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Taming the Thames

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Constructing the Victoria Embankment on the north bank of the River Thames in London: an image analysed by Roger Hudson.

Click on image to enlargeThis view of Somerset House on the north bank of the Thames, looking downstream towards the dome of St Paul’s, was taken a year or two after the start of one of the great feats of Victorian civil engineering, the building of the Victoria Embankment, visible in the right half of the picture.

Work started in 1864 and was completed in 1870, but the story really began in 1855 with the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works to try to improve London’s sanitation and street systems. The board’s chance came when the dry summer of 1858 created what was known as the Great Stink. The Thames at Westminster was so smelly from the raw sewage pouring straight into it that the atmosphere in the Houses of Parliament became intolerable. Joseph Bazalgette put forward a plan for a new sewer flowing from west to east into which all the existing sewers would empty, rather than into the river. The contents would then be taken well to the east of the City before being dealt with at new sewage works. Embankment walls were to be built close to the low-water mark and the area behind them infilled. This made space not only for the sewer but also for a road and for the new, partially underground, District Line as well. Stretches of garden were created along the Embankment, using subsoil and topsoil excavated for the railway and brought up by barge from Barking Creek. The railway lines visible in the photograph are temporary tracks laid by the contractors.

One big disadvantage of the Embankment is that it leaves Somerset House high and dry, separated from the river by pavements and a roadway. This splendid quadrangle of public offices was conceived and built as an entity by Sir William Chambers from 1775 to house a range of departments as well as the Royal Academy, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries in its northern side facing the Strand. It was furnished with an inspiring river frontage notable for its Piranesian rustication. The sloping nature of the site made this frontage necessary to support the terrace above, which in turn was the base for the long south range, broken by two Palladian bridges to give it variety. These were echoed by two arched water gates, below among the rustication. Midway between them was the arch for the King’s Barge Master. It must have been a fine sight to see the royal barge, or indeed ordinary lighters and boats, disappear into or emerge from one of these entries at high water.

Kenneth Clark suggested that the comparative weakness of architecture in the Victorian period was due to the ‘strongest creative impulse of the time’ going into engineering instead. That is a fair point, though we can still admire the ingenuity of Bazalgette’s solution and enjoy the conveniences it brought with it.



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