Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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THE VICTORIA EMBANKMENT.
The Thames Banks in the Early Ages—Sir Christopher Wren's Plan for embanking the River—Evelyn's Suggestion with the same View—The Subject brought before Parliament by Sir F. W. Trench—Mr. James Walker's Plan—The Victoria Embankment commenced—The Work described—Land reclaimed from the Thames—The Metropolitan District Railway—Quantities of Materials used in constructing the Embankment—Offices of the London School Board—Somerset House and the New Will Depository—Special Curiosities in the Will Office—The Buckingham Water-gate—Lines on Nelson's Column—Statue of Sir James Outram—Public Garden and Promenade—St. Stephen's Club.
Many architects and geologists, from the days of Sir Christopher Wren, have been of opinion that the Thames was formerly not a river, but an estuary, the shores of which were the hills of Camberwell and Sydenham on the south, and of Highgate and Hampstead on the north, with a large sandy plain at low water, through which the river forced its tortuous way. Sir Christopher Wren especially considered that these sands being driven with the wind gradually formed sand-hills, which in the course of time, and by aid of Roman engineers, were embanked and so changed into meadows, or at all events into terra firma, the river being so reduced into its present channel, and wharves being built along the line of wall towards the river.
Considering that a large portion of what is commonly called London is lower in level than the high-water mark in the Thames, it is clear that the river must have been embanked from a very early period. Antiquaries have written to show that the river-walls of the Thames were the work of the native British before the advent of the Romans, who, no doubt, completed the work which was already begun; and it is certain that they were not completed until a date subsequent to the Norman Conquest.
The plan proposed by Sir Christopher Wren for rebuilding of London after the Great Fire included "a commodious quay on the whole bank of the river from the Tower to Blackfriars;" but unfortunately his idea was not adopted, and the opportunity was lost for ever. "The ingenious Mr. Evelyn," says Northouck, "suggested another plan with the same view, and besides lessening the most considerable declivities, he proposed further to employ the rubbish in filling up the shore of the Thames to low-water mark in a straight line from the Tower to the Temple, and form an ample quay, if it could be done without increasing the rapidity of the stream." But here again the old selfish objection of "vested interests" cropped up, and defeated the scheme, which it was reserved by Providence for Lord Palmerston, during his tenure of the Premiership, to carry through Parliament and enforce upon the citizens to their very great and manifest benefit.
During the reigns of George IV. and William IV., and in the early part of Victoria, the subject of an embankment for the river from London Bridge to Westminster was brought forward in the House of Commons by the late Sir Frederick W. Trench, but still, as is too often the case, "nothing was done." Perhaps in the event London has been fortunate, for if the work of embanking the Thames had been taken in hand in the days of our fathers or our grandfathers, it is to be feared that it would not have been carried out upon the scale of magnificence which marks the work of Sir J. W. Bazalgette. It appears that in 1840 Mr. James Walker laid down a line of embankment for the Corporation, which has now in the main been followed.
This great work is in three divisions—namely, the "Victoria," extending from the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge to Westminster; the "Albert," from the Lambeth end of Westminster Bridge to Vauxhall; and a third section extending from Millbank to the Cadogan Pier at Chelsea, close by Battersea Bridge.
The Victoria Embankment, of which alone we shall treat in this chapter, forms a wide and convenient line of communication between the City and the West End or more fashionable parts of London. It was commenced in February, 1864, and completed in July, 1870; and as a piece of engineering skill it is second to none of the great achievements that have marked the Victorian era. The river-side footway between Westminster Bridge and the Temple was opened to the public in 1868; but at that time the completion of the carriageway was prevented by the unfinished condition of the Metropolitan District Railway between Westminster and Blackfriars, and this obstacle was not removed until the end of May, 1870. On the 30th of May the first passenger train passed under the Embankment to the then terminal station at Blackfriars, and within six weeks from that date the carriage-way of the Embankment was formed and the northern footway paved; and the whole was thrown open to the public on the 13th of July in that year. The "opening" ceremony was performed by the Prince of Wales, accompanied by Her Royal Highness Princess Louise, on behalf of Her Majesty, after whom this noble thoroughfare is named.
