Millbank

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History of the Area

The location of Dundonald Street that features on this page can be seen from the maps shown on the Pimlico page HERE and further down this page. It lies between Pimlico and Westminster in an area known as Millbank that was marshland until the 19th century. The land belonged to Westminster Abbey and got its name from watermills on the riverside. Samuel Pepys described it as ... a place of plague pits. A low, marshy locality suitable for shooting snipe in the nearby bogs and quagmires.

After the Battle of Worcester in 1651, in which Oliver Cromwell's army roundly defeated the Royalists, nearby Tothill Fields became the place of imprisonment for 4,000 Royalists, mostly Scots, who had been taken prisoner. Conditions were so poor on the marshy ground where they were held that about 1,200 prisoners died. Those that survived were sold as slaves to merchants trading with Africa and the West Indies.

The Millbank area was sparsely populated with just a few houses, alms-houses, the Bridewell and 'pest houses' for the poor, criminally inclined and the sick. There was little in the way of industry apart from a distillery and a shipbreaking yard cum timber-merchant.

In 1799 social reformer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham purchased a large site at Millbank on which to build a new type of prison that he called a 'panopticon'. The prison was designed so that a relatively small number of prison staff could keep watch on prisoners without them knowing exactly who was being watched at a particular time. Bentham believed that prisoners would be better behaved if they were unsure when they were being observed. Many similar prisons were built around the world with perhaps the most famous example being the Presidio Modelo in Cuba that at one time housed Fidel and Raul Castro. The Cuba prison has been preserved as a national monument.

Penitentiary
Plan of Millbank Prison [8]

Click image for enlarged view

Construction of the Millbank Penitentiary proved difficult due to the marshy ground but eventually the site was stabilised after the builders followed the advice of engineer John Rennie who recommended underpinning the building with a concrete raft - the first time this approach had been used since the days of the Roman Empire.

Penitentiary
Birds-eye view of the Millbank Penitentiary [9]

The prison was subject to disease with outbreaks of dysentery, scurvy and high rates of what would now probably be diagnosed as depression. Poor diet was partly to blame, and it shows just how bad things were as the health of prisoners improved when they were transferred to the dreadful floating prison hulks at Woolwich.

The Millbank Penitentiary had opened in 1816 as a prison for both men and women but it proved to be very expensive to run and was replaced by another prison built at Pentonville that opened in 1842. The Millbank Penitentiary was 'downgraded' and spent its latter years as a centre to process convicts being transported to the colonies until that punishment ceased in 1868. The Millbank Penitentiary eventually closed in 1890 and was demolished over the next few years. Prison fittings that were still serviceable were taken for re-use at Wormwood Scrubs Prison that had opened in 1874 but was still being extended. Auctions were held to dispose of bricks - apparently tens of millions of them - roofing materials, woodwork, piping etc.

In February 1891 the Daily News carried the following depressing account of the emptied penitentiary:

Cutting
Cutting from the Daily News 12 February 1891 [12]

The penitentiary had its own cemetery and arrangements must have been made for removal of the bodies of those who had been buried in the grounds of the prison but I can find no references to that.


Demolition of the Millbank Penitentiary left a large space as can be seen on the 1897 map below.

Dundonald Street
OS map from 1897 showing the space left after the demolition of the Millbank Penitentiary [2]

The Tate Gallery opened in 1897 with the sugar magnate Henry Tate donating his collection of paintings and putting up £80,000 for the construction of the building. The Millbank Estate, one of the first large council housing estates, was also established on part of the prison site and Dundonald Street was constructed through the middle of the area. The Queen Alexandra Military Hospital was built next to the Tate Gallery and opened in 1905. The new developments can be seen on the next map below.

Dundonald Street

I haven't been able to determine how Dundonald Street got its name but it was renamed John Islip Street sometime between 1939, when a proposal for the name change was put to the London County Council, and May 1949 when the Ministry of Works gave it as an address in a job advertisement. John Islip (1464-1532), one-time Abbott of the monastery of Westminster, is best-known for improvements to Westminster Abbey. Rather less honourably, he was employed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in pursuit of heretics, and I would personally like to see the street name changed back to Dundonald Street.

The next image is an extract from an Ordnance Survey map from 1920 which shows how the area had changed by then.

Dundonald Street
Extract from OS map from 1920 [2]

The next photo shows some relatively small cables removed from their drums and placed in coils in readiness for installation - though it is not obvious why this would help the process. The single storey building in the background still exists as can be seen from the accompanying image from Google Steeet View. It is now part of the University of Arts London (UAL) and possibly serving as a Café.

Dundonald Street
Dundonald Street, Westminster circa 1930 [1]
Dundonald Street
Chelsea Cafe from Google Street View [7]

Although the next two photos are also clearly marked as Dundonald Street, the location was difficult to nail down due to changes in the buildings in the distance. I have concluded that they were taken looking in the direction of Westminster with the Tate Gallery on the immediate right and part of the Millbank Estate on the left. The building in the centre distance was Queen Alexandra Military Hospital of which only a part remains but I found an aerial photograph showing the square chimney - now long gone.

In the centre left of the image a horse eats from its nosebag. Work is being carried out with manual tools but a pneumatic drill had probably been used earlier to break the road surface to give the workmen a start. There are no leaves on the trees, so this is likely to have been taken late Autumn.

Dundonald Street
Dundonald Street, Westminster circa 1930 [1]
Dundonald Street
Dundonald Street, Westminster circa 1930 [1]
Dundonald Street
View along the former Dundonald Street in the direction of Westminster [7]

Baltic Wharf

The ship-breaking yard mentioned earlier was Castle's Shipbreaking Co. Ltd. and was situated on Baltic Wharf, Millbank on the Westminster side of Vauxhall Bridge. The Castle family had been shipbuilders during the latter half of the 17th century and William and Robert Castle are mentioned in Samuel Pepys's diary [10].

Baltic Wharf
Vessels at Baltic Wharf 1934 - extract from Britain from Above image EPR000206 [11]

In the course of their shipbreaking activities, the Castle family collected a large number of figureheads from Royal Navy vessels and put them on display at Baltic Wharf. Many of the figureheads ended up in museums, but those shown on the images below were destroyed when Baltic Wharf was bombed in 1941.

Baltic Wharf
Main Entrance to Baltic Wharf - 1909 [11]
Baltic Wharf
Baltic Wharf - 1909 [11]

Castle's Baltic Wharf site was opposite the Morpeth Arms pub and is now taken up by the Riverside Gardens and luxury modern developments. The Morpeth Arms was once frequented by the staff of the Millbank Penitentiary.

Baltic Wharf
Site of Baltic Wharf from Google Earth [7]

The next page covers cable-laying at the City of London.