Above: Outline map showing the area of study for Whitehall.
The area called Whitehall is the smallest of all the seven areas of study for Westminster. Although small, there is plenty of history to consider. The southern boundary runs along the north side of Bridge Street and Great George Street – which run west off Westminster Bridge. The northern boundary is the south side of Northumberland Avenue. Working west to east, the area extends from the eastern edge of St James’s Park, across the street called Whitehall and includes part of Victoria Embankment. The principal streets were the two now named Parliament Street and Whitehall.
Today’s modern street known as Whitehall once had extensive land on both sides of the thoroughfare covered by a rambling royal residence called Whitehall Palace. Several articles are devoted to explaining how the palace came about and what it was used for before most of it all went up in flames at the end of the 1600s. No attempt was made to rebuild that palace. The Royal Court simply ‘moved on’ to live at St James’s Palace instead. The land that had been the Palace was eventually cleared and grand houses were built on it, lived in by noblemen and their families.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the River Thames at Whitehall was much wider. Where the grassed area of the Victoria Embankment is to be seen was once part of the river. Then came the Victoria Embankment – a huge construction project to gain land from the bank of the Thames. Under the Embankment, a major sewer system was constructed alongside a cut-and-cover tunnel for an underground railway. On top of the Embankment, a new road in the form of a dual carriageway (also called Victoria Embankment) was laid out with any additional land being landscaped to provide an open space.
On the western side of today’s thoroughfare called Whitehall, streets lined with elegant Georgian houses once existed. The best example of such a street is Downing Street with the remaining houses including the famous ‘No 10’. Gradually over time, large offices were erected including the Government Buildings we see today, including the Treasury and the Foreign Office. To the north of Whitehall is the Admiralty, a building which has been there since the 17th century.
At first glance, the area of study appears to be covered with large, rather uninteresting offices. To find evidence for the history of Whitehall, it is necessary to try to ignore most of the later buildings and go in search of a handful of clues which are able to ‘unlock’ the stories from the past.