The Thames Barrier

A masterpiece of British engineering and design protecting London since 1982

In 1972 Londoners were asked “If London flooded tomorrow, would you know what to do?” Well most of us didn’t. We were aware of the Thames and its tides of course but hadn’t given the possibility of flooding much thought. Not so the government, they were clearly worried and began a series of measures to raise public awareness. There were a number of public service broadcasts, articles in the press, and notices delivered to thousands of residents in low lying areas close to the river. Living near the Royal Hospital, Chelsea at the time, we received an A5 sized notice warning us about possible flooding from the sewers. Not a happy prospect. There were instructions on one side and ‘HELP’ written in big red letters on the other, which we were supposed to stick on, or wave out of an upstairs window. Luckily we never had need of it and ten years later the Thames Barrier had been completed and London protected for years to come.

Always on the alert, and taking into account information from satellites, weather ships, oil rigs and coastal stations, the Environment Agency can forecast potential danger of flooding up to thirty-six hours in advance. When computer calculations based on a combination of high spring tides, expected tidal surges, low atmospheric pressure and strong winds indicate a risk of flooding, the team at the Thames Barrier are ready to set the flood defences in motion. However, the final decision to close the barrier rests with the Thames Barrier Duty Controller.

At the time of writing the most recent closures have been on Sunday September 30 and Monday, October 1st, 2019. The Barrier has now been closed 186 times since it first came into operational service in 1982. Since its first test in November of that year, this masterpiece of British design and engineering has been operational, ready to be put into a defensive position to protect 125 square kilometres of central London from flooding. It stretches 520 metres across the Thames at Woolwich and its shining, hooded piers are a striking feature of the landscape.

A feature of the landscape: the shining hooded piers of the Thames Barrier

London has been flooded throughout its history both as a result of rising sea levels and the progressive tilting of South East England. The problem was exacerbated by the gradual embankment of the Thames in the second half of the nineteenth century, which channelled the river into an ever smaller space, so raising its level in central London.

The severe 1953 flood that struck coastal areas along the North Sea and particularly Canvey Island where fifty-nine people were drowned and 13,000 evacuated from their homes, and an earlier flood that had struck the heart of London itself in 1928, drowning fourteen people and making thousands homeless, began to concentrate minds on devising proper flood defences for the capital.

In 1954 Hansard reports that the Waverley Committee set up by Parliament, proposed that: “As an alternative to raising the banks”, which would have been likely to obscure stretches of the river from view, “the possibility and cost of erecting a structure across the Thames, which could be closed in a surge should be urgently investigated.”

However, it was not until a further review, conducted by Sir Hermann Bondi in 1967, taking the project forward, that any action took place. The site for the barrier was then fixed at Woolwich, from New Charlton across to Silvertown as part of an overall plan which included the raising of the river banks further downstream. Then a design had to be chosen.

From the forty-one plans considered, it was engineer (Reginald) Charles Draper, working with Rendel, Palmer and Tritton, who came up with the chosen solution. It was a revolutionary idea inspired by a simple gas cock in his home. He was photographed in 1981 by Gordon Gahan, overlooking the as yet incomplete barrier, proudly holding a gas ball valve like the one that had given him the idea: a poignant image as Charles Draper sadly died before the work was finished.

(Reginald) Charles Draper © Gorden Gahan

There followed ten years of modelling, testing, refinement of the design, and actual construction; longer than planned as it was the first project of its kind. There were also funding problems and a number of serious industrial disputes. The Thames Barrier finally became fully operational in November 1982 when it rose for the first time, and was officially opened by the Queen in May, 1984.

Towards the end of its construction, intrigued by reports of its innovative design, we took our young sons to see how the work was getting on. Not easy. There were no signposts. But armed with an A to Z map we got quite close and luckily spotted a workman in a hut on a nearby building site. Clearly we were not the first to have been on this trail as he produced a photocopy of a rough map with directions to a viewpoint at the top of some metal stairs. Breathtaking. The barrier really was as impressive as it had been made out to be.

