London's Victoria Embankment

Updated on June 21, 2018
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I am an actor, comedian, writer, teacher, historian and businessman. I'm currently studying at the Open University.

The Embankment, with floating bar, the Tattershall Castle, a former ferry.
The Embankment, with floating bar, the Tattershall Castle, a former ferry.

Rule Britannia

Victoria Embankment. There's the Albert Embankment too on the other side of the river. For it was during her reign that the embankments were built. Before that, the river was much wider, shallower, filthier, more polluted and probably easier to swim across, though even less recommended than it is today. The Thames has an incredibly strong undertow making it almost impossible to swim across in Central London. In the old days though, it was the pollution that would have probably killed you before the undertow could take hold

Victoria was in fact a bigoted and humourless character who had very little influence on the country as a whole other than gloom, dark clothes and puritanical hypocrisy, but she gave her name to the age when the industrial revolution, along with the empire, reached its zenith and Britannia really did rule the waves.

Victoria, miserable old cow
Victoria, miserable old cow

The Great Stink

For many years, raw sewage from silage pits had been finding its way into the Thames. The hot summer of 1858 exacerbated the smell of this to such an extreme that parliament had to be evacuated, with talks of it even being moved to Oxford or St Albans. Several cholera epidemics, the disease recently identified as water-borne by John Snow, were blamed on this primitive sanitation, which prompted the government to act, bringing in engineer extrordinaire, Joseph Bazalgette, who designed the embankments and the sewer system that still prevails in London today. The Watergate stands by the river at the beginning of Kings Reach just near the dragons that mark the western edge of the City. This marked the start of the entire system. The embankments channelled the Thames, making it flow faster helping to keep it cleaner. Though the river is still polluted, it is much cleaner than it was back then. A truly unsung hero, it is a travesty that Bazalgette does not figure in the national consciousness as highly as Victorians such as David Livingstone, Benjamin Disraeli or Jack the Ripper.

Engineer and architect, Joseph Bazelgette. A real unsung Victorian hero
Engineer and architect, Joseph Bazelgette. A real unsung Victorian hero

Palace of Westminster

From Westminster Bridge the most striking feature is of course the oldest royal palace in Britain, the Houses of Parliament or the Palace of Westminster if you like. The last monarch to live in the Palace of Westminster was Henry VIII until a fire in 1513 made him move to nearby Whitehall Palace.

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the building, built under William II in 1097 where Simon De Montford organised the first true parliament in 1265 which met with Henry III. Also home of the law courts until the 19th Century, William Wallace, Thomas More and Guy Fawkes were all condemned in the Westminster Hall, their heads parboiled, dipped in tar and mounted on London Bridge. Oliver Cromwell's head, once he'd been posthumously exhumed and hung drawn and quartered on the order of Charles II, was mounted on Westminster Hall itself until being dislodged in a storm. Today only a statue of Cromwell stands in front of parliament.

The current building incorporates the hall and is probably the best example of 19th century Gothic revival architecture in the UK. Designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, it opened for the first time in 1852. At one end is the Victoria Tower, the square, churchlike structure with the flagpole. The flag indicates that parliament is in session. The clock tower that many think is called Big Ben, is known as Queen Elizabeth Tower (formerly St Stephen's Tower). Big Ben, as pedants will tell you, is the bell that chimes the hour. Big Ben was first heard on 31st May 1859 and was named either after Benjamin Hall, who was the chief commissioner of works when the bell was hung, or boxer Benjamin Caunt, whose nickname was Big Ben.

The Palace of Westminster, or the Houses of Parliament if you like
The Palace of Westminster, or the Houses of Parliament if you like

Boudicca

The statue of Boudicca stands on the corner of Westminster Bridge opposite Parliament. It is likely that during the reign of Victoria and in celebration of the empire, having the powerful Queen of the Iceni on display was a good bit of visual propaganda, though the statue was not put on display until after Victoria's death. Boudicea, as the Victorians called her, is also the Celtic translation of the Latin Victoria. However it is very unlikely she had sword blades protruding from her chariot as the myth that this statue has given rise to suggests. This would have been detrimental to her own troops. The other important point that nobody seems to have noticed is that Boudicca was from a race of people who were displaced by the English during the dark ages and is therefore an unusual choice for an English heroine. Never mind though, she certainly showed those Romans a thing or two.