Following in an even line the general curve of the river, the Embankment extends from Westminster to Blackfriars Bridge, rising at each end by a gentle gradient to open upon Bridge Street, Westminster, opposite the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament, and upon Chatham Place, Blackfriars, opposite the station of the Metropolitan District Railway. It passes beneath the Charing Cross Railway Bridge at Hungerford, and the first arch on the Middlesex side of Waterloo Bridge. It is about a mile and a quarter in length, and is 100 feet in width throughout. The carriage-way is 64 feet wide; the footway on the land side 16 feet, and that on the river side 20 feet, planted with trees 20 feet apart. On the river side the footway is bounded by a moulded granite parapet, 3 feet 6 inches in height, and on the land side partly by walls and partly by cast-iron railings.
The wall of the Embankment is a work of extraordinary magnitude and solidity. It is carried down to a depth of 32½ feet below Trinity highwater mark, and 14 feet below low water; and the level of the roadway is generally four feet above high water, rising at the extremities to twenty feet. The rising ground at each extremity is retained by the increased height of the wall, which is built throughout of brick, faced with granite, and founded in Portland cement concrete. The river front presents a slightly concave surface, which is plain from the base to mean high-water level, and is ornamented above that level by mouldings, stopped at intervals of about seventy feet by plain blocks of granite, bearing lamp standards of cast iron, and relieved on the river-face by bronze lions' heads, carrying mooring rings. The uniformity of line is broken at intervals by massive piers of granite (intended to be surmounted with groups of statuary), which flank recesses for steamboat landing-stages; and at other places by stairs projecting into the river, and intended as landingplaces for small craft. The steamboat piers occur at Westminster, Charing Cross, and Waterloo Bridges, and those for small boats midway between Westminster and Charing Cross, and between Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridges, and both are united at the Temple Pier, opposite Essex Street.
Within the recesses for the steamboat landingstages are placed admirably-contrived timber platforms, which rise and fall with the tide, and which carry the lower ends of gangways that are hinged to the masonry above. The gangways are formed of two wrought-iron girders, carrying a timber platform; and they move between granite walls parallel to the general line of the roadway. Upon the platforms there are waiting-rooms for passengers.
On the land side the Embankment is bounded from Westminster almost to Whitehall Place by four acres of recovered foreshore that were claimed by the Crown, but now belong to the City of West minster. A broad and commodious approach to the Embankment occurs somewhat to the south-west of the Hungerford Railway Bridge, opening out of Whitehall Place. From there to Waterloo Bridge the Embankment is bounded by a similar foreshore, amounting to nearly eight acres, and becoming gradually narrowed from west to east. This portion is planted as an ornamental garden for the enjoyment of the public. To the east of Waterloo Bridge is what was once the river front of Somerset House, all marked and scarred by water, and with huge mooring rings projecting from the masonry, but now quite inland. Next comes a space behind the Temple Railway Station, communicating with Surrey Street, Norfolk Street, and Arundel Street. Then another small portion of public ornamental garden, and then a piece added to the grounds of the Temple, but upon which the Templars will not be at liberty to build. Lastly, there is the boundary wall separating the carriage-way from the City Gas Works.
To the east of Blackfriars Bridge the line of the Embankment roadway is prolonged to the Mansion House, leaving the course of the river, and forming one grand thoroughfare, known as Queen Victoria Street, between the Houses of Parliament and the City. The eastern portion of this thoroughfare, between Cannon Street and the Mansion House, was completed and opened for public traffic in October, 1869.
The total area of the land reclaimed from the river amounts to 37¼ acres. Of this, nineteen acres are occupied by the carriage and foot ways, eight acres are devoted to garden, and the rest has been conveyed to the Crown, the Templars, and other proprietors along the line. Within the Embankment wall, and forming a portion of its structure, is placed the Low Level Intercepting Sewer, which is an integral portion of the main drainage scheme. Above it is a subway for gas and water pipes, the dimensions of the subway being 7 feet 6 inches in height and 9 feet in width; and the diameter of the sewer varying from 7 feet 9 inches to 8 feet 3 inches. These are both situate under the footway next the river. The footways are paved with York stone, with granite curb.
