Victorian London - Thames - Embankments


A BODY of gentlemen meet now, and then to discuss this delightful subject; and at one of the recent réunions, a Mr. Martin got positively pathetic about having devoted a long and arduous life to the sewers and cesspools of his native city. Fourteen long years had he laboured to enlarge the subterranean ways and watercourses of the modern Babylon; and it is evident that he will not die happy until the filth of London is floating - at twopence a ton - over the heath of Bagshot. Mr. Martin was affected almost to tears when he talked of his exertions to carry the manure of the metropolis to the suburbs; and his ambitious desire to construct a terrace all along the banks of the Thames is a beautiful illustration of the force of the imagination, which, in the pursuit of a cherished object, forgets the existence of the wharf, the necessity for selling coals from a barge, the propriety of allowing commerce still to exist, and the vested interests of the ordinary coal-heaver.
    Mr. Martin would have the banks of the Thames a series of terraces, the houses palaces, and the sewers laboratories for the practice of chemistry. This is all very well in theory, but to our own eye (saying nothing of Martin) it seems rather difficult to be put in practice. "The rose by any other name would smell as sweet;" and however fine the appellation we might give to it, we fear that it will require an extraordinary zeal for science to find charms in sewers and cesspools. If Mr. Martin can only die happy on condition of carrying out his ideas about the Thames and its contents, we must of necessity predict what we should very sincerely regret-a miserable termination to his existence

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1843


In connection with the Main Drainage Low-level Sewer, a scheme for an embankment of the river Thames was proposed, and a Royal Commission appointed, in 1861, to inquire into its practicability; when the plan of Mr. M. Lean was approved of, and submitted to Parliament. In 1862 an Act was passed, authorising its completion. The total length at present commenced is 5710 feet, of which, by the first contract, 3740 feet are undertaken by Mr. Furness, at an estimated cost of 520,000l. ; and by the second contract, 1970 feet, by Messrs. Ritson and Co., for 229,000l. It is proposed to fill in an unsightly gap in the shore at Millbank, and the embankment at present projected will extend from Westminster to Blackfriars Bridges. This includes the construction of a new steam-boat pier at Westminster, and the roadway, which is to be 100 feet wide, at a height of 4 feet above high-water mark, from Westminster to the Temple, and 70 feet in width from the Temple to Blackfriars, will cross the first brick pier of the Charing Cross Railway Bridge, and the first pier of the Waterloo Bridge. A viaduct of open arches is to be constructed, to admit barges to the City Gas Works and the wharves at Whitefriars, and the approaches from the east side of Bridge-street, from "Whitehall," and from Charing Cross, will be laid out as gardens or on building leases.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

Albert Embankment - The Albert Embankment, London, S.E., on the right bank, from a point a little below Vauxhall Bridge to Westminster Bridge. The carriage way diverges to the right after leaving Lambeth Palace, and enters Westminster Bridge-road at the corner of Stangate; St. Thomas's Hospital and a walk for foot passengers only occupying the river frontage at this point.
NEAREST Railway Stations, Vauxhall and Westminster Bridge; Omnibus Route, Westminster Bridge-road; Steamboat Pier, Lambeth.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

Victoria Embankment, London, extends along the left bank from Westminster to Blackfriars, a distance of about a mile and a quarter, and was constructed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works. The whole of the space now occupied by the embankment was covered by water or mud, according to the state of the tide, and few London improvements have been more conducive to health and comfort. The substitution of the beautiful curve of the Embankment, majestic in its simplicity, with its massive granite walls, flourishing trees, and trim gardens, is an unspeakable improvement on the squalid foreshore, and tumble-down wharves, and backs of dingy houses which formerly abutted on the river. It is to be regretted that difficulties of approach make this noble thoroughfare less useful than it should be. At Westminster and at Charing-cross both from Northumberland-avenue and from Whitehall-place, and at Blackfriars, the approaches are all that can be desired, and are worthy of the Embankment itself, but the streets leading from the Strand, such as, for instance, as Arundel-street and Norfolk-street, are both steep and inconvenient. From Arundel-street to Blackfriars, indeed, there is no carriage way on to the Embankment. The general appearance of the Victoria Embankment is still somewhat marred by the presence here and there of unsightly buildings, which it may be hoped will ere long be removed - and probably not even the designer of the Charing-cross Railway Station would call that useful building in any way ornamental - but it is nevertheless singularly rich in architectural features. Somerset House, the Temple, the Adelphi-terrace, the St. Stephen's Club, the School Board building, and other fine buildings, are either on or visible from the Embankment. It would seem from the numerous pedestals which the architect inserted in his design, that it was in contemplation to place an alarming number of statues along the road. Possibly this plan will eventually be carried into effect. At present the Embankment has fortunately but three statues to offer to the inspection of the critic: those of Sir James Outram at the foot of Whitehall-place; Brunel, near Somerset House; and John Stuart Mill, in one of the gardens. In curious contrast to the modern statues, and to the busy life about it, is Cleopatra's Needle, which owing to the public spirit and energy of Mr. Erasmus Wilson and Mr. John Dixon, is now a conspicuous object on the river- wall at the bottom of Salisbury-street. There is a floating swimming-bath at Charing-cross, and a Thames Police-station just below Waterloo Bridge, close to which is moored the Rainbow, now the drill ship of the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers.
    NEAREST Bridges, Westminster, Waterloo, Blackfriars (all carriage roads), Charing-cross (foot); Steamboat Piers, Westminster, Charing-cross, Waterloo, and Temple; Railway Stations, Westminster (Dist.), Charing-cross (Dist. and SE.), Temple (Dist.), Blackfriars (Dist. and L.C. & D.); Omnibus Routes, the Strand and Fleet-street.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881