These days you can see the barrier from the Thames Barrier Park, in Silvertown north of the river; the Thames Barrier Information Centre, near Woolwich, on the south side; or from a boat passing though the barrier itself. It was this last view that really brought home to me the massive achievement of all those involved with the building of London’s most important defensive structure.

Approaching the barrier from upstream, its distinctive gleaming metal-hooded piers seem to rise up through the water like dragon’s teeth warriors each with a cyclopesian eye. The closer you come, the more impressive they are.

Approaching the Thames Barrier from upstream
Reflections of the river in the round window at the top of one of the piers

The six main steel gates are D-shaped. When set in the defence position their rounded surfaces face downstream and their flat surfaces upstream. Known as rising sector gates they normally lie flat at rest in concrete sills on the river bed, allowing free movement of shipping and normal tidal flow. Operated by a hydraulics system in the towers they can be held in four positions: rest, defence, underspill and maintenance. When the barrier is used or tested, the gates are moved into place shortly after low tide to hold back the flow of the river on the upstream side and to stem the incoming tide downstream.

The Barrier fully open with gates at rest on the river bed
The Barrier fully closed with the gates in the defence position

A strong tidal surge will build up considerably more water on the seaward side so that when the tide begins to flow out the gates are gradually moved into the underspill position, allowing a carefully controlled flow upstream so as not to create a rush of water. The gates can only be lowered into their resting position once the levels on each side are the same. They can also be raised and held above the water to allow access for maintenance. In addition, there are four non-navigable gates set close to the river banks.

Two of the gates in the underspill position allowing water from the seaward side to flow upstream underneath
Controlled flow of water flowing upstream from beneath the gates in the underspill position

The decision to close the barrier is made by the Duty Controller after assessing reports from a team of flood forecasters. Taking into account the flow into the tidal Thames at Teddington, the predicted tide levels and weather conditions that can affect the height of a tidal surge, forecasters can predict the likely risk up to thirty-six hours in advance. The control room is staffed at all times. If necessary, the barrier will be closed roughly four hours before the peak of an incoming surge. Each steel gate takes ten to fifteen minutes to close, and the whole barrier an hour and a half.

Flood forecaster Alan with the Thames Barrier in the background

Flood forecaster Alan, who also runs the barrier’s Twitter feed explains that though they run monthly test closures they’ve “never had to close between May and August to protect London against a high tide since the Thames Barrier became operational in 1982. It doesn’t mean that we’re not on the lookout though.”

This year’s annual test closure was due to take place on September 29th but had to be cancelled after particularly high tides meant that the barrier had to be closed twice in three days for real, to protect London from flooding.

Workboat PROWLER moored with another craft at pier 8.

As mentioned earlier, the barrier has been closed to protect London 186 times but the exceptionally high number of fifty closures in the 2013-14 flood season caused real concern. Doubts were raised that the barrier would be able to protect the capital beyond its originally estimated lifespan of fifty to sixty years. However after a study, Dick Tappin, a member of the original team who created the barrier, wrote in 2014 that “The Thames Barrier remains fit for purpose” and provided it is properly maintained, “it will remain so to at least 2070.” This was backed up by a government study revised in 2016 saying that the Thames Estuary defences, “which include the Thames Barrier and 350 kilometres of flood walls and embankments, smaller barriers, pumping stations and flood gates” will continue to protect London throughout the century. We are fortunate that the marvel of modern engineering that is the Thames Barrier will be with us for a while yet.

Approaching the Thames Barrier from the footpath near Greenwich

For the main source of my article, with understandable, technical information and explanatory diagrams, click on the: Thames Barrier and follow @AlanBarrierEA for up-to-date info. An internet search will reveal many striking images of all kinds of ships passing through the barrier including some by Photographer Rob Powell on

All Hallows by the Tower

The oldest church in the City, inextricably bound up with the Thames and the Port of London

Just a few steps away from the tourist-thronged Tower of London stands a church, founded in AD 675 as a chapel of the abbey of Barking, that is older than and steeped in as much history as its famous neighbour. And yet only a comparatively small number of visitors make it up to the South Entrance in order to explore within.