To the east of the Temple the roadways are carried over a double covered way, belonging to the City Gas Company, and leading to a landingwharf, by which coals can be conveyed from the river without interference with the public traffic. At this point, moreover, the subterranean engineer ing has been of extreme complexity; the sewers, the Fleet ditch, the subways, the Gas Company's railroad, the public railway, and a variety of gas, water, and telegraph pipes, being interlaced in a way that almost defies description.
In connection with the steamboat pier at Westminster Bridge a subway has been constructed, communicating with the subway already existing under Bridge Street, and affording an underground thoroughfare for foot passengers between the Houses of Parliament, the railway station, the steamboat pier, and the footways in Bridge Street and on the river and land sides of the Embankment.
The Metropolitan District Railway enters the land reclaimed by the Embankment at the point between Cannon Row and Westminster Bridge, and passes under the public road as far as Charing Cross steamboat pier, where it diverges to the land side of the roadway to the Charing Cross Station, the roof of which rises above the surface and is enclosed by screen walls of brickwork. Immediately east of the station are three openings for ventilation of the railway, which, together with the screen walls, are partially concealed by the mounds and shrubberies of the ornamental grounds. East of the openings, the railway is carried in a covered way under the ornamental grounds as far as the Waterloo steamboat pier, where it again passes under the roadway to the Temple Station, and is thence continued on the land side of the roadway to within a few feet of Blackfriars Bridge. From the east end of the Temple Gardens the concrete wall which retains the earth for the rising approach road to Chatham Place forms also the side wall of the railway. The level of the rails is generally 17½ feet below the surface of the road, which is carried over the railway by cast-iron girders and brick arches, the upper surface of the arches being 18 inches below the surface of the road.
Mr. Peter Cunningham, writing in 1850, remarks, "I cannot conclude this too brief account of our noble river without expressing a wish that the side sewer and terrace Embankment scheme (so long ago talked about and first projected by John Martin, the painter) may be carried out before many years are over. By narrowing the current," he adds, "we shall recover a large quantity of waste ground on either side, and escape from the huge unhealthy mud-banks that disfigure the river about Scotland Yard." What would he have said had he lived to see the completion of the gigantic undertaking which forms the subject of the present chapter?
It is not easy for persons unaccustomed to deal with such matters to form any clear conception of great quantities expressed in numerical statements; but it is, nevertheless, worth while to place on record the official accounts of the cost of the work, and of the amount of various kinds of material employed in its construction. The total cost is estimated at £1,260,000, and the purchase of property at £450,000. The quantities of materials are stated to have been as follows:—Granite, 650,000 cubic feet; brickwork, 80,000 cubic yards; concrete, 140,000 cubic yards; timber (for cofferdam, &c.), 500,000 cubic feet; caissons (for ditto), 2,500 tons; earth filling, 1,000,000 cubic yards; excavation, 144,000 cubic yards; York paving, 125,000 superficial feet; broken granite, 50,000 superficial yards.
It is but right that, in describing a work of such grandeur and national importance as the Thames Embankment, we should mention the names, not only of the principal engineer—Sir Joseph W. Bazalgette—to whom, of course, it will be a monument of enduring fame, but also of those of the contractors and resident engineers; the former were Messrs. Furness, Ritson, and Webster, and the latter Messrs. Lovick and Cooper.
The Act of Parliament under which the Metropolitan Board of Works obtained powers for the formation of new streets in connection with the Thames Embankment contains in its preamble a curious reference to the Act of William and Mary "for the relief of the orphans and other creditors of the City of London." That piece of legislation provided for the raising of a fund by the imposition of a duty on coal and wine; and subsequent enactments have continued the levy, appropriating its benefit to other requirements of metropolitan improvement. The charges on the fund set apart for making new approaches to London Bridge having been satisfied, the residue was by this Act transferred to the purposes of the Thames Embankment. The Embankment, as will be seen, is treble in its object, as it serves as a most effective and economic relief to our overcrowded streets by the formation of a wide thoroughfare; and not only improves the navigation of the river, but also, at the same time, has given an opportunity for making the low-level sewer without disturbing the Strand or Fleet Street. The importance of the improvement of the river is obvious to all, for not only has the Embankment added a handsome frontage to the side of the Thames, which previously had been a public eyesore, but it has also been the means of getting rid of the unequal deposits of mud in its bed, assisting the removal of the scour of the river, and consequently improving the health of the inhabitants of London.
