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.

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