Leaving this grand old building, let us wend our way down Ludgate Hill, and, turning round towards Blackfriars Bridge, make for the EMBANKMENT. This fine promenade alongside old Father Thames is one of London’s most modern improvements. The greatest city in the world was, until some few years ago, so much occupied in amassing riches, that very little was done to make it beautiful. Its river’s banks, although presenting an animated appear­ance with the unlading of ship’s cargoes, had been spoken of as an ‘eyesore.’ When the tide was low, large and unhealthy muddy reaches were left exposed. These became not only the sporting ground of the ‘mudlark,’ but the hotbed of pestilence and fever; and were at last supeceded by the beautiful promenade which you see in our picture.
    The idea of an Embankment is no new one. As far back as 1666, after the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren proposed to raise a spacious embankment to the river. But unfortunately, when the best opportunity presented itself, while London was a heap of ruins and had to be rebuilt, the idea was not adopted. Since that time, until Mr. Bazalgette, the engineer, came forward with his plans, not one of the numerous schemes for this sorely needed improvement had been carried out.
    To construct an Embankment such as we now have was a work of no little difficulty: for some distance the river had to be dammed, while the works were in progress; the mud had to be dredged out, excavations made, and a granite wall built on a foundation of Portland cement concrete, thirty-two and a half feet below high-water mark, or fourteen feet below low-water mark. A low-level sewer, a subway, and the District Railway, were also built underground. To go further into details would not interest many of you, but I will jot down a few of the quantities of material used, for those who would like to know. Of granite there were 650,000 cubic feet; brickwork, 80,000 cubic yards; concrete, 140,000 cubic yards; timber, 500,000 cubic feet; York paving, 125,000 superficial feet.
    The Embankment is divided into three parts. The first, extending from Westminster to Vauxhall Bridge, is named the Albert, and was opened in November, 1869; the Victoria, from Blackfriars to Westminster, was opened in July, 1870; and the Chelsea, from Chelsea to Battersea, in 1874.
    The Victoria, of which alone we shall speak here, forms a very graceful curved front to this noblest of English rivers, as well as a wide promenade and carriage-way. The road is sixty-four feet wide; the foot-path on the land side is sixteen feet, and that on the river side twenty feet wide. It is a mile and a quarter in length, and is planted with trees on each side. The wall is very simple, but strong. On its river side are placed bronze lions’ heads, carrying mooring rings. At intervals massive granite piers rise from the wall around the spaces where are placed the landing-stages, and at other places are steps projecting into the river. Here we may often see those faithful animals, the dogs, taking their daily bath, or swimming out into the river after sticks thrown by their owners. But how quickly the little crowd of admirers scatters when Carlo or Topsy shakes the water in showers over them!

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

see also George Sala in London Up to Date - click here

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Victoria Embankment, from Waterloo Bridge



The Victoria Embankment, as viewed from Waterloo Bridge, quite surpasses anything that is seen beside the Seine or the Tiber. Its magnificent sweep from the Houses of Parliament to St. Paul's is one of the finest sights in the whole of London, and cannot fail to impress every observer. Cityward the most noticeable building is Somerset House, with its fine façade of 780 feet, and beyond this lie the Offices of the London School Board, the Temple Library, Sion College Library, and the City of London School, &c. The Embankment itself, the greatest achievement of the late Metropolitan Board of Works, cost nearly two millions, and its construction occupied six years - 1864-70.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Victoria Embankment, from Charing Cross Station

Victoria Embankment - photograph


The Thames Embankment, the work of Sir J. W. Bazalgette, is in three divisions the chief being the Victoria Embankment, shown above, reaching from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge, commenced in 1864 and finished in 1870. The roadway and footways, 100 feet wide, are planted with trees, and make the finest boulevard in London. In its construction over thirty-seven acres of ground were reclaimed from the muddy foreshore. In the centre of our view appears Cleopatra's Needle; in the mid-distance is Waterloo Bridge ; and beyond will be seen the fine river-front of Somerset House. The cost of this Embankment was over a million and a half. The other divisions are the Albert Embankment, from the south end of Westminster Bridge to Vauxhall, and a third from Millbank to Battersea Bridge.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Victoria Embankment, from Westminster Bridge

The Victoria Embankment, from Westminster Bridge - photograph


From Westminster the River Thames shapes its seaward course with a noble bend; and seen from the bridge, the Victoria Embankment that engineering triumph of the late Metropolitan Board of Works, appears at its best Above the well-grown plane-trees lining the Embankment rises the many-turreted block of buildings containing the National Liberal Club. Next is noticed the arched roof of Charing Cross Railway  Station, with the Bridge; and between this and Waterloo Bridge are Adelphi Terrace, the huge Hotel Cecil, with its flagstaffs, the Savoy Hotel, and the Medical Examination Hall; while beyond Waterloo Bridge, our picture shows the long façade of stately Somerset House. In the foreground is one of the floating steamboat-piers of the Thames Conservancy. One of the steamers of the Victoria Steamboat Association has just left on its way to London Bridge, while another boat, more crowded, is approaching, bound for Chelsea.

PUTNEY EMBANKMENT opened in 1888, extends for about half a mile towards Barnes, and has a carriage-way of thirty-five, and a footway of ten feet wide, and is an immense advantage to this large and growing locality. Reached by steamer, or by rail from Waterloo.

Charles Dickens Jr. et al, Dickens Dictionary of London, c.1908 edition
(no date; based on internal evidence)