Despite standing by a busy main road, it’s the quietness that strikes you as you step inside, though from time to time there is the faint rumbling beneath your feet of a nearby underground train. Yet its situation by the Thames, with the parish’s southern boundary being in the middle of the river, has naturally had an important effect on its life. And the Mariners’ Chapel in the south aisle reflects this.

The altar in the Mariners’ Chapel

The altar, panels, model ships, memorial plaques, and stained glass windows all bear witness to the church’s links with the sea, the river, and the Port of London. The Custom House, quays and docks were on the riverside close by.

The wooden screen behind the altar commemorates the links between the Port of London Authority and All Hallows by the Tower. In the centre of the altar a candle burns for “all seafarers who are in danger or distress”, and a prayer for all those, whoever and wherever they are, “exposed to the many dangers of the deep”.

The Crucifix above the altar in the Mariners’ chapel

The crucifix above the altar was made from a piece of wood from the Cutty Sark and the ivory figure of Christ is believed to have come from the captain’s cabin of the Spanish Armada’s flagship.

A fine model of the Cutty Sark above the altar screen catches the light

Model of a barge that used to stand in the front window of a Thames barge builder

Looking around the chapel you will see several intricately made model ships, hanging from arches, placed on furniture or in cabinets. Over the years they have been given to the church as ex votos, symbols of thanksgiving, memorials, or simply by boat builders as they moved premises.

Model of MV Royal Daffodil, a pleasure steamer. Over a number of trips she rescued 9,500 men from the shores of Dunkirk during the Evacuation in 1940
The British Trent Memorial Bell commemorating the nine seafarers who lost their lives in the North Sea on June 3rd 1993

There are a number of poignant memorials, around the church, in the chapel and in the Crypt Museum, including one for HMS Hood, sunk during the Battle of Denmark Strait in the Second World War, with the terrible loss of 1,415 lives, leaving only three survivors. Also on display is the Maritime Memorial Book, established by the Maritime Foundation in 1987 recording the names of those who “have no grave but the sea” to which names can still be added if you search their site. And on June 25, 2019, a Thames Memorial by Clare Newton was dedicated in a moving service to all those who have lost their lives in the Thames.

The Thames Memorial by Clare Newton

The church was bombed on two occasions during the Blitz: first the east end was badly damaged by a bomb in December 1940, and three weeks later the whole building was gutted by incendiary bombs, leaving only the tower and outer walls standing. However, All Hallows was fortunate at this time to have the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton, nicknamed affectionately ‘Tubby’, as its vicar.

An army chaplain during the First World War he had teamed up with another chaplain, Neville Talbot, creating Talbot House as a refuge for battlefront soldiers, an alternative to the temptations of the town of Poperinge in Belgium, where they could spend their leave. It was known as Toc H, which grew into an “international philanthropic organisation promoting ideals of service, comradeship and reconciliation.” After Clayton’s installation as Vicar of All Hallows in 1922, the church became the guild church of the movement.

On the very day that the church was bombed Clayton at once declared that it should be rebuilt. His enthusiasm and powers of persuasion had a strong impact. The foundation stone was laid by Elizabeth, the Queen consort of George VI, in July 1948. There followed practical donations in the form of various building materials and financial support from all over the world, and the church was re-dedicated in 1957.

During all this time Clayton remained vicar of All Hallows by the Tower and also chaplain to the Port of London Authority. A report in The Guardian on August 4, 1947, describes how he kept “a close eye on anything happening on the Thames” and highlighted his concern about accidents on the Tower beach. Bathing was allowed “when the tide is safe” and there were wardens to watch the children but several accidents had taken place when the beach was closed. He was also worried about the dangers posed by the ‘Iron Gate Stairs’ there. As a special precaution for the August Bank Holiday that year, Clayton arranged for a “voluntary patrol of men” to watch the Stairs from a boat.

