The history of Millbank: once the home of convicts, artists, politicians and spies
Today, Millbank is largely taken up by a collection of large buildings, including Tate Britain and Millbank Tower, but it has been radically transformed from marshy fields, and most particularly, the former location of the largest prison in Britain, Millbank Penitentiary.
The Horse ferry and Peterborough House
The name ‘Millbank’ originated from the early mill that belonged to the Abbey of Westminster and was situated beyond Horseferry Road until the 17th century. Until the Georgian period, this area along the banks of the Thames was covered with fields, orchards and meadows. Horseferry Road originated as the track way to the horse ferry across to Lambeth, which until the 18th century was the only way to cross the river (apart from London Bridge in the east). It was a large flat bottomed boat that could carry up to a coach and six horses. It continued to be used until around 1750 after Westminster Bridge opened.
The area to the south of Horseferry Road became known as Market Meadows and was largely unfit for building, but when the Manor of Ebury (the origins of much of today’s Grosvenor Estate) was acquired by Alexander Davies in the 1660s, he built himself a large manor house. It was later leased to the Earl’s of Peterborough and became known as Peterborough House. It was rebuilt by the Grosvenor family in the 18th century, and also known as Belgrave House and Millbank House, but was demolished in 1809 when building development began to spread, including a road to the new Millbank Penitentiary.
Millbank Penitentiary and the ghost of Morpeth Arms
This isolated spot was chosen as an ideal location for a new prison and the first prisoners moved in during 1816, although it was not fully completed until 1821, when it was the largest prison in Britain.
The design was based on the experimental ‘panopticon’ created by Jeremy Bentham, which meant inmates were constantly being watched. It was designed with an inspection house in the centre with the surrounding buildings constructed as a six pointed structure, which allowed the guards to watch the prisoners in their cells. It was created with hopes for reforming prisoners, but it was highly controversial, in particular the ‘separate system’. During the early period the prison was largely occupied by prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia. It became an ordinary prison in 1843 and demolished in 1890.
The Morpeth Arms, situated on the corner of Ponsonby Place, was built in 1845 largely frequented by the wardens from Millbank Prison. There are a great many stories related to the cellars of the pub, which retain tunnels believed to have been used by the prisoners being transported to Australia. The cellars are popularly believed to be haunted by the ghost of a prisoner who died there.
Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Art and Design
After the demolition of Millbank Prison part of the site was taken for a new art gallery. It largely consisted of the collection of Sir Henry Tate, of Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, as well as the Turner bequest. The building was designed by Sidney R.J. Smith and opened as the National Gallery of British Art in July 1897. The original building had just eight rooms with 245 pictures, but since that time has had many extensions to house the increasing collection. It became known as the Tate Gallery after the founder, but renamed Tate Britain after the opening of the Tate Modern in 2000.
To the south of Tate Britain is the Chelsea College of Art and Design, originally built as the Royal Army Medical College (RAMC) and Regimental Officers Mess, opened by Edward VII and Queen Alexander in May 1907. The RAMC was designed by Scottish architects John Henry Townsend Woodd [sic] and Wilfred Ainslie in an Imperial Baroque style, while the accompanying Regimental Mess was designed in a French Renaissance style. The hospital was the location for a number of medical developments, including the vaccine against typhoid; gas masks; and research into inoculations. The hospital and Officers’ Mess continued here until 1999, when it was transformed into the Chelsea College of Art and Design, who permanently relocated in 2004.
The demolition of Millbank prison also made way for a new housing development, the Millbank Estate, completed in 1902 for London County Council. It is made up of 17 buildings constructed from bricks recycled from the prison. The Arts & Crafts inspired mansion blocks were constructed with more attention to the decorative details, and given this artistic inspiration and the location near the Tate Britain the buildings are also appropriately named after artists, including Millais and Turner.
Thames House and Millbank Tower
Moving back towards Horseferry Road, this stretch of Millbank was transformed when the corner site was taken for Thames House, which is famously the home of the security service, MI5. It was built in 1929-30 to designs by Sir Frank Baines, and is decorated with sculptures by Charles Sargeant Jagger, as well as coats of arms with Latin mottos. Thames House was first used as the headquarters for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), but was acquired by the government in the 1980s, and officially opened as the offices for MI5 in 1994.
Millbank Tower was built in 1960-3 for the former Vickers-Armstrong company. Designed by Ronald Ward and Partners it has been used as offices for a number of prominent companies and political parties, including the Labour Party during the 1990s; the United Nations; and since 2006 the headquarters for the Conservative Party. Millbank Tower has become an iconic building by the banks of the Thames, and recently was even used for an episode of television series, Dr Who.
Melanie is an historian specialising in the history of houses and streets throughout the UK and regularly provides expert commentary on the history of houses at events and to the media.
Melanie’s first book House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door was published in 2011, and she is currently completing her second book, due for publication in autumn 2013.
Melanie is available for private commissions and can be contacted via her website: www.house-historian.co.uk or you can follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/HouseHistorian