It was found difficult for the Metropolitan Board of Works to raise capital at a less rate of interest than 4½ per cent. The importance of the work, however, had been impressed upon the ruling powers of the Government, and Parliament passed a bill by which the Board was greatly assisted in the undertaking.
Although that portion of the Embankment lying between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges is perhaps the most picturesque and varied of the whole line, that between Waterloo and Blackfriars is by no means wanting in interest and architectural effect. For the first time we have a land view of Sir W. Chambers' beautiful building, Somerset House; whilst the neighbouring Temple Gardens, "blooming in the midst of a nest of lawyers," have gained some 200 feet in depth, and thus become, on the whole, a really handsome pleasure-ground.
Close by the west side of the Temple, and near the bottom of Arundel Street, the offices of the London School Board attract our attention. The style of architecture employed is Renaissance of a somewhat early type. The front is built of Portland stone, with bands of red brick. It has been attempted to gain effect in this elevation towards the Embankment rather by pleasing proportion than by any great elaboration of design. The building throughout is somewhat simple, but has a character of some dignity. The board-room is vaulted, and its walls are panelled with oak. There is a vestibule in the centre of the building that lights the staircase and passages, and forms a convenient waiting-room, &c. The rooms are lofty and airy. On the ground floor there is spacious accommodation for the general clerks and for the works, the school management, the bye-laws, and finance departments, also rooms communicating with each other for the chairman and vice-chairman of the board. On the first floor are the board-room, the three committee-rooms, and rooms for the lady members of the board and the clerk of the board. The board-room, which is at the rear of the building, is 50 feet long by 29 feet wide and 27 feet high. The second floor is assigned to the architect's and the statistical departments. There are also rooms on the top floor for the clerk of sites and the inspectors of furniture and repairs.
There are some comfortable-looking old houses between the Temple and Somerset House, breaking out in bow-windows wherever they can get an opportunity; but they all "look like the backs of houses pretending to be front." The north side of the roadway is occupied very considerably by the Temple Station of the Metropolitan District Railway, by the back of which is a roadway skirting the lower ends of Howard and Norfolk Streets, thus opening up communication between the Embankment and the Strand.
We now pass the Thames front of Somerset House. Of this building we have spoken generally in a previous chapter. We may, however, add here that some of the rooms under the noble balustraded terrace, which for some 600 feet overlook the Embankment, are now set apart as the national depository of wills. These documents, amounting to some tons in weight, were removed hither from Doctors' Commons at the end of the year 1874. Nearly the whole of the southern front of Somerset House, having been vacated by the Admiralty, was fitted up for their accommodation, and a range of spacious apartments some two hundred feet in length, occupying the interior of the great terrace, and also a considerable portion of the basement of Somerset House itself, has been fitted up with miles of shelving, whereon are stowed away long rows of folio volumes of formidable dimensions. The fact that in the new office at Somerset House there is a depository for the executed wills of living persons (as, indeed, there was in Doctors' Commons) must be set down in the category of "things not generally known." Known, however, or not, it is true; for any man or woman in the kingdom not incapacitated from making a will may forthwith sign, seal, and deliver here, on payment of a fee of 12s. 6d., his or her last will and testament, to be kept safely and securely until his or her death makes it operative. While in the custody of the office it is kept in a fire-proof room, and can never again be seen by the testator or testatrix. Here the motto is plain and simple, "Vestigia nulla retrorsum." It is, however, competent to the testator to annul it wholly or to vary it in part by making a fresh will or a codicil; and such fresh will or codicil he may either deposit at Somerset House or keep in his own custody. Apropos of this subject, what reader will not remember the Mr. Spenlow in "David Copperfield" moralising on the uncertainty of life and the duty of making a will, and then next day dying intestate?
