Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - The Thames Embankment - All Hours

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THE Christmas Number of Punch 1892 contains one of those happy cartoons combining the picturesque with the humorous, the stately with the comic, which noble old John Tenniel alone among British artists can draw. He conjures up a view of the Thames at Westminster, and shows us the broad bosom of the stream covered by a glorified water pageant, in which figures Mr. Punch as the Doge of the greatest of all Venices in the world - London - standing triumphant on the poop of the Metropolitan Bucentaur, a kind of apotheosised Lord Mayor, with his sword-bearer, his mace-bearer, the officers of his household, and other satellites around; while in his following come a mighty flotilla of barges and gondolas, crowded with splendidly-clad company. Silken banners wave, rich tissues of cloth of gold rustle, a glittering regimental band, under the leadership of Lieutenant Dan Godfrey, discourse stirring strains. Tritons and Nereids disport themselves in the foreground among the swans and the bulrushes; and old Father Thames is pictured as transported with delight when he finds his historic river once more pure and pellucid, good to drink, good to lave in, good [-357-] for the holding of such splendid aquatic processions as used to make our river grandiose and glittering to the view from the days of the Plantagenets to those of the last Stuarts.
    John Tenniel's masterly picture has given pleasure, no doubt, to many thousands of readers, old and young. Yet are there passages in it which might arouse a sigh in the breast of the Elderly Cockney. Why cannot we have a river as fair as that which the artist has delineated; and why should it not be thronged with handsome barques, and barges, and wherries, as it was in the old times? Alas! the enormous development of the giant city since the beginning of the present century, and the introduction of steam navigation, have killed the picturesque on the river. The first penny steamer that plied between the Old Swan Stairs, London Bridge, and Chelsea, sounded the death-knell of the artistic Thames - in London, at least. I am just old enough to remember when the Chief Magistrate of the City, in his state barge, accompanied by the barges of the great City Companies, made their progress from London Bridge to Westminster on the morning of the 9th of November; and on one or two occasions, perhaps, William IV. was rowed citywards in that Royal galley which still exists, as well as the Royal watermen do, although the barge has long since been laid up in ordinary, and the scarlet-clad watermen only exercise their limited functions on the banks of Virginia Water.
    From about 1840 to 1870, whenever it happened [-358-] that I was in England, I could attentively watch the river getting dirtier, and the buildings on its banks growing uglier, dingier, and squalider year after year; until at length the stream was little better than an open sewer, bordered by uninteresting brick tenements and warehouses, with a few notable exceptions here and there, such as the Houses of Parliament, Somerset House, and the Temple; but on the whole, the condition of the Thames and its shores, in the midst of the mightiest and the wealthiest capital in the world, had become a national scandal and a national reproach. It was reluctantly acknowledged on all sides that something had got to be done, not only for the sake of architectural handsomeness, but also to check the further pollution of a stream which had become so hideously muddy, and so offensive both to sight and smell, that there was a legend, actually believed in by numbers of otherwise intelligent people, that an oleaginous stuff known as "Thames butter" was manufactured out of the slime and ooze of the filthy river and vended as genuine butter.
    The "something" that had to be done was to embank the Thames; and the scheme of an embankment having been fiercely debated in Parliament, and on more than one occasion all but defeated by the influence of narrow-minded vested interests, was at length sanctioned by both Houses, and in 1864 there was begun that splendid river terrace which you and I are now perambulating. 
    In contemplating the genesis of the Thames Embankment it is difficult to repress a bitter smile when it is [-359-] remembered that in all probability the shores of the Thames were solidly embanked more than two thousand years ago; since, among experts, there is a general consensus of opinion that in ancient times the Thames was not a river, but an estuary, the shores of which were the hills of Camberwell and Sydenham to the south, and those of Highgate and Hampstead on the north; and that what we call the Thames valley was a vast marsh, somewhat resembling the lagoons around Venice, and through which plain the river wound its silver-winding way. It was Sir Christopher Wren's opinion that wharves or quays were built on both sides of the channel, and this theory is very tenable when we consider that a large portion of what is commonly called London is lower in level than the high-water mark in the Thames - a topographical fact which accounts for the floods which so often in early spring work such tremendous havoc in riverain Lambeth and Battersea. Some antiquaries have endeavoured to show that the river wharves of the Thames were built by the native Britons long before the Roman invasion; but it is likelier that the Romans only found earthworks on the shores of the Thames, and substituted strongly-built walls of brick for the primitive embankments.
