London has many lost rivers, all now almost unseen except for a few glimpses through drains, culverts or pipes. In Vauxhall the Effra is no longer the partly navigable river it once was and now is buried deep underground covered by roads and buildings. An outlet pipe into the River Thames is our only visible clue situated next to the south side of Vauxhall Bridge on Albert Embankment, and across the Thames a small arch pin-points the spot in Pimlico where the outlet of another lost river the Tyburn Brook/Westbourne can also be seen.
At the beginning of the 18th century Vauxhall was mostly made up of vine yards, market gardens, orchards and fields with cottages, and fine Georgian Houses (and terraces) being the predominant buildings. It was most famous for the Georgian/Regency Disney Land that was once the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
In the English Civil War of the 1600s London’s defensive walls were extended by the Parliamentarians to include Vauxhall, and a fort was built there.
Vauxhall up to the late 17th century had stood away from the hustle, bustle and industry of the City and West London (Westminster), and it was known for its many natural springs and tidal shores of the Thames. London pushed out of the City westward with the building of Westminster Palace and subsequent prestige housing developments such as Belgravia, London simply exploded at the start of the 19th century and only really slowed down on the outbreak of the First World War.
Companies such as the Beaufoy Vinegar Factory, Crown Works, Beefeater Gin, Doulton Potteries, Marmite and the railways joined many others in locating their businesses in Vauxhall/Kennington and with these industries came workers. Soon not only were factories and workshops being built at a previously unknown rate, but also houses and once fashionable Georgian Terraces were consumed with a range of worker’s housing, some good and others not so good. It took until the late 1800’s for London authorities to come to terms with the fact that services such as sewage and water supply were overwhelmed, and rivers had become open toilets. Rookeries and slums were cleared to a degree, and Parliament inconvenienced by the ‘big stink’ gave engineer Joseph Bazalgette the job of cleansing London’s streets where cholera was killing many from dirty water. The Thames as we know it has been contained so much that few would ever imagine that large swathes of marshland along it’s muddy banks were once flooded twice a day.
In the Victorian period great wealth was generated through employment and many ordinary people took advantage of this to visit theatres, sports venues (Velodromes being one such Victorian craze) and pubs. But others were left behind and Booth’s Poverty Maps of the late 1800’s make it clear that the most wretched lived in close proximity to the rich, the comfortable and those able to make ends meet.
A cohesive area
Across Vauxhall and Kennington there are examples of many philanthropic acts to put right the result of unfettered free marketing, one such act was the construction of a Ragged School near Lambeth Walk. In many ways it is the work of Philanthropists including Mark Beaufoy that give a sense of cohesion to the area, as their interventions are there to be seen in bricks and mortar across Vauxhall and Kennington.
What was once almost green at the start of the 19th century was by the 20th deep within the urban sprawl of London and Vauxhall had become a major transport hub with the coming of the railways and the building of Vauxhall Bridge. Slums were torn down and industries closed across London and in Vauxhall before and after World War Two; industries including Royal Doulton relocated away because of the Clean Air Act that came into being in the 1950’s and by the 1980’s much of the area was tired looking (like London in general). In my time in the area I have been a witness to another wave of the hollowing out of light industry in recent years as premium housing projects have pushed out business after business.
Vauxhall and Kennington post World War Two had damage to repair, the area was hit by bombs and a number V1 and 2 ‘vengeance’ rockets and missiles (one small area was hit by three), but areas that I had thought had been laid waste by the war and are now green spaces had actually been cleared of buildings to lessen the density of the built environment. Spring Gardens, once the home of the famous Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was cleared of housing in the 1970s as well as blocks on the Black Prince Estate. Now because expensive premium housing has grabbed development space there is talk of creating ‘pocket homes’ on green spaces and uncertainly hangs over almost any green spot in Lambeth borough.
Vauxhall’s Thames Embankment, including Nine Elms development area (Developers and officials tried to rebrand the area as ‘Nine Elms on the South Bank’), where the USA Embassy is situated (main picture), is dominated today by high rise premium housing bought up by investors hoping to do some property banking and not to live in. It’s a great missed opportunity that has done nothing to solve London’s shortage of housing and these buildings may have a shelf life of maybe 30 years, if that, and are a testament to money setting the agenda and not the needs of the cities social health.
It is unfortunate that Vauxhall in 2018 is now going through another massive sea change dictated by modern developments that are replacing more businesses with very little extra provision for schools and parks etc. with few lessons seemingly to have been learnt from the Victorian period. Occupancy in the new builds is believed to be below a half in many developments. Most new jobs are in the service sector and what industry remains in the many railway arches are under threat.