The stained glass windows, especially in the south aisle, bear witness to the church’s close association with the sea and the river Thames. As all but two of the seventeenth-century stained glass panels were destroyed during the Blitz, the beautiful stained glass windows you can now see were all made post war. Several of them were donated by the City of London Livery Companies associated with the church.

The Port of London Authority window can be seen above the book shop
The Coat of Arms of the Port of London Authority
Detail of Port of London Authority Window with representations of the Tower of London and surrounding buildings
Detail of the Port of London Authority window: Edward Grobbe Shipowner, 1278 and John Rolff Shipwright, 1432
The window of the Company of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames

The church’s close links with the river can be seen again in the annual ceremony of Beating the Bounds. This is a tradition dating back to medieval times, when parishes processed around their boundaries, beating boundary markers with sticks to mark out their territorial limits. The added interest to the All Hallows’ ceremony is that part of their boundary runs along the middle of the Thames and the beating party “made up of the clergy and the Masters of the livery companies associated with the church, go out on the river in a boat to beat the water with their canes before returning to shore and continuing around the rest of the parish.”

In writing this piece I have concentrated on All Hallows’ close links with the Thames, the Port of London and shipping world-wide. However, there is much more to discover including its architectural history, which dates back to Roman times; its strong association with the Tower of London; its role in the temporary care of bodies of high profile prisoners beheaded on Tower Hill – a list of confirmed executions can be seen here; and its links with America, which will be of particular interest to my American readers.

Memorial to William Penn above an entry door to the Church of All Hallows where he was baptised on October 25, 1644 (c) Alan Levine, USA

Admiral Penn, father of William Penn who founded the colony of Pennsylvania, was also a Member of Parliament at the time and helped to save the church during the Great Fire of London in 1666 by directing some of his men from a nearby shipyard to create firebreaks to protect both St Olave, Hart Street and All Hallows, by demolishing nearby buildings. His son William was baptised in the church and educated in the church school before setting off to America. A further link is that with John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, who married Louisa Catherine Johnson in All Hallows on July 26, 1797.

At ease with its eventful past, wide international links, and place in the fabric of both the City of London and the country, All Hallows welcomes visitors to its services, those in search of history, and those who seek space for prayer and quiet contemplation. It is today a modern, “active and inclusive Christian community”, and its associations and ties with the river Thames remain as strong as ever.

The east-facing window in the north Aisle

Using the link highlighted here, you can find out more about the history of All Hallows by the Tower

London’s Favourite Lion

Surviving war and redeployment, the South Bank Lion has become a cherished monument.

Standing majestically on the east side of Westminster Bridge is a white, sculptured lion looking down over the traffic and the thousands of commuters and tourists that stream in and out of the city every day.

Known as the South Bank Lion it has become one of London’s favourite landmarks since it was lifted onto its plinth in 1966. Yet its history doesn’t begin there. It was sculpted by William F. Woodington for James Goding’s new Lion Brewery built on the South Bank between 1836 and 1837. 

The imposing five storey brewery, designed by Francis Edwards, had an impressive river frontage dominating a stretch of the South Bank between the Hungerford railway and Westminster bridges. And Woodington’s 13 tonne lion, standing on top of the brewery, supported on its substantial base, became a well-known Thames-side landmark from the start. An engraving dated 1837 depicts an ‘aquatic festival’ on the Thames to celebrate the opening of the brewery and the lion is centre stage on top of the building.

Londoners and visitors noticed it as they passed, among them Emile Zola, exiled from France, who remembered seeing it from the room where he was staying at the Savoy. He describes the morning mist slowly parting, giving the impression that the lion was suspended in mid air. “It amused me greatly […] to see the British lion waiting to bid us good day.”

The lion is made out of Coade stone a durable, very strong weather resistant artificial stone that was manufactured close to the brewery. Businesswoman Mrs. Eleanor Coade perfected the recipe and the firing process, and her firm became the very successful Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory. Believed to have been lost since the closure of the factory in the mid-nineteenth century, the recipe has been rediscovered, improved, and is now manufactured by Coade Ltd. in Wiltshire.

