-houses and tea-gardens are not known to have existed at other market gardens in the London area. Therefore, this land was quite unusual in being used for growing vegetables and also acting as a place of recreation for the wealthy.


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Pimlico – Quick Look Around

Above: Houses in Lupus Street. There are many streets in the district with houses that all look very similar.

Pimlico is a district in Westminster lying beside the Thames with an approximate boundary to the east of Vauxhall Bridge Road and to the west consisting of the railway lines running south out of Victoria Station. The district extends inland to where the east and west boundaries come to a point, in the vicinity of Victoria Station.

The strange name for the district first appeared in the rate-books for 1626 although Cunningham states that “the name was not introduced into the rate-books of St Martin’s (to which it belonged) until the year 1680”. The name is thought to be derived from a drink (rather like a strong ale), the composition of which is no longer known. The name also existed at Hoxton, near Shoreditch. Several sources have other ideas about how the name came into existence but none of them is based on known facts or dates.

Being originally marshy, the district consisting of low-lying ground that was relatively late in being developed. It was still marshy open fields until 1800 and laying out of houses and streets did not start to appear until the 1830s.

Early History of the District

When the Domesday Book was published (1086), it contained a vast number of words and many interesting descriptions but there were no maps. Nearly 1,000 years later, we are left puzzling over exactly where some of the places mentioned are today. In many cases, we do not know the precise details of many of the boundaries. For Pimlico, it is not possible to be precise about which manor it was in at the time of the Domesday survey. Some of it was at the southern end of the Manor of Westminster. The western part of Pimlico was probably part of what had been the ancient Manor of Ebury (or Eyebury or Eia).

The owners of Ebury included Edward the Confessor and his consort Queen Edith of Wessex in late Saxon times. After the Norman Conquest, Geoffrey de Mandeville obtained possession of the manor – one of many which he received in reward for his services in the Conqueror’s cause. Before the end of William’s reign, de Mandeville had given the manor to the Abbey of Westminster and it remained in its ownership until 1536 when it was acquired by Henry VIII. It was known as the Abbot’s Manor. A house stood near the river and was the favourite residence of the Abbots. John of Gaunt lived there. In 1448, John, son of Richard, Duke of York, was born there. Today, there is an Abbots Manor housing estate on the site.

Development of the Land

The district of Pimlico was essentially the creation of Thomas Cubitt, being planned and constructed over a relatively short period – from the 1830s until the 1870s. Although built by several developers, its rapid development to a single brief, gave Pimlico a very distinctive and coherent architectural character, with a layout of formal streets and squares, lined by terraces of houses in the Classical tradition.

Thomas Cubitt obtained leases from the Grosvenor Estate and began to build, as he had done in Belgravia. He dug up the clay from under the gravel to make bricks and deposited earth excavated from the St Katharine Docks on top. The whole process sounds very modern and it is the kind of thing that would be done today by finding a use for soil dug from the docks. We need to remind ourselves that this was being carried nearly two hundred years ago.

Pimlico Today

Much of Pimlico is still residential. It is a highly sought-after district lived in by many professionals who enjoy living in Central London. Because many of the streets are lined with large terraced houses, many of them have been converted into hotels. As has already been mentioned, there is a great cohesion to the planned streets which give a touch of elegance to the surroundings. Churches and squares were part of the original plan and, in the main, most of those amenities remain today. There are some spots that suffered bombing during the Second World War which have often been rebuilt in a modern style.

Worth a particular mention is Dolphin Square, an enormous housing development, overlooking the Thames, built between 1935 and 1937. The huge development includes 3.5 acres (1.4 ha) of communal gardens. The large Pimlico Academy stands further inland. It was built from 1967–70 as the Pimlico School), a noted example of brutalist architecture, constructed of concrete and glass without decorative claddings or ornament. Its appearance was controversial from the time of its opening. Because the building had deteriorated, it was removed in 2010 and a new building opened on the same site as the Pimlico Academy.

The northern end of Pimlico is well-served by trains running into Victoria Station. It was not until 1972 that the SW ‘corner’ of Pimlico gained an underground station as part of the Victoria Line, which runs south to Brixton.


