Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Streets of Old Westminster: From Thorney Island to Parliament Square

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and walking northward along Millbank from Vauxhall Bridge towards Parliament Square, crosses an invisible line, somewhere between Millbank Tower (the tallest building along the route) and Thames House (the headquarters of the domestic security service, MI5), marking the southern edge of Thorney Island. Thorney island was an eyot or ait: an island formed by the deposition of sediments, often at the confluence of two rivers, in this case the Thames and the Tyburn, the latter flowing south from Hampstead through what is now Saint James's Park (archaeologists from the Museum of London have recently been studying the course of the now largely invisible River Tyburn, and the results of their researches can be seen here).

Thorney Island. Photo:

Bush Eyot, on the River Thames in Berkshire, gives an impression of what Thorney Island might have looked like before it was built upon. Photo: Nancy (licensed under CCA). 

There are records of a church having been built on the island as early as the Seventh Century AD, by Mellitus, Bishop of London, an Italian Benedictine who came to England as part of the mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great, under Saint Augustine, to Christianise the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, and Westminster Abbey all stand on what was once Thorney Island, chosen by the later Anglo-Saxon Kings as the royal centre of London, some distance to the west (and, importantly, upstream) from the bustling (and frequently noisy and malodorous) commercial port and City.

Conjectural reconstruction of Thorney Island in the reign of King Henry VIII, with the Palace of Westminster (foreground), Westminster Hall (centre), Westminster Abbey (top), and Saint Margaret's Church (to the right of the abbey). H.J. Brewer, 1884 (image is in the Public Domain).

Almost opposite the Sovereign's Entrance to the House of Lords is the Jewel Tower, built in the Fourteenth Century, on the orders of King Edward III. As its name suggests, it was intended to house valuable items of Royal regalia. Its foundations, as revealed by archaeologists, testify to its original position on the shores of a tidal islet, prone to flooding.

The Jewel Tower. Photo: lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The foundations of the Jewel Tower, with oak sleepers resting on elm piles. Photo: Tracey and Doug (licensed under CCA).

The Palace of Westminster that we see today was built by the Nineteenth Century architects, Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, following a disastrous fire in 1834. The first palace on the site, however, was built by King Edward the Confessor, in the Eleventh Century, its position on an island presumably providing an element of security. Among the earliest elements to survive is Westminster Hall, built in 1097, and then the largest hall in Europe. Its wooden roof was commissioned by King Richard II, in 1393, from the Royal Carpenter, Hugh Herland. The hall, which saw (among many others) the trials of Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and King Charles I; together with other parts of the Parliamentary Estate, can be visited by the public when Parliament is in Recess.

Parliament Square from the London Eye, showing the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (left), Saint Margaret's Church (centre left), and Westminster Abbey (centre). Photo: Tebbetts (image is in the Public Domain).

Westminster Hall in 1808, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Pugin (image is in the Public Domain).

Penny of King Edward the Confessor. Photo: Rasiel Suarez (licensed under CCA). 

Parliament Square, in its current form, was laid out in 1868. Around it are statues of prominent statesmen (Churchill, Palmerston, Disraeli, Sir George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi), and, the most recent addition, the Womens' Suffrage campaigner, Millicent Fawcett.

Parliament Square. Photo: wjh31 (image is in the Public Domain).

Statue of Millicent Fawcett, Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

On the west side of Parliament Square is the Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall, built between 1912 and 1913; and, on the south side, Saint Margaret's Church (established in the Twelfth Century but rebuilt in the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries); and Westminster Abbey, the burial place of English monarchs throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, and the scene of coronations from the time of William the Conqueror down to the present day.

At the same time as he was building the first Royal Palace on Thorney Island, King Edward the Confessor re-modeled the old Benedictine monastery, established by Bishop Mellitus, into a Royal Church, in which he, and his wife, Edith, would ultimately be buried. The number of monks increased dramatically over the following decades, with the "Abbey of Saint Peter" (its official title throughout the Middle Ages) becoming one of the great landowners of England by the time of the Domesday survey of 1087. Much of the City of Westminster is built on land that once belonged to the monks, supplying them with wool and leather for their clothing; meat, cheese, fruit, and vegetables to eat; and milk and ale to drink (the abbey had, by this stage, been taken within the pan-European Cluniac family, whose monks, often with close aristocratic and royal connections, ate and drank very well).