The lion, in its natural white colour, stands on top of the building surveying the scene. Artist: E. W. Radcliffe. C. 1850. This image is reproduced by kind permission of the London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department

From prints dated around 1837, it appears that the lion began its life in the original white Coade stone but a letter to The Times dated December 1st, 1948, from Geoffrey Hoare, whose family took over the Lion Brewery in 1924, makes it clear that the lion had, at some stage been painted red. He writes that his family, who owned the much older Red Lion Brewery by St. Katharine Docks “had thought about objecting to the ‘Lion Brewery’ having their lion red, but did not bother about it as ours was so much better known in the brewing trade.”

In 1931 the main building was badly damaged by fire but the lion survived and remained on top of the parapet. The site was used by the London Waste Paper Company, then stood derelict, miraculously escaping destruction throughout the Blitz, while surrounding buildings were hit and razed to the ground. It was eventually pulled down in 1949, and the lion saved, to make way for the Royal Festival Hall, which was a major feature of the development for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

As plans advanced for the Festival, King George VI studied the details and expressed an interest in both this lion and a smaller one that had stood above the main entrance away from the river. After consultations, it was agreed by the London County Council that “in view of their historical and sentimental interest, as well as their intrinsic value, that the lions would be preserved” and incorporated somehow in the Festival of Britain. This was in no small part due to King George’s affection for these lions, which had survived the Blitz and symbolised the spirit of British resilience, so perfectly matching the theme of the Festival.

A noble symbol of British resilience

The smaller lion was eventually given to the Rugby Football Union in 1971, its centenary year, and now royally resplendent in gold leaf, it stands above the Lion Gate, behind the west stand at Twickenham.

The lowering of the lion from the old brewery rooftop in 1949 was very difficult. A journalist from the Manchester Guardian wrote that “the building looks as though it might crumble at any moment, and the lion in its cradle did not complete its journey to the ground that day.” As restoration began on the sculpture, a bottle was found within it containing a trade card from Routledge & Greenwood, once owners of the Coade building, with the name of the sculptor Woodington on the reverse. There were also some George IV coins, and underneath one of the lion’s paws were Woodington’s initials W.F.W. and the date, May 24th, 1837.

Now the magnificent lion that had watched over his stretch of the Thames for more than a hundred years found himself restored, cleaned, repainted in red gloss and set on a plinth outside Waterloo Station next to one of the entrances to the Festival of Britain. At the time this was a fitting place as the British Rail logo included a red lion as part of its design. A photograph belonging to the Borough of Lambeth archives shows the lion still in position in 1958. By 1966 however, in a letter to The Times, a representative of the Greater London Council explains that “British Railways need the lion’s present site” for redevelopment adding that “this majestic animal weighs several tons and moving it will be no easy task.”

The Lion in Winter

Indeed it was not easy but the lion was once again restored and carefully returned to its original white colour. A copy of The Times dated March 17, 1966 was added to the objects found in 1949 and replaced within the sculpture.

The historical plaque fixed to the plinth on which the lion is standing

The move was completed on April 3rd, 1966 and in 1981 the lion, from then on known as the South Bank Lion was given protection with a Grade II* listing by English Heritage.

The South Bank Lion standing before a more recent London landmark

London, and particularly Westminster, is crowded with historical statues of varying quality and grandiosity, commemorating heroes, politicians and personalities, some of whom have faded from the public consciousness and others that will remain at the forefront of our history. But this noble lion is a symbol for all of us, and if you take the time to look at him, you will see that there is also something infinitely touching about his sad, world-weary eyes…

The South Bank Lion standing proudly at the East End of Westminster Bridge

Focus on the Tidal Thames

I asked nine Twitter photographer friends to share images of their favourite stretches of the Thames

As an entirely unofficial *Fringe* addition to the Totally Thames 2019 festival, I asked nine Twitter photographer friends to share images of their favourite stretches of the Thames, beginning at Twickenham, leading through central London and on to the Estuary. We have followed each other on Twitter for a while and all have kindly joined me to celebrate London’s great river.