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Millbank (Street)

Above: Modern view of Millbank across the Thames. The road runs near the modern embankment. Millbank Tower is in the centre of the view. Part of Vauxhall Bridge can be seen on the far left and the modern Tate Britain Pier is to be seen beside the trees which are obscuring the view of the famous art gallery now called Tate Britain.

Millbank is an area of Westminster which is east of Pimlico and south of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster. The long street called Millbank continues south from Old Palace Yard and Abingdon Street, passing Victoria Tower Gardens. Further south is a roundabout interchange with Horsefarry Road and Lambeth Bridge. Millbank then continues south, passing the art gallery now called Tate Britain and Riverside Walk Gardens. It ends at the junction with Vauxhall Bridge Road, near Vauxhall Bridge.

Above: Print of Millbank dated 1800 looking south. The raised land is the wide dyke itself, with the Thames to the left.

The name ‘Millbank’ refers to a windmill standing on top of the large dyke built to prevent the land from flooding by the Thames on high tides. The dyke may have been built in Saxon times or maybe later in medieval times. The dyke is likely to have extended for a greater distance than the present thoroughfare by that name. During the early medieval period, the land where Tate Britain now stands was known as Bulinga Fen. It may have been in pastoral or agricultural use in early times. Bulinga Fen, a marsh in Saxon times, has been identified with Tothill Fields. Part of the land became the site of the Millbank Penitentiary. Another part is where Westminster Cathedral stands – which was erected on the foundations of the demolished Middlesex County Prison.

The place-name ‘Millbank’ is believed to derive from the Westminster Abbey mill (probably itself of medieval origin) which was demolished around 1736 by Sir Robert Grosvenor to make way for his house. By the end of the Saxon period, a complex of buildings had developed at Westminster, following the construction of the Palace and Minster by Edward the Confessor.

The Domesday Book (1086) indicates that the Abbey estate had pasture to support 11 teams of oxen, an estimated 250 acres out of Westminster’s total of 1,000 acres. The Domesday Book also records 41 cottagers with gardens, probably largely situated on the fringes of the higher ground and along the river. The land around the modern Tate Britain site is thought to have remained undeveloped and is likely to have been marshy waterlogged ground.

Before Lambeth Bridge was constructed, a Horse Ferry plied between Millbank and the Lambeth side of the Thames, near Lambeth Palace. Horseferry Road, which joins onto Millbank today, is a reminder of the site.

See also – Horse Ferry, Lambeth

At the end of 1812, the construction of the perimeter wall commenced for the Millbank Penitentiary and by the summer of 1813, the first group of prisoners was admitted. Horwood’s map of 1813 shows the new prison. However, by 1816 cracks were appearing in the walls and floors and a section of the outer wall sank. This forced the demolition and rebuilding of three towers of one wing and a section of the outer wall.

Having become an unhealthy environment and derelict, the prison was abandoned in 1890. Its ultimate demolition was to make way for Henry Tate’s National Gallery of Art in 1892. Tate’s Gallery was opened in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art. Over the years there have been numerous extensions, most recently the Clore Gallery in 1982-86. The Tate Britain complex only occupies a third of the original site of the prison.

Today, the thoroughfare called Millbank is best known for the Tate Britain and the tall office block once called the Vickers Building (after the Vickers aircraft company) and now known as the Millbank Tower.


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St John, Smith Square

Above: Two of the four towers on top of the church.

Development of Westminster to the south of where Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament stand was relatively slow. This was because that land was very marshy and subject to occasional flooding. No attempt was made to build on the land until well after the Dissolution (1536).

It was not until the end of the 17th century that streets began to be laid out and Smith Square was not started until 1726. In the centre of the square, a large imposing church was erected. The church, designed by Thomas Archer, was built 1714-28. According to Pevsner ‘it was the boldest manifestation of English Baroque in Inner London’. It was built with money provided under the ‘Fifty New Churches Act’. John Rocque’s large scale map gives the name as ‘St John the Evangelist’.

Having decided on the huge towers on the church, it was necessary to have four – one at each corner – to prevent the church from being unbalanced. The symmetrical design prevents the whole structure from tipping to one side, due to its enormous weight. Beneath the church is only London clay.