As to the antiquity of the documents that have been brought from Doctors' Commons to Somerset House, they may be briefly summed up by saying that the original wills commence with the year 1483, the first of Edward V. The copies date from just a century earlier, viz., in the reign of Richard II. The latter are written on parchment, strongly bound, with brazen clasps. A very small volume suffices to contain the wills of a year or even of ten years before the Reformation. As we come down to more recent times the bulk of the volumes containing the wills steadily increases with the wealth and population of London and of the kingdom. Indeed, from about 1860 down to the present time the average number of volumes filled with the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of London amounts to nearly twenty a year. These wills themselves annually average, perhaps, 10,000 in the London district alone; while those of the rest of the kingdom may possibly be reckoned at 17,000 more.
It may be added that among the special curiosities of this storehouse of ancient documents are some wills which the nation, and, indeed, the world, would not willingly allow to perish. With a single exception, these have been transferred from Doctors' Commons to Somerset House. Here the visitor, if properly introduced, may see the will of the painter Vandyck, of Dr. Johnson, of Lord Nelson, of William Pitt, of Edmund Burke, of Sir Isaac Newton, of Inigo Jones, of Izaak Walton, of the Duke of Wellington, of John Milton, and, above all, that of William Shakespeare. This, being of exceptional interest, has been exceptionally treated, and the three folio pages of which it consists are placed under an air-tight frame made of polished oak and plate glass. The will of the great Napoleon was to be seen for many years at old Doctors' Commons, but it was restored to the French nation in 1853, in compliance with the request of the Emperor Louis Napoleon.
It may, perhaps, be added here that in 1824 there was published a short-lived periodical, somewhat of the nature of the old Tatlers and Spectators, and partly a precursor of the Pall Mall Gazette and other light and chatty newspapers of our own day, called the Somerset House Gazette, edited by "Ephraim Hardcastle, Esq."—of course, an assumed name.
Passing on under the northern arch of Waterloo Bridge we enter upon the pleasantest portion of the Embankment. Here a considerable portion of land has been reclaimed from the Thames, the whole of which, except the roadway, is laid out as a garden. So high has the ground here been raised that it has fairly eclipsed Inigo Jones' water-gate. If this fine water-gate at the foot of Buckingham Street could only be elevated about ten feet, and a few of the dirty and grimy buildings which still stand between it and the centre of the Strand could be removed, we should be able to boast that we have the noblest water-side garden and park of any capital. As it is, we have tasteless mounds of made earth which are planted with rhododendrons and other flowering plants, designed to shut out the mean buildings south of the Savoy and the Adelphi; but they scarcely effect their object. But in London, a garden for public use, however tasteless, is a luxury at which we cannot afford to grumble.
Following the course of the Embankment, under the fan-shaped connection of Charing Cross Bridge with the railway station, we now emerge upon what may be considered historic ground. Extending almost in a direct line with that portion of the Embankment which we have so far traversed, the broad roadway is continued through into Whitehall Place. Between this roadway and the railway station we have just passed is Scotland Yard, the head-quarters of the metropolitan police, about which we shall have more to say in the following chapter; and to the right of this, till its recent demolition to form a new opening from Charing Cross to the Embankment, stood Northumberland House. In the angle of this large tract of ground, close under the shadow of the railway station, raised upon a granite pedestal, is a noble bronze statue of General Sir James Outram.
In January, 1875, it was stated in the Builder that the conversion of the land in front of the Thames Embankment running parallel with the Embankment between Whitehall Place and Whitehall Gardens into an ornamental garden, similar to that between Hungerford and Waterloo, was then in active progress, and that the garden would be shortly opened to the public. That portion of the land on the west side, in the direction of Whitehall, which the Crown reserved when the final arrangement was made with the Metropolitan Board of Works, has been partitioned off, and the area immediately in front, consisting of a little more than three acres, and now under the control of the Metropolitan Board, was undergoing the necessary garden transformation. In order effectually to carry out the conversion, and render the space suitable for ornamental garden purposes, it was found necessary to bring upon the land a large quantity of maiden soil and manure, and no less than 4,000 cubic yards of these materials have been carted from the neighbourhood of Haverstock Hill and laid upon the land in the process of levelling. In carrying out the works the small plot of land at the north end surrounding the statue of Sir James Outram, and which had already been laid out, has been broken up in order to admit of the entire area being uniformly laid out and arranged. The several walks and footpaths have already been formed, with the exception of the gravelled and asphalte surface, and the drainage is now in progress. A walk 16 feet in width is carried the entire length of the ground, both on the east and west sides, and from these several other walks are carried across the area at right angles, while others are circular in form. There are three circular mounds and two of oblong form, portions of which will be planted with flowers and shrubs, and the remaining parts will be turfed over. There will be four entrances to the gardens, three being on the Embankment, and the fourth at the northwest angle in Whitehall Place.