View across the Thames to Eel Pie Island © Ruth Wadey

Based in Twickenham, Ruth Wadey is an artist and photographer whose photographs as a BBC Weather Watcher, often feature on BBC weather bulletins. She has a particular affinity with clouds “loves capturing the moment on camera” and posts stunning pictures of her stretch of the Thames. You can follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery

Andrew’s dog Rosie with Barnes railway bridge silhouetted in the sunset © Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is a publisher, who has written several beautifully illustrated books on areas in London close to the Thames, including Chiswick, Barnes, Putney, Battersea and Chelsea. His photographs of the river, its bridges, and flora and fauna in south west London are a delight. You can follow him on Twitter @wildlondonpics

The crew from the Tower Lifeboat station heading towards Tower Bridge on a shout © Chris Walker RNLI

Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames at Waterloo, is the busiest RNLI Station in the country. Click on Chris Walker to learn about his life and duties there. You can follow him on Twitter @RescueShrek1 and the Station @TowerRNLI

Paddle Steamer Waverley approaching Tower Bridge © Wal Daly-Smith

Discover the story of Wal Daly-Smith, an aspiring Waterman and commercial skipper, passionate about the Thames, its vessels, bridges and history. When he can, he takes action pictures from the river so you get a feel of what it’s like to be working on the water. You can follow him on Twitter @lens_wal and for a look at his earlier work @RiverLens

Royal Netherlands Navy survey ship HNLMS LUYMES © Mazimo

Mazimo has a fantastic view of the Thames, including Tower Bridge and St. Katharine Docks. He enjoys tug spotting and watching a whole variety of nautical manoeuvres on the river, which he sometimes films and puts to music. You can follow him on Twitter @2000MX5

View across the Thames to the Isle of Dogs © Simon Cardy

Simon Cardy is a meteorologist based in Wapping, specialising in weather impacts for the Energy Industry. He loves London and takes lovely pictures of the river Thames. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king

A laid-back seal at low tide, one of many to be seen in our now healthy river, and beyond a familiar passing Clipper © Bill Green

Overall winner of The Thames Lens Photography competition in 2018, Bill Green has been inspired for over twenty years by the Thames and its distinctive architecture. Discover his website by clicking on his name, and follow him on Twitter @ThamesPhoto

The Thames Barrier captured from the Woolwich ferry © Ian Young
The Thames near East Tilbury © Ian Young

Ian Young is a keen birdwatcher, who documents bird life along the Thames, in the Royal Parks and elsewhere, which he finds helpful to allay anxiety problems. You can follow him on Twitter @ianyoung33 And you can read, among others, his evocative post ‘Walking the Thames’ to Rainham Marshes.

The WW2 Maunsell Forts in the Thames estuary (c) Pablo Behrens, Director of London’s Last Wilderness

Pablo Behrens is a director and film producer living in London. His latest project has been a series of broadcasts from the Thames Estuary, which he sees as “wild, beautiful and dangerous with its powerful tides, shifting sandbanks and unpredictable weather.” You can follow him on Twitter @2019Thames

With thanks to all for this collection of brief personal glimpses of our river, the inspiration for countless writers, artists and photographers and…

…and thanks to the Port of London Authority for watching over the 95 miles of the tidal Thames for everyone @LondonPortAuth

Victoria Tower Gardens

A cherished Thames-side park in central London

Perhaps not many of you will know this park by name, though you might have passed it along the river, or sought refuge there after a visit to Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster, but you will have undoubtedly seen it as the backcloth to countless news reports over the years and particularly at this time.

