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The idea of the formation of a continuous embankment on the north shore of the Thames appears to have originated with Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) who incorporated it as part of his scheme for rebuilding London after the Great Fire in 1666. The idea was raised again in 1766 when John Gwynn incorporated a 'Thames Quay' into his proposals entitled 'London and Westminster Improved'. In 1840 architect James Walker proposed a plan for the Corporation of London which involved forming a continuous embankment along the north side of the river. When the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was set up in 1855, London at last had an agency capable of carry out major improvements and under its Chief Engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette (181-91), the Victoria Embankment finally came to fruition. The plans included a new sewer system; a road system designed to relieve traffic from the Strand, Whitehall and Fleet Street; a route for the Underground Metropolitan Line; and improved river navigation by speeding the flow of the Thames. An Act for the formation of the Victoria Embankment was passed in 1862 and work began in 1864. The length of the roadway was to be c 2km and the total area of the land reclaimed from the river c 15ha, 7.5ha of which were occupied by the carriageway and footways. Some 2ha were conveyed to neighbouring landowners and the remainder was devoted to public gardens. Many difficulties were encountered during the programme of works, the longest delay being associated with the construction of the Metropolitan District Railway which was to run along the line of the roadway. The Embankment was laid out in the style of a Parisian Quay with a wide avenue of planes, landing places and piers built into the riverside, and broad pavements either side of the roadway. It was generally recognised as being one of the finest urban planning schemes in the world; a typical reaction to the completed development was printed in The Gardener in 1870, 'From Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge there now runs a line of magnificent roadway, of considerable width and admirably constructed, which was designated the finest thoroughfare in Europe'.

Designs for the gardens submitted by the landscape architect Alexander McKenzie and approved by the MBW in February 1870 were published in the Gardeners' Chronicle of 3 December 1870. The layout as implemented, slightly altered from McKenzie's proposals, was recorded on the OS 1st edition map (surveyed 1867-72). The works were to have been completed by July 1870, when the Embankment was opened by the Prince of Wales, but owing to delays with the railing installation the gardens, Temple Garden, Villiers Street Garden, and a small plot of land to the north end of what is now Whitehall Garden, did not open until 1872. The final stretch of the Whitehall Garden was not fully developed until the land dissected by Whitehall Court had, on the formation of Northumberland Avenue, been purchased by the MBW. New plans were prepared and those made by George Vulliamy, superintendent architect to the MBW from 1861 to 1886, were accepted. His designs (Vulliamy, July 1873) were slightly amended, the paths were altered to become more serpentine (OS 2nd edition surveyed 1894-7), and the construction of the enlarged gardens commenced in 1874. While carrying out the works, the small plot of land to the north which had already been laid out was broken up and the statue of Sir James Outram moved to its present (1999) position. The gardens were opened by W H Smith, MP, on Saturday 8 May 1875.

The Victoria Embankment gardens became a popular place for erecting memorial statues and over the years the number and positions of the monuments have changed. Whitehall Garden was renovated in 1994 and the Council are currently (1999) awaiting the results of an application for Heritage Lottery Funding in order to renovate the Temple Garden.

The Embankment Gardens remain a well-used public open space and are currently (1999) managed by Westminster City Council.

People associated with this site

Architect: Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield (born 20/12/1856 died 27/12/1942)

Architect: Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (born 29/03/1869 died 01/01/1944)

Designer: Alexander McKenzie (born 1829 died 1893)

Designer: Mr Joseph Fyfe Meston (born 1827 died 1891)