Just above Hungerford Bridge, if we had gone up the river in a steamer twenty years ago, or as now wending our way along Sir J. W. Bazalgette's Embankment, we should come upon a green oasis amid the surrounding streets—we refer to Whitehall Gardens. "It is," writes Dr. C. Mackay, in 1840, in his "Thames and its Tributaries," "a fair lawn, neatly trimmed, and divided into compartments by little walls. In the rear rises a row of goodly modern houses, the abodes of ministers and exministers, and 'lords of high degree.' But it is not so much for what it exhibits as for what it hides that it is remarkable. Just behind the house with the bow-windows, inhabited by Sir Robert Peel, is the spot where Charles the First was beheaded. In a nook close by, as if purposely hidden from the view of the world, is a very good statue of a very bad king. Unknown to the thousands of London, James the Second rears his brazen head in a corner, ashamed apparently, even in his effigies, to affront the eyes of the nation which he misgoverned."
At the junction of the Victoria Embankment with Bridge Street, close by the foot of Westminster Bridge, and facing the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament, stands the St. Stephen's Club. It immediately adjoins Westminster Bridge Railway Station, to which, as well as to the Houses of Parliament, it has an access under the roadway, quite protected from wind and rain. The building, which is constructed of Bath stone, with grey polished granite columns, occupies a somewhat irregularly-shaped block of land; and it was erected in 1874, from the designs of Mr. J. Whichcord, F.S.A. The club-house, which rises from the lower basement to the full height of 100 feet, is in the Classical or Palladian style. The rooms are lofty and light. The house is well warmed throughout by a new apparatus, the coils of which are cleverly concealed, and from top to bottom it is fitted up with electric bells of the newest pattern. The doors on every floor up to the top are of solid oak, with large ornamental panels, and the ceilings are divided into square compartments or panels, all stained with a light sky-blue colour, which makes them seem higher than they really are. At the top of the house is the culinary department—an arrangement by which the smell of the cooking escapes without entering the club. The attic floor contains, besides accommodation for servants, a large kitchen, superintended by a French chef de cuisine. On the floor next the attics are two billiardrooms, two dining-rooms, with a similar arrangement, and an occasional room for breakfasts, &c. On the next—in other words, on the first floor—are a smoking-room, a card-room, and a diningroom for members only. On the ground floor the entrance from the Embankment opens into a lofty hall paved partially with encaustic tiles and partially with inlaid polished oak, the ceiling supported by red scagliola columns, and lighted with stainedglass windows. On the left of the entrance-hall there is a small reception-room for strangers, leading into the morning-room, a lofty apartment, lighted by five large windows, looking on the river and the Houses of Parliament, the ground ceiling resting on verd antique columns. It forms almost a cross in its ground plan, and has, we should fancy, more snug nooks and corners than any other apartment in London. On the right of the hall is a large reading and writing room, running from the front to the back of the house, and destined to form the club library. To the upper floor access is gained by a spiral staircase in the Jacobean style, in plan not unlike the great staircase in the rear of Devonshire House. The windows of this staircase look out on the roof of the railway station below, and, therefore, have been filled with painted glass, in diaper work, exhibiting the White Rose, the signs of the zodiac, and other ornaments. The staircase is so arranged as to be continued down into the basement, where it leads to the secretary's office, bath-rooms, lavatories, &c. And as we read of another place that shall be nameless that "in the lowest depths there is a lower still," so in what we may call the basement of the basement there are wine and beer cellars, and strong rooms for other stores, and a place for working the hydraulic lift, by which all the provisions are raised to the top of the house without passing up the staircase. The curtains, chairs, sofas, and also the servants are all draped in a "sober livery" of dark blue and brown, "the dark blue," as remarked by a writer in the Times, "being symbolical of the Tory party, while the brown may possibly have been adopted in compliment to Mr. Disraeli, whose servants are dressed in livery of that colour."