Above: View looking south down Essex Street with the Essex Water Gate just in view at the far end.
Because the side of the Strand extending to the Thames was once lined with the London residence of bishops in the centuries before the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536) and by the large house owned by dukes in the years following, several properties had grand water-gates beside the river.
There is evidence for only three today. All the others have been demolished as the land was re-developed. The one at the southern end of Essex Street was built in the 17th century.
Long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the land that is now Essex Street was held by the Knights Templar. In 1310 the Knights Hospitaller acquired all the lands of the dissolved order of Knights Templar and, it is probable that the Hospitallers leased the land in the Strand to the Bishops of Exeter at that time. A large house – Called Exeter Inn – was built with extensive gardens extending down to the Thames.
It acted as the London residence of the Bishops of Exeter until 1549 when it was granted to William Paget. Originally called Leicester House, a new house was built around 1575 for Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester. It was renamed Essex House after being inherited by his stepson, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, after Leicester’s death in 1588.
In 1682, almost a hundred years later, the land was acquired by a developer by the name of Nicholas Barbon. It should be explained that when the developers of land on the south side of the Strand got the chance to lay out streets and elegant houses to attract wealthy home-owners, the riverfront was still occupied by warehouses and wharves. This meant that developers had to try to ‘hide’ the working riverside from those who had paid good money to reside in ‘up-market’ streets adjoining the Strand.
In the case of Essex Street, Barbon had a ‘cunning plan’. He laid out the street with access to the Strand at its northern end – like any other street. At the southern end he ‘closed off’ the street with a ‘triumphal’ gateway, erected about 1676. In that way there was still pedestrian access to the river but the bulky ‘water gate’ hid most of the working wharves from view when standing in Essex Street.
Essex Water Gate was badly damaged during the Second World War. It was later repaired and incorporated into the 1953 building across the end of the street. The so-called ‘gate’ is therefore an office block today. It should be pointed out that the edge of the Thames, before the Victoria Embankment was constructed, did not reach as far north as the Essex Water Gate but was about 100 yards to the south – level with the southern extremity of the Temple Gardens. Of course, when the Victoria embankment was constructed, it was no longer possible for the water-side wharves at the south side of Essex Water Gate to continue to operate.
Above: View of south side of Essex Water Gate looking from the Victoria Embankment.
If you wander down Essex Street and then walk through the water gate today, you will descend stone stairs and then walk through a narrow passageway before emerging at the Victoria Embankment. The land of that narrow passageway was where the warehouses used to stand.
A drawing of the water gate was used for a time as an emblem by Methuen and Co, sometimes called ‘Methuen Books’. They were publishers who, for a time, occupied the address of 36 Essex Street.
While it would be true to say that the Essex Water Gate stands on the site of a water gate that stood there in medieval times, it should not be concluded that today’s structure is in any way derived from the early water gate. When newly built in the 17th century, it was used as a device by the developer to hide the wharves from the view of the newly erected terraces of houses in Essex Street.