The building was hit by an incendiary bomb in May 1941 and was completely burnt out during the Second World War. The church stood as a ruin for nearly 20 years before it was repaired and restored in 1965-68 by Marshal Sisson. It was not required as a church and it was rebuilt as a concert hall. It is generally agreed that it has superior acoustics. The building was saved by the determination of Lady Parker of Waddington, commemorated by a plaque on the South wall of the hall. She formed the Friends of St John’s in 1962 to raise money and restore the church to its former splendour. She identified that the building was an ideal venue for radio concerts. One of its advantages was its distance from traffic noise including underground trains.

Above: View of the church on Google Earth. The church stands in Smith Square, a short distance from the Thames which can be seen along the top of the picture. Part of Lambeth Bridge can be seen (top right).

The Grade I listed building stands in the middle of Smith Square and parts of the church can just be seen from a riverboat as it passes by on the Thames. Charles Dickens, in ‘Our Mutual Friend’, described it as appearing to be “some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air”. However today St John’s is regarded as one of the masterpieces of English Baroque architecture.

The hall’s concert season begins in mid-September and continues to the following July or August, hosting concerts by internationally renowned singers and chamber musicians; solo instrumentalists; professional chamber orchestras and choirs, amateur choirs and orchestras (both adults and schools) as well as popular music artists. St John’s receives no state or local authority subsidy. It relies entirely on income from concerts and recordings and also on the generosity of charitable trusts, companies and individuals to survive and to develop its facilities.

Access to the crypt is by way of stairs from the main portico steps or via the spiral staircase towards the rear of the hall. This part of the building was not damaged by the wartime bombing, so the brickwork is in its original 18th-century state. Unlike other notable churches of the period, the crypt of St. John’s was never used for burials. In fact, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, space was let for storage of wines and beer. The crypt is now used as the venue’s main restaurant. The church’s burial ground is situated in Horseferry Road, next to the former Westminster Hospital buildings. The site is now designated St. John’s Gardens and the remaining grave-slabs, now much eroded, are arranged around the perimeter of the garden.


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Westminster after the Dissolution

Above: Part of the so-called Agas map, produced about 1561.

Westminster at the Time of the Map

The above map shows Westminster in about 1561. It was published at an interesting time. For any local people who were older than 50, the terrible fire which destroyed almost all the Palace of Westminster in 1512 was just within living memory. The Dissolution of the Monasteries followed in 1536 causing Westminster Abbey to be closed as a religious house. It was officially closed on 16 January 1540. By the time of the map, this part pf Westminster was just getting ‘back on its feet’. In 1585 – nearly 25 years after the map was published – an Act of Parliament was passed which meant that Westminster became a City.

On the map, the eastern part of the Abbey is shown, along with the lavish Henry VII Chapel which was relatively new when the nap was made. Most of the western part of the nave is missing from view. It is believed that the map probably had further details to the left which have been lost due to the map being damaged along its left-most edge. Above the Abbey, we can see the church of St Margaret and its churchyard (just as it still is today). Various gatehouses and walls are shown, indicating that the precinct of the Abbey was private and not open to public access.

Access to the old Palace of Westminster was walled off to the public in a similar way to the Abbey and the walls and gatehouses can be seen on the map. After the 1512 fire, most of the buildings at the Palace of Westminster were destroyed. Only the Great Hall, Westminster, survived the conflagration. It is named ‘Westminster Hall’ on the map and it is shown along with its supporting buttresses, on its western side. They are also still there! Beside the river is a long narrow structure with a single roof which probably represents the new building for parliament, constructed after the fire.

The History of the Times

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England created one of the greatest shake-ups of the administration that had ever been experienced. Large monasteries in all the cities in England and Wales were closed, along with many smaller religious houses in numerous towns throughout the land. All these buildings, each with their own administrations and large pieces of land were surrendered to the Crown. If those who had lived in the religious houses swore allegiance to the Crown, they were provided with pensions. For those who would not embrace the new order, death by burning at the stake was usually their fate. They were brutal times for the monks and nuns. For those living nearby who had come to rely on the religious houses to provide for their needs, they had no other alternatives for a means of support.

The closing of the religious houses had a drastic effect on how Westminster was administered. While it had developed into the seat of government for England and Wales, there were to be enormous changes in the locality as a result of the Dissolution. Henry VIII assumed direct royal control of Westminster Abbey in 1539 and granted it cathedral status by a Charter in 1540. He simultaneously issued letters patent establishing the Diocese of Westminster. Elizabeth I established the present Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (the correct title for the Abbey) in 1560.