    At all events, for a good many centuries after the evacuation of Britain by the Romans, the Thames remained practically unembanked; and merchants and others who wished to use the shores for commercial purposes had no scruples in destroying what remained of the old Roman river walls in order to construct [-360-] wharves for their own use. Then, again, many of the nobility in Plantagenet and Tudor times had their town mansions on the southern side of the Strand, with gardens stretching down to the river, and with stairs whence they could proceed to their barges. The circumstance that so many grand patrician houses existed on this foreshore from Essex Street right down to Hungerford was probably the reason why' Sir Christopher Wren, after the Great Fire, only proposed that the "commodious quay" which he projected should extend from Blackfriars to the Tower. His friend and contemporary, Evelyn, propounded another ingenious plan of a terrace from the Tower past Blackfriars to the Temple; but there he stopped short, probably for the same reason that had made Sir Christopher desist from his attempt to continue the embankment towards Westminster. In both cases, however, vested interests were to the fore, and the plans for embanking the Thames had to be abandoned. Three or four times in the course of the eighteenth century fresh proposals were made to build continuous quays on both sides of the river, but they did not go beyond the making of a few speeches and the publication of a few pamphlets and maps.
    During the reigns of the Fourth George and the Fourth William, and the early years of the rule of our own beloved Sovereign, the subject of embanking the river from London Bridge to Westminster was frequently mooted in and out of Parliament by Sir Frederick Trench. In 1840, the eminent engineer, [-361-] James Walker, prepared plans for an embankment for the Corporation of London, but the plans were "hung up," and nothing was done. The country had to wait for the last administration of Lord Palmerston for Parliamentary sanction to be given to the great scheme of embanking the river, carried out after six years' unceasing labour, under the supervision of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. And even then London had to accept an embankment in piecemeal. The "Victoria" extends from the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge to the foot of Westminster Bridge. The "Albert" stretches from the Lambeth end of Westminster Bridge to Vauxhall; while a third section extends from Millbank to Cadogan Pier, hard by Battersea Bridge.
    This is why I have said that the Elderly Cockney may well sigh when he considers the Embankment in its present incomplete state. To make it accord with the grandeur of the Metropolis of the British Empire the entire river on both its shores should be embanked from Battersea to the Tower. Had we not been, as we usually are in matters of Metropolitan improvement, timid and half-hearted, and ready to truckle to those confounded "vested interests," the great work might have been accomplished years ago. As it is, we have to be thankful - if we are thankful at all - for the smallest of small mercies. I grant that the river terrace from the New Palace at Westminster is comely enough. It starts well from the vastly improved Bridge Street, Westminster, and so down to Northumberland Avenue, which is in every respect a noble thoroughfare; [-362-] while the National Liberal Club and the contiguous edifices of flats are really architectural adornments of a formerly very dingy and shabby foreshore. One terrible disfigurement near here makes itself apparent in the new Scotland Yard, the edifice erected as the headquarters of the administration of the Metropolitan police being almost as ugly and lumbering-looking a building as is the façade of the Hotel Métropole at Brighton - which is saying a great deal. Then, again, although a railway station is in general not by any means a lovely object to contemplate, it cannot be denied that Charing Cross railway bridge, in its aspect of Titanic solidity and strength, is really a most imposing structure.
    Of course, from the picturesque point of view, the light and aerial suspension bridge which formerly crossed the river from old Hungerford Market to Westminster, and which now spans the Avon at Clifton, was gracefuller than the great railway bridge over which thunder so many ponderous trains throughout the day and night. Hungerford Market, as I remember it, was a most amusing place. Unfortunately it was disastrously unsuccessful as a commercial speculation, and the owners of the land were only too glad to sell it to the South-Eastern Railway Company. The market was intended to be a West-End Billingsgate, and for some years was satisfactorily supplied with fish; still, for some unaccountable reason, while the vendors were many the customers were few. In its latter days a spasmodic attempt was made to revive the fortunes of [-363-] the market by building a music hall in the centre of the basement area; but the public at large seemed no more anxious to hear songs sung at Hungerford Hall than to buy fish at the shops which surrounded it.
    Superstitious people might have whispered that the whole neighbourhood lay under a curse, and that the word Hungerford was synonymous with ill-luck, and had been so since, some time in the Middle Ages, a certain Dame Alice Hungerford was banged at Tyburn for murdering her little son under circumstances of the most horrible barbarity; while the greatness of the Hungerford family finally ceased with one Sir Edward Hungerford, who, after squandering a princely fortune -  it is said that he once gave three hundred pounds for a periwig-  died a Poor Knight of Windsor in Queen Anne's reign, at the more than patriarchal age of 115. He can scarcely be deemed lucky to have lived so long in obscurity and poverty. As for his great town mansion in the Strand, we read in Pepys' how, on the night of 26th April, 1669, the carelessness of a servant maid sent to take off a candle from a bunch, which she did by burning it off and leaving the rest on fire, sufficed to destroy the entire pile which had been just newly furnished. The conflagration might have spread and developed into another Great Fire of London; but Charles II. came down from Whitehall with his Guards, and with the sagacity and presence of mind which he showed from time to time, he stopped the spread of the flames by ordering the houses on either side to be blown up with gunpowder.