Boudicca and her daughters. Not a true Brit.
Boudicca and her daughters. Not a true Brit.

That Other Big Clock

The largest clock face in London is on the river facing side of Shell Mex House, the former London headquarters of Shell Oil. An impressive example of Art Deco architecture or a hideous monstrosity depending on your point of view, this clock was originally known as Big Benzine and is the second largest clock face in the UK after the one on Liverpool's Liver Building. Originally built on the site of the Hotel Cecil, the original facade is still in place on the Strand. Shell Mex House is currently occupied by Pearsons PLC.

Shell Mex House. Art deco masterpiece/blot on the landscape (delete according to preference)
Shell Mex House. Art deco masterpiece/blot on the landscape (delete according to preference)

Obelisk

Cleopatra's Needle has absolutely nothing to do with Cleopatra, but as she's the only thing most people know about Ancient Egypt (despite the fact that she was Macedonian), the name seems to have stuck.

The obelisk is actually much older, and was erected in Heliopolis (now a suburb of Cairo) in 1475BC and was later moved to Alexandria by the Roman Emperor Augustus.

In 1819, the Turkish Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali (not that one), donated it to the British where it was almost lost at sea during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Six men were killed during its rescue. Finally raised on the Embankment in 1878, a time capsule was buried in its base. Damage from an air-raid during the First World War is still visible on the monument.

Cleopatra's Needle. You should have seen the size of her thread...
Cleopatra's Needle. You should have seen the size of her thread...

The Victoria Embankment itself was the first street in the world to be lit by electricity. While looking across the river towards Waterloo Pier, the only floating police station in Britain can be seen. Leading up round the side of the Savoy hotel towards the Strand is Savoy Hill, where you can see the first permanent home of the BBC, now the Institute of Engineering and Technology. It was here in 1929 that John Logie Baird gave his first demonstration of television to the corporation.



John Logie Baird
John Logie Baird

Like almost everywhere in London, there's a Dickensian connection to the Embankment. As a 12 year old boy, Charles Dickens worked in a blacking (black boot polish) factory on the site of what is now Embankment Underground Station. Dickens would later recreate it as Murdstone and Grinby in "David Copperfield".


The factory Dickens worked in as a boy. Now Embankment Station
The factory Dickens worked in as a boy. Now Embankment Station

George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham owned a house near the site of Victoria Embankment Gardens where in 1561 the scientist Francis Bacon had been born. When the house was demolished, Villiers insisted on the new streets bearing his name, hence Villiers Street, George Street, Buckingham Street and Duke Street. A watergate that was built to access the Thames from the house can be seen in the gardens.

The watergate, Victoria Embankment Gardens
The watergate, Victoria Embankment Gardens

Bridges

The embankment runs beneath Waterloo Bridge, which affords the most spectacular views of London's riverside out of all the bridges, particularly at night. It is often called the "Ladies' Bridge" having been built by a mainly female workforce during World War II. Beside it are the three Hungerford bridges, an ugly railway bridge sandwiched between two pedestrian walkways and mercifully hiding it from view. The embankment ends at Blackfriars Bridge on the edge of the City, with its station built alongside it spanning the river, the only station in London with entrances either side of the Thames.


Eastwards view from Waterloo Bridge at night
Eastwards view from Waterloo Bridge at night

Whether you're sightseeing or just out for a romantic walk, it's well worth taking a stroll along the embankment. The pavements are surprisingly uncongested compared to the South Bank, and history leaps out at you with every step.

Sources

Britannica.com

British Newspaper Archive (London Local History)

Open University Library

Hutchinson Encyclopedia

History of London-Helen Irvine-Douglas

London, The Biography-Peter Ackroyd

I Never Knew That About London-Christopher Winn

Questions & Answers

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      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 months ago from UK

        I've learned a lot from reading this article. I especially liked the historical background information.

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