The Dark Waters Project

Dark Waters is an audio-based exhibition about the Thames, and RIBA London has commissioned a unique Dark Waters Ordnance Survey Map for the exhibition.

The Dark Waters Map

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You are here: Home > Thames Piers > History at Millbank Pier

History at Millbank Pier

'The Thames has many tributaries. The gods were meant to dance at the confluence of waters. The mingling of the tributary and the main river was deemed to be sacred. The site of entry was a holy place. Many are now buried; many are forgotten; many are today unhonoured and unsung. Some of these buried waters may have found their own courses and become 'shadow rivers' without a name, silently running within the earth. Yet these ancient rivers still exert an influence on the world above them.'

Peter Ackroyd


MILLBANK NORTH - Millbank, Westminster, Whitehall



The street was named after Westminster Abbey's mills demolished in 1736. The river banks were breached in the flood of 1928 and this slum which lay below actual river level was redeveloped as a high-rent and government centre.

Millbank Penitentiary

This massive prison was designed as a Benthamite Panopticon where petty criminals were 'inspected' for three months to decide whether they should be transported to the American Colonies, or later to Australia. A single buttress remains by the river which once stood at the head of the river steps from which, until 1867, prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked. The prison boundary can still be seen in the building and road layout of the area.


M wæclinga stræt (Roman Watling St, now Edgware Rd)

Edgware Rd follows the old Roman Watling Street to St Alban's. Although its connection to the Westminster ford from Marble Arch is lost the street probably followed the Tyburn, approximately along what is now Park Lane.

Tyburn Tree, Tyburn Brook, Westbourne

Tyburn Gallows, which once stood at Marble Arch, was at the navigable limit of Tyburn Brook, a tributary of the Westbourne, which itself used to empty into the Thames opposite Battersea Park.

M Thorney (Island)

The ancient St Peter's Church was on the 'Eyot of Blackthorns', at the holy confluence of the tributary Tyburn and the Thames. The island's existence is indicated only in Thorney Street, behind the MI5 Thames House on Millbank. In the Bronze Age the tidal head stabilised here before embankments pushed it further upstream.

M Maryburne (Tyburn River), Marylebone

The old name for the Tyburn tributary was St Mary's stream. It persists in the comparatively newly-named Marylebone.

M Teoburnan (Tyburn River, Tyburnia)

The Tyburn River was in fact back-named from Tyburn Village, through which it once flowed as St Mary's Stream.

M Tothull (Tothill St)

This street's name is the last indication that Thorney Island once had a lookout hill. This street would have once run along the Tyburn banks to the ancient Abbey on its island.

M Tachbrook

The current street name may refer to the nearby buried Tyburn. Diverted away from Westminster the remaining waters are now in a culvert that empties into the Thames at Crown Reach.

M Le Horsefery (Horseferry Rd)

The current road takes its name from the ferry which once existed near Thorney Island. Owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ferry was the second most important crossing over the Thames after Old London Bridge, from Westminster Palace to Lambeth Palace, and the revenue in tolls was considerable. The crossing was however, notoriously hazardous.

M Westmynster (Westminster Abbey)

Originally named the 'West Minster' to distinguish it from St Paul's Cathedral (the East Minster); this became the name for the whole town that developed here in early medieval times. Before that St Peter's Monastery had stood on Thorney Island since the 6thC.

Broad Sanctuary (Brode Seyntwary)

The Abbey, like many of London's oldest churches, once gave sanctuary, especially to prisoners of conscience, and religious dissenters.

M Westminster Palace

The 7thC founding of West 'Mynster' and King Cnut's 11thC Palace initiated a polarity, still intrinsic to London today, between the economic hub of the City and a political one in Westminster. Some say Cnut demonstrated the futility of defying the tides from his throne here.


Banqueting Hall

This is the only part of the once extensive riverside Whitehall Palace not burned to the ground in 1698.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

The East India Company's monopoly on trade with India was eventually broken in 1833, after a history of bloody wars and wildly fluctuating share prices. The Leadenhall site of its HQ was sold and effective command of what were now British Imperial holdings, transferred to The India Office in Whitehall.

Originally home also to the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and the Home Office, the building was Grade 1 listed in 1970.


MILLBANK SOUTH - Battersea, Vauxhall, Lambeth


Battersea Park

In the 19thC, John Gibson, using landfill From Royal Victoria Docks built the park for the health of the 'lower orders'.


M Vauxhall Causeway

Discovered only in 1998 by The Thames Foreshore Study near the mouth of the Effra and the MI6 building, an irregular double row of 3,500-year old stumps was probably a jetty for the symbolic dumping of polished stone axes and spears at the Bronze Age tidal head. The excavation was undertaken by Gustav Milne; the 'Mr Thames' of London Marine Archaeology.

M Effra River, Parry St

This tributary, which runs for some of its course above ground, has its source in Norwood Cemetery. Its outflow can still be seen near Vauxhall Bridge at low tide. Culverted in its lower reaches it can apparently be accessed through a storm drain in Brixton Rd. (OE hēah = high, efer/yfer = bank or ridge)

MI6 - Vauxhall Cross

The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) HQ Since 1995, was built speculatively by Terry Farrell, and acquired by Margaret Thatcher's Government for 240 million. This was the first official admission that either MI5 or MI6 exist. The names MI5 and MI6 reflect the WWII division of the secret services into army and navy operational groups, and are no longer officially current.


M Lamb-hyth (Lambeth) Palace

The residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury residence once stretched right down to the water before Bazalgette's 19thC Albert Embankment was built. Formerly known as Lambhythemersh (Lambeth Marshes) the surrounding swampland was drained by Irish Navvies in the 18th and 19thCenturies. The name might refer to either a harbour for sheep, or possibly a muddy landing-stage.

Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth

Now deconsecrated with only the medieval tower remaining, this is probably a very ancient site. William Bligh, infamous captain of the Bounty was buried here.

M Westminster Ford

In 1952, Lord Noel-Buxton attempted to prove that the first Roman crossing of the Thames, by Julius Caesar in 55BC, was at Westminster. He managed to wade only half way across because the tidal range is far greater than in Roman times. It is almost certain that even older tracks had converged here before heading off South (Stane St), West (Akeman St), North (Watling St), and East (Old St).

M Moredon (Wandsworth Rd, (old Merton Rd))

This was a major medieval track from Westminster ford, and the road ran south over elevated land between the more southerly Beverley Brook and Wandle tributaries of the Thames.

M Stanstrete (Stane St - Kennington Rd)

The old Roman road to Chichester, Stane Street has many names along its course.

History of the piers

Download the exclusive Dark Waters history of the piers pdf here (pdf - 2MB).