    [-364-] We must be grateful, too, I suppose, for the pretty little bits of ornamental gardens which have been formed on the Embankment on the land reclaimed from the river. You do not see many nurse-maids there, nor many people with long hair reading books, and occasionally smiting their breasts, and generally supposed to be either poets or actors studying their parts; and, in fact, with the exception of a few shabby folks who may be reckoned upon to haunt every open space in London, the ornamental gardens, nicely laid out as they are, would not appear to have obtained any very considerable popularity. The Savoy Hotel, on the other hand, is a distinct improvement in the general prospect of the river terrace. Of course, if your proclivities are of an antiquarian nature, you would prefer to see the grey old pile of the Savoy Palace as it existed in Plantagenet times; but elderly people with whom I have conversed, and who remembered very well what remained of the Savoy in the days of their youth, have told me that it was a wretched old place, as ugly as sin, as tumble-down as Seven Dials, and noticeable only as comprising a very uncomfortable barrack for a detachment of the Foot Guards, and an exceptionally unsavoury prison for deserters. The new hotel, close to Mr. D'Oyly Carte's diverting theatre, has a light, cheerful, altogether Continental air about it, and it is precisely the Continental aspect which we want, and which is so sadly lacking, on the Victoria Embankment.
    I grant frankly and unreservedly that, as a monument of engineering skill, the Embankment is almost [-365-] unrivalled. I own that the great stretch of roadway from Westminster to Blackfriars forms a splendid promenade. I am quite willing also to recognise the fact that the construction of this great quay has revealed much more of the architectural beauties of Waterloo Bridge than were formerly visible. I do not deny that Cleopatra's Needle is fully worth the sum which the munificent Sir Erasmus Wilson expended in bringing the gigantic monolith from Alexandria to London. I have not a word to say against Somerset House, save that the central dome is paltry and insignificant, and that the arched gates in the basement are mean and common-looking when compared with the architectural stateliness of the superstructure. Against the Temple Gardens and the grand old halls of the two honourable societies, not one word have I to say; and Alderman de Keyser's Hotel very handsomely rounds off the northern corner of Bridge Street, Blackfriars, and most satisfactorily replaces the forbidding mass of bricks and mortar which formerly formed a screen to the abominable old prison of Bridewell.
    More than a score of years ago there was a Gaiety burlesque in which Mr. J. L. Toole enacted the principal character, and in which he never failed to bring down the house in roars of laughter by an oft-repeated catchword, "Still I am not happy." Up and down the Embankment do I trudge, or along the great roadway do I drive; and still I am not happy. The view of the Houses of Parliament and of the venerable Abbey in the distance; the four bridges of Westminster, Charing  [-366-] Cross, Waterloo, and Blackfriars; the Duke of Buccleuch's palatial mansion, with its Mansard roof, the clubs and hotels and public schools which line some portion of the road; the old Adelphi Terrace, renovated and "spruced up," but always welcome to the sight; all these features do I duly appreciate, and sometimes I am sanguine enough to hope that I shall live to see the saplings with which the footpath has been planted grow into something like proper trees. My complaint is that we do not make enough of the Victoria Embankment. The Underground Railway runs beneath it from Blackfriars to Westminster; and that usefullest of lines has an adequate number of stations on the route.
    These stations should make the Embankment lively; but, to my mind, they utterly fail to do so; and the crowds of passengers who are continually entering or emerging from the stations seem to bestow scarcely any attention on the great terrace over which so many hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent. I want to see cafés on the Victoria Embankment. I want to see beer-gardens, handsome and well-appointed, and where the people could enjoy the best of good instrumental music. And, finally, I want the entire river parapet from Westminster to Blackfriars to be lined with bookstalls precisely as the quays of Paris are so lined - bookstalls which should bring not only bookworms and collectors of "curios" to the Embankment, but studious boys and studious girls, the numbers of whom I am glad to believe are increasing by leaps and bounds [-367-] every year. I want to see more private carriages and more ladies on horseback on fine mornings and fine afternoons; and when we have made up our minds to avail ourselves even of half the manifold advantages placed within our reach by Joseph Bazalgette's stupendous engineering achievement, I shall be really happy - so far as it is permitted to a mortal to be felicitous, here below.

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