The iconic Thames Albert Embankment is now a wall of generic steel and glass buildings and sadly some great facades have long gone such as the Royal Doulton Factory and WH Smith Head Quarters building which, had they been allowed to remain, would relieve the boredom of the new bland architecture. Living in Vauxhall you feel under siege such is the pace and the amount of building going forward bringing with it greater pollution, less light, more architectural wind, less mobility (pavements closed and lorries parked up), severance of established through-ways and a general unwillingness to listen to local voices who have been drummed out by the noise made by developers. Maybe, just maybe someone also felt the same in the early 1800’’s when London overwhelmed Vauxhall.
Often overlooked, the Vauxhall and Kennington area beyond the glass wall that is the railway line, is in fact a cohesive area with much social history, and even today when you step away from the new glass towers there are many real people going about their business, albeit threatened with being pushed out.
What is true of Vauxhall and Kennington situation today is also true to my mind of London as a whole – London is being hollowed out by developments that offer little in cultural or social dimension, but simply tons of cash, a much too small proportion of which is enabling local authorities to supplement their austerity diminished funding! That is not a good foundation for a city or a community.
P.S. Film icon Charlie Chaplin spent much of his childhood in Kennington and Vauxhall.
When I came to live in Vauxhall in the 1980’s it was run down and earmarked to be the new home of a huge school on what is Bonnington Square and Vauxhall Grove; the school didn’t happen but we lost the old dairy (once supplied by a special ‘milk train’), a magical green space where now the MI5 building sits and the huge concrete cold store now occupied by the St Georges Wharf development which dwarfs Brunswick House a survivor of the 1700s.
I can remember counting 42 different lanes of traffic passing through Vauxhall Cross and bus stops scattered and isolated from each other around the road system. By the start of the 21st century the Vauxhall Cross gyratory system was softened and bus stops brought together in the ‘ski jump’ bus station. Additionally the mayor of London Boris Johnson declared Vauxhall and Nine Elms an ‘Opportunity Area’ creating a situation where developers set the agenda and clusters of tall buildings were encouraged. The door to the developers had been opened years before when John Prescott as Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in Tony Blair’s Government forced through permission to build the St George Tower, a tubular structure at fifty floors (at 181 m the tallest residential tower in UK) opening up the prospect of at least twenty further towers to be planned or built in a relatively small area.
Personally at the time I didn’t see what forces had been unleashed and with budgets being in the billions money moved faster than I and others could keep up with, and holding anyone to task or policy was akin to a full time job. When you walk around many of the new schemes you feel the lack of personality and it is neatly summed up the new USA Embassy which sits adrift of ‘normal’ life and within housing that is very generic and so much not lived in.
I was part of a group of people who seem to have bucked the trend by protecting such places as Bonnington Square and Vauxhall Grove to create a community atmosphere, now people travel from across London, the UK and the World to visit these two streets. My other role was to play my own small part in creating a cycling revolution and where once we would guerrilla sign post ‘quiet’ cycle routes and have to wedge foots in doors to make local authorities listen up (I am a past chair of the London Cycle Campaign). Now passing by my home is one of a number of Cycle Superhighways and which I never saw coming in the 1980’s.
The zeitgeist is that over 77% of people in my area voted to stay in the European Union and rejected Brexit whatever that is – the Brexiteer lobby has of yet not offered up a uniform platform; Custom union, no custom union etc. etc. etc.?? As for local politics the Labour Party are dominant but don’t mention local issues at a party branch meeting.
The feature above is an attempt to draw together ‘my Vauxhall’ experience and where I have lived for longer than I ever imagined. Links below and in the item I hope show some of the life, community and history of Vauxhall, Kennington and London.
John Mx, May 2018.
London stories, places and pictures posted
Dash for Cash – Lost Velodromes
I Found a Velodrome but Didn’t
Cable Street – East London
The deaths of Nancy and Bill – London
Putney Debates & Arcadia – London
The SS Great Britain – River Thames
Earlsfield Cemetery – let’s create the NHS
My Facebook Posts
Crown Baths – Vauxhall
Art in Community Spaces – Vauxhall, London
Tower Bridge to Surrey Quays
Lambeth Walk – Vauxhall SE11
Walking to buy inner tubes from Brixton Cycles in SW9
Nine Elms Station – Vauxhall (Inc. USA Embassy)
Charlie Chaplin – Kennington SE11
Sarson’s Vinegar – Vauxhall
Royal Doulton – Vauxhall
Beefeater Gin – Vauxhall
Marmite – Vauxhall
Jacobs Island Rookery – London
Vassollo Memorial – East London
Arcadia – London
White Hart Dock – Vauxhall
Royal Aquarium Westminster – London
Rotherhithe – London
Surrey Waters – London
Bermondsey Wall – London
James Collis Victoria Cross – London
Passport to Pimlico – London