The elegant shady plane trees lining the embankment wall of Victoria Tower Gardens

With its uncluttered central green space bordered by mature London plane trees, the atmosphere is relaxed. A recently upgraded children’s playground, a small kiosk serving coffee and snacks, and several benches along the side overlooking the Thames all add to this feeling. A park for all seasons, managed by London’s Royal Parks it is freely accessible to visitors, locals, and workers alike.

Office workers, visitors and local people relaxing on a summer’s day
A perfect park for dogs and their community of owners too

Together, Victoria Tower Gardens and Victoria Gardens South, cut by the approach to Lambeth Bridge, narrow progressively like a shard from their border with the Palace of Westminster, to a gate leading onto Millbank.

The site of Victoria Tower Gardens in 1865 with wharves and industrial buildings next to the Houses of Parliament, by William Strudwick 1834-1910

Part of the gardens was first created in 1879 during the construction and installation of a proper sewage system designed for London by the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette. He was brought in after the renowned “Great Stink” in 1858, which made London, and particularly the Houses of Parliament, thoroughly unpleasant and virtually impossible to do business in.

The substantial works, land reclamation and the building of the Thames Embankment, meant that the long-established riverside wharves and warehouses, represented in so many works of art, were dismantled between 1880 and the early 1900s.

The riverside plane trees lining Victoria Tower Gardens in their autumn glory

The Ordnance Survey map of 1872 covering the site, marks the Police Lodge; a path leading to a side entrance to the House of Lord; a small planted area; and an empty space next to Abingdon Wharf, the most northerly of several wharves, including coal and stone wharves, an oil factory, cement works and flour mills. You can see remnants of this industrial and commercial past on the foreshore at low tide.

Looking through the autumn trees towards Lambeth Bridge in the southern section of Victoria Tower Gardens

By 1894 the O.S. map names Victoria Tower Gardens for the first time, and depicts them roughly as a square separated from the space adjacent to the House of Lords. Planted with trees, with an outside path, a circular path in the centre and one leading to Great College Street, the gardens are clearly established. Some of the wharves, though not named, are still in place at the southern end right up to Lambeth Bridge. The flour mills and cement works are still present and there is a new pumping station. In 1900, the London County Council (Improvements) Act, Section 8, states that the southern part of Victoria Tower Gardens “shall be laid out and maintained…for use as a garden open to the public and as an integral part of the existing Victoria Tower Garden”.

The southern part of Victoria Tower Gardens on a sunny winter’s day, with a view across to Lambeth Bridge

The 1914 O.S. map, not published until 1935, shows how the gardens were extended to their present layout with the trees planted as they remain today, bordering the park along Millbank and fringing the Thames Embankment.

A children’s playground was added in 1923, as a gift from local paper merchant Henry Spicer to provide “an exciting and safe area for children, especially those from poorer neighbourhoods.” Now named Horseferry Playground, after the old ferry that existed for many years roughly on the site of Lambeth Bridge, it has recently been imaginatively re-designed. Children enjoy the sandpit, water feature, swings, slide and dance chimes, which ring out surprisingly melodious tunes. A happy and much-used place.

Railings depicting riverside scenes, designed by Chris Campbell

Part of the playground and entrance to the public toilets is fenced off by Thames themed railings depicting familiar skylines by Chris Campbell. In the opposite corner you can buy drinks and pastries.

Snow in 2009 and the marvellous, uninterrupted view of the Palace of Westminster

There is a *temporary* Education Centre, next to the House of Lords, well-used by schools to teach their pupils about the workings of the Palace of Westminster. Unfortunately, though every effort was made to blend in the structure by planting some of the roof area, it cuts into the fine perspective of the House of Lords from the south and disrupts the view of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais against the Gothic architecture. Hopefully it will be dismantled as planned, when the massive task of renovating the parliamentary buildings is completed.

The Buxton Memorial, created in 1866 to commemorate the Abolition of Slavery

The gardens are home to three fine memorials. The oldest is the Buxton Memorial, made in 1866 to commemorate the Abolition of Slavery. Commissioned by Charles Buxton MP, it is dedicated to his father Thomas Buxton and others, who were actively involved in the abolition of slavery. It originally stood in Parliament Square, was moved during alterations to the Square in 1949, and installed in Victoria Rower Gardens in 1957. It is much treasured by Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community.