There had been a devastating fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1512 and Henry VIII left the royal premises soon afterwards. He moved north to York House, the London residence of the Archbishops of York and it became a royal residence – known as Whitehall Palace. It was confiscated from the Archbishops of York after the death of Cardinal Wolsey in 1530. This meant that the Palace of Westminster was a palace in name only. After being rebuilt, it then developed as the seat of government.

The two changes – at Westminster Abbey and at the Palace of Westminster – quickly led to the transformation of the landscape in the vicinity of Westminster. By the 1640s Westminster began to extend south of Great Peter Street and Market Street. The future Horseferry Road had been formed. What had once been a large collection of buildings clustered around Westminster Abbey and the parish church of St Margaret, was gradually becoming a ‘small town’. No longer was the administration of the locality controlled by the feudal method of a Lord or of Manor – in this case, the monks at the Abbey. Once the Abbey had been surrendered to the Crown, Westminster was created a ‘City and Borough’ in 1585. A court of twelve burgesses was set up to administer the new wards for the area and civic life was brought to the Westminster area for the first time in its long history.

The change from local rule by the monks at the Abbey to local government by lay-people must have come as quite a shock to everyone who lived locally. This was a large community, extending to the south of where the Palace of Westminster had been and extending north to land now covered by Trafalgar Square and east, all along the Strand to the boundary with the City of London – a boundary established in 1212. Westminster was taking if first few steps along the road to a secular administration but it had also been created an ‘instant’ City. Whereas other cities (like Rochester, Canterbury and Norwich) had developed over centuries, Westminster became a city by Act of Parliament. It was something to be proud of and something that it has clung onto over the centuries. Today what should be called the London Borough of Westminster is instead known as the City of Westminster.


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Westminster, Palace of

Above: The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) seen from across the Thames.

Before we continue any further, it might be helpful to state that the site of the Palace of Westminster is today where the Houses of Parliament are situated. Although they are known as the Houses of Parliament, the site is still referred to officially as the Palace of Westminster but very few buildings remain from the days when the site was a royal palace – actually lived in by a monarch. In fact, the last monarch living on that site was Henry VIII but we are now encroaching on the storyline.

We first need to start by mentioning the site of Westminster Abbey. In spite of centuries of research, there is no known date for the founding of a church on the site of Westminster Abbey. Many sources quote the early 7th century but there is no certainty and no archaeological evidence to help to establish a reliable date. If an early date for a church at Westminster Abbey is not known, we can be quite clear about when the Palace of Westminster came into being.

The story begins with Edward the Confessor. Another great puzzle to historians and archaeologists is where Saxon kings had their palace in London. It is assumed that it was within the City of London but that has never been proved. When we reach the time of Edward the Confessor we know that he decided to build a large religious house on the site of the small church standing on Thorney Island – a site which is now occupied by Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. A map showing the extent of the marshy land called Thorney Island is shown on another page.

For Thorney Island see – Westminster Medieval Riverside

Thorney Island was actually an island of gravel and, although it flooded on exceptional high tides, gravel is very stable and well able to support a large building. Why Edward wanted to build a new religious house on that particular site is also completely unknown. However, having decided to build a new church on the site, he also took the decision to have a new palace built beside it.

For whatever reason, Edward the Confessor certainly changed the course of history when, in 1050, he ordered building work to commence on a new church and a new palace. The two new buildings were an enormous undertaking. To have started either one of them would have been a monumental project but to start both at the same time was almost unheard of. The work was slow and he did not live to see either of them completed.

The Abbey building was consecrated on 28 December 1065. Edward the Confessor was too ill to attend and his wife, Queen Edith, took his place. Only the crypt of the church and adjacent dormitories had been completed. The adjacent palace was not even habitable. Edward only lived for a few more days and died on 5 January 1066. Harold II assumed the throne and was killed by an arrow at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. As every schoolboy knows, William the Conqueror became King of England. He proclaimed himself king on Christmas Day 1066 at a coronation ceremony held in the unfinished Abbey. He also decided that his palace should be the one that Edward was been building at Westminster.