The body of King Edward the Confessor being carried to the Abbey of Saint Peter, from the Bayeux Tapestry (image is in the Public Domain).

Most of the abbey that we see today dates from the rebuilding that began under King Henry III, in 1245, although each successive generation, including our own, has made its mark on the fabric of the building.

The Figures of Twentieth Century Martyrs, above the West Door of Westminster Abbey. Photo: Dnalor_01 (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Streets of Old Westminster: Millbank - the North Bank of the Thames

A visitor to London, having explored the Borough of Lambeth, and arrived back at Vauxhall Bridge, can cross the bridge into the western end of the City of Westminster. The street that now bears the name of Millbank (after a Medieval tidal mill, owned by the Benedictine monks of Saint Peter's, otherwise known as Westminster Abbey) follows the northern (or "Middlesex") bank of the River Thames, between Chelsea and the Houses of Parliament. The modern view, as one walks across the bridge, is dominated by the Neoclassical facade of the Tate Britain art gallery.

Tate Britain. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (image is in the Public Domain). 

Those who have been following these perambulations from the outset may have realised, by now, that we are traveling around Greater London somewhat in the manner of Henri Matisse's "Snail" (a work, incidentally, that I first saw, as a teenager, in this gallery, but which now hangs in the Tate Modern), having visited the City of London, crossed the river into Southwark and Lambeth, and now crossing it once again to visit Westminster.

"Snail," by Henri Matisse, 1953, Tate Modern (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).

We have already encountered the sugar magnate, Henry Tate, at his one-time home in Streatham, and it was he who gave his name to the art gallery, having paid for its construction. The gallery opened to the public in 1897, an is now linked by a shuttle-boat service to its sister-gallery at Bankside, a great way to see the waterfronts of the Thames in the boroughs that we have been exploring. In Atterbury Street, on the side of the gallery, can be seen the scars of German bombing raids in 1940 and 1941.

Bomb damage on the wall of Tate Britain. Photo: (licensed under GNU).

Both the gallery, and the adjacent Chelsea College of Art and Design (previously the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps) were built on the site of a earlier prison. In fact, there had been a prison camp in the marshes here since the time of the Battle of Worcester (1651), with defeated Royalists being held here by Parliamentary forces prior to being sent for hard labour in Britain's overseas colonies. By the time that Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary, this had been abandoned, and he records "Tothill Fields" as "a low, marshy locality," suitable for shooting snipe (not a bird that one commonly sees in the area today).

Chelsea College of Art and Design, built in 1907 as the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Photo: Entangle (licensed under CCA).

Ordnance Survey Map of 1912 (image is in the Public Domain).

The more famous Millbank Prison, which functioned from 1816 to 1890, and which was demolished prior to the construction of the gallery and college, was closely associated with the transportation of convicts to Australia, since it was here that most of the prisoners were held before being loaded into barges and taken downstream to the ships that would carry them away. Although much of the literature (both fictional and non-fictional) inspired by these journeys have emphasised the hardships endured by the convicts (which were certainly real enough), it was intended, at least in part, as a more humane alternative to the gallows.

"Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking their leave of their lovers, who are going to Botany Bay," by Robert Sayer, 1792. National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).

The prison itself was originally conceived by the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832), as part of a utopian scheme for the management, and ultimate reform, of offenders, but his panopticon design (intended to ensure surveillance of prisoners at all times, at minimum expense) proved to be impractical, and was never actually built. Instead, the prison became a byword for squalor and contagion, and few voices were raised to lament its demolition.

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (image is in the Public Domain).

Bentham's "Panopticon" design, 1791 (image is in the Public Domain).

Plan of Millbank Prison, as actually built, G.P. Holford, 1828 (image is in the Public Domain).

Millbank Prison, 1829, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (image is in the Public Domain).

The burial ground at Millbank Prison, 1862 (image is in the Public Domain).

Today, the path that follows the north bank of the Thames, as we walk towards Parliament Square, is pleasantly shaded by plane trees on the river-side; with the offices of government departments and political parties on the other side of the road; and little evidence remaining of those who passed this way en route for the most uncertain of futures.

Millbank Tower from Vauxhall. Photo: Iridescenti (licensed under GNU).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.