400 years of York Watergate

Before London’s Victoria Embankment was built, the roads south of the Strand ran down to the river’s edge. There, by the steep river stairs, boatmen waited to ferry passengers along what was then London’s busy main highway – the Thames. Most river stairs were open to the public and served London’s transport needs in a similar way to today’s taxi ranks, tube stations and bus stops.

Other stairs were private and provided quick and easy access to the Thames for their owners. One of these private stairs was known as York Watergate and it was the riverside entrance to York House, one of several mansions which lined the north bank of the Thames between Temple and Westminster. The Survey of London: Volume 18, St Martin-in-The-Fields II: the Strand provides a detailed history of the mansion, which was originally the town house of the Bishops of Norwich. In 1536 it was given to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, but in 1556 it was surrendered to Queen Elizabeth who granted it to Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York. On the ‘Agas’ map – a bird’s-eye view of London first printed from woodblocks in about 1561, which is available on Layers of London, the house is shown with its riverside entrance and with a jetty leading to a short flight of steps. 

After being leased to a number of tenants, including Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Earl of Essex, and Sir Francis Bacon, the house was given to James I’s royal favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham from 1622. James also gave Buckingham 2,000 tons of Portland stone for rebuilding work, and approximately 200 tons is said to have been used to build a dramatic riverfront entrance to the grounds. By 1626, a striking watergate in the Italianate style had replaced the old jetty, it was popularly thought to have been designed by Inigo Jones, but is now believed to be by master-mason Nicholas Stone.

Since the creation of the Victoria Embankment Gardens, the watergate stands cut off from the Thames. On what was once the river side of the gate, the large central archway and the smaller side openings are flanked by heavily rusticated columns. The Villiers arms in the curved pediment in the centre are surmounted by a ducal coronet and a lion crouches above each of the side bays holding a carved shield with an anchor representing Buckingham’s admiralship. The former garden side of the watergate is inscribed with the Villiers family motto FIDEI COTICULA CRUX (The Cross is the Touchstone of Faith) and is surmounted by some rather fearsome spheres.

Buckingham was assassinated in 1