With a French king who had no preconceived ideas of English history and tradition, William I could have abandoned the construction of the Abbey and also chosen a new place for his palace but he continued to provide funds for the completion of both buildings. So it was that Westminster became the place of coronations and the major site of a royal palace. Books have been written about the Palace of Westminster and only a bare outline will be provided here of the subsequent history of the site. If you are looking for some detail of its history, there is an almost endless choice.

For the next four centuries, the Palace of Westminster became the seat of kings (there were no queens). As time went by, the rule of the king was challenged by those who felt that decisions taken at Westminster should be based on the consent of those who were not dukes and others of high-birth. This was a long struggle but eventually, a House of Commons was established – formed from those who were not part of the elite House of Lords. Because the king summoned the lords to attend the palace, the House of Lords was based in the palace. The House of Commons met nearby. By the 16th century, the Palace of Westminster was not only where the king lived but also where the Commons and the Lords also convened.

This was brought to an abrupt halt in 1512 when the Palace of Westminster was consumed by a disastrous fire. Many of the buildings had been constructed of timber – in Tudor style – and they were destroyed by the flames. Only the Great Hall, which had been built in stone in 1397-99, survived the conflagration. Henry VIII, who had been eying up the impressive York House nearby, lived in by Cardinal Wolsey, decided he would leave the palace to be rebuilt as new premises for the Commons and the Lords. In 1530, on the death of Wolsey, Henry moved into York House and its name changed to Whitehall Palace.

The site of the Palace of Westminster continued with the original name but it was no longer to be used by sovereigns ever again. New buildings were erected on the site which was seen as the centre of government – which has continued to this day.

The story does not end there because, after another 300 years there was a second serious fire on the site, this time in 1834 when the Palace of Westminster was almost totally destroyed once more. The Great Hall escaped damage for a second time. New buildings were begun in 1837. Charles Barry was the architect and Augustus Pugin was responsible for the interior decoration. The House of Lords was completed in 1847 and the House of Commons was completed in 1852 – opened by Queen Victoria. Big Ben is the most famous name, which relates to the large bell in the clock tower. The tower has been renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of the Queen – confirmed by the House of Commons.

See also – Westminster, Palace of, by Brewer

Now that we are in the 21st century, the old fabric of the Victorian building is showing its age. To try to prevent another fire and also to prevent many of the buildings from collapsing, an ambitious restoration plan is underway. The clock tower has been undergoing restoration for several years and this is still not completed. Work on the House of Lords and the House of Commons will require the relevant houses to be relocated to other premises while the work is carried out. The whole building consists of 1,100 rooms, most of them are very ornate and will require many years of painstaking restoration to complete work on the whole site.


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Westminster, Manor of

Above: Outline map of the Manor of Westminster in medieval times.

In AD 959 the Saxon King Edgar defined the boundary of the Manor of Westminster as mid-stream in the Thames to the south; following the course of the Westbourne and the Fleet Rivers to the west and east; with a northern boundary along the line of the present-day Holborn, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road. A later Charter, passed between AD 978 and 1013, when Ethelred II was king, moved the eastern boundary to where Holborn Bars are today.

According to the Domesday Book (1086), Westminster, written ‘Westmon’, was in the Hundred of Ossulstone. It was part of the lands owned by the Abbey of St Peter of Westminster, now better known as Westminster Abbey. Part of the land was held separately by a man called Baynard. One interesting feature of the land was that it included ‘4 arpents of newly planted vines’ which is an obsolete French measure of land. It was a substantial area and vines are very seldom mentioned in the Domesday Book.

The smaller Manor of Eia to the west included the land now known as Hyde Park and extended south to the Thames. It had been given to Geoffrey de Mandeville after the Norman Conquest (1066) and he gave the manor to the Abbey of Westminster.

The Manor of Westminster was an enormous piece of land, consisting of two original manors. It remained in the ownership of the Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when it was acquired by Henry VIII. Essentially, the manor was all the area shown in GREEN on the map.

The Manor of Eia became Ebury and its name lives on as Ebury Square and Ebury Bridge Road. This manor became three distinct areas – some sources say that they were each a manor but they did not exist as separate administrations. In the north was Hyde, whose name is still used for Hyde Park. To the south, and extending SE, was Neyte (or Neat). The name may have given us Knightsbridge, which was a bridge carrying the road over the River Westbourne. Neyte (or Neat) became the land we now call Pimlico. The three name – Eia (or Ebury), Hyde and Neyte (or Neat) – are all very ancient names related to Manor of Westminster.