The Burghers of Calais by Rodin

In 1911, Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, one of the four casts of his original 1889 sculpture, was bought by the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund) and installed in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1914.

The statue of Emmeline Pankhurst standing next to the Houses of Parliament, reminding visitors of her struggle to win the vote for women

The third of the three memorials in the gardens is a fine statue of Emmeline Pankhurst sculpted by A.G. Walker in 1939. To begin with it was installed towards the middle of the green but moved in 1956 to an even more appropriate position close to the House of Lords. Her tireless struggle to win the vote for women remains a source of inspiration to right-minded people everywhere. You can often see discreet tributes in the suffragette colours of purple, white and green at her feet. Recent attempts to have her statue removed to the grounds of a private university in Regent’s Park met with a storm of protest and her statue, having now been awarded Grade II* listed status, will remain where it is.

The benches along the Embankment wall, a perfect place to relax and to watch river traffic

Another of attractions of Victoria Tower Gardens is its peaceful, uninterrupted views of the Thames facing Lambeth Palace and St. Thomas’ Hospital, with Westminster Bridge to the left and Lambeth Bridge to the right. Here is a calm place to watch the ebb and flow of the tide and all kinds of river traffic.

Plaque commemorating Sir Thomas Peirson Frank fixed to the repair he made to the Victoria Tower Embankment wall

During the Second World War, a breach in the embankment wall here during a Nazi bombing raid, was swiftly sealed as the operation of a well-organised plan by Sir Thomas Peirson Frank went into action. He is commemorated on a plaque set above the repair which notes that he “saved London from drowning.”

The gardens have also been host to a number of one-off, historic and other artistic events. The most poignant of these, photographed by Getty Images on a bleak January day in 1965, was the long, winding queue of people patiently waiting to pay their respects to Winston Churchill at his lying in state in Westminster Hall.

Spectra shone a powerful beam of light into the sky

And one of the most spectacular artistic events took place in early August 2014. Spectra, a powerful beam of light devised by Japanese light artist Ryoji Ikeda, was projected into the sky to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was visible for miles across and around London.

One of the elephants from ‘The Elephants’ Parade’, London 2010: a warning of their vulnerability to extinction

But the gardens do not just look into the past. In 2010 two decorated elephants from the London-wide ‘Elephant Parade’ were installed there as part of the conservation appeal to highlight the plight of elephants and the urgent need to protect them.

Screen and equipment set up in readiness for a Luna Cinema screening

And this year, as before, Victoria Tower Gardens hosted the open air Luna Cinema, with three nights of classic cinema under the stars. A magical experience.

The setting for many serious political interviews over the years along with College Green on the other side of the road, the gardens have until now been used by MPs when they’re in a more relaxed mode. One popular annual event, sadly cancelled this year, used to take place on Shrove Tuesday, when in aid of charity, teams of MPs, Lords and journalists raced each other around a track while flipping pancakes.

The gardens are always popular in the sunshine at any time of the year

Now their future is uncertain as rather than a memorial to the Holocaust to blend in with the existing memorials, a massive, ugly structure, described by some as “a giant toast rack”, together with a substantial underground learning centre, are proposed that would dominate the park and change its character for ever. The architect Sir David Adjaye said “Disrupting the pleasure of being in a park is the key the thinking.” Times 2, 4.2.19 Needless to say, this insensitivity has sparked a fierce controversy, which you can explore by clicking on the links below.

In the heart of central London, this small, green, pennant-shaped garden, with its elegant, shady plane trees and lovely views of the Thames is also with its low-key yet powerful memorials, a discreet salute to humanity, courage and liberty. It is for different reasons a precious shared space for many. Let us hope that it will remain so.

Nightfall on the Thames at Lambeth Bridge seen from Victoria Tower Gardens

For further information see: The Royal Parks and @SaveVTG