The whole of the Manor of Westminster was administered by the monks, led by the Abbot, at Westminster Abbey. All that came to an abrupt halt in 1536 (as described above) when the Abbey lost all control of the land. The Abbey was surrendered on 17 January 1640. It was not only a religious house (like all the others across England) but, of course, it was the place where monarchs were crowned. Henry VIII declared the building a cathedral and it became a ‘Royal Peculiar’ – under the direct control of the sovereign. In that way, coronations continued to be conducted at the Abbey.

After the Disolutiontion (1536), it became obvious that a separate civic authority was needed to regulate the affairs of the one-time manor. In 1585 – some 49 years after the Manor of Westminster ended its administration – an Act of Parliament was passed ‘for the good of the government of the City and Borough of Westminster’. This meant that the land had been created a City, a title which it has proudly clung to over the centuries. To administer the area, a court of Burgesses was set up, consisting of one, with an assistant, for each of the twelve new wards.


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Westminster (Area) Overview

Above: One of the elegant Georgian Terrace in Smith Square.

This area of study is related to the most central and probably most important part of the City of Westminster. Not all of it looks as grand as Smith Square and, like everywhere else in London, it has its mundane parts. Nevertheless, the area of study is characterised by its grand squares and impressive houses. It is ‘Number One’ on the list for any serious tourist wanting to explore London.

Above: Outline map showing the boundary of Westminster (Area) which includes Westminster Abbey (and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament), Millwall, Pimlico and Millwall. Part of the boundary of the City of Westminster (RED dotted line) is shown. The northern boundary is indicated by the YELLOW line.

The area of study called Westminster has had ‘(Area)’ attached to its name because there are several meanings to the name ‘Westminster’ and the area of study has been named ‘Westminster (Area)’ to avoid any confusion. It is probably the most important area of study within the City of Westminster because it includes the Palace of Westminster (often referred to as the Houses of Parliament) and also Westminster Abbey. The land around these two ancient sites was once the ‘original’ meaning of the name ‘Westminster’.

The area of study called ‘Westminster (Area)’ is shown on the above map. On the east and south is the River Thames; on the west is the boundary of the City of Westminster (with a RED dotted line); there is an ‘artificial’ boundary defining the northern boundary (shown by a YELLOW line).

Westminster (Area) is composed of several smaller sections. As you might expect, the land around Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament has the longest history. Gradually the area expanded towards the south in Georgian times – like the area around Smith Square. Finally, we see the development of land that is now called Pimlico and Belgravia. Today, if you visit it, the whole area appears to be a great mass of buildings extending for mile after mile. In reality, it is not quite like that and that is something that needs to be explained. Much of this area consists of large offices and a host of embassies dotted around the land. There are elegant squares lined with large, very expensive residences although many of them are now in use for commercial purposes.

Above: Contour map of Westminster (Area). The River Thames is shown, along with the names mentioned in this article – Millbank, Pimlico and Belgravia. They are all shown surrounded by land coloured blue-green, indicating land that is only a few feet higher than the level of the Thames. Towards the top of the map, the colours change to yellow and orange, indicating slightly higher ground. (The above map was derived from the one displayed at

In order to understand the development of Westminster (Area), it is essential to realise that most it is low-lying land near the Thames. This means that until medieval times – and actually later than that – much of the land was just pasture, rather marshy and subject to flooding when there were very high tides. It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that a start was made on developing the land to the south and west of the buildings clustered around Westminster Abbey. While buildings on the abbey site and nearby have a history going back to before the Norman Conquest, much of this land of this area of study only starts in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Going into a little more detail, the area of study lies to the south of St James’s Park and SW of Buckingham Palace. It includes Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as well as the land around Victoria Street and Victoria Station. In addition, it includes all the land beside the Thames around Smith Square, Millbank and Pimlico. Finally, there is the land known as Belgravia which lies beside the western boundary with the next borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Belgravia also extends north to a short boundary with Hyde Park.

This area of study is a large piece of land with a vast amount of history to be explained. It has many grand squares and impressive thoroughfares. Although its development was later than most of London, it more than makes up for that but the important features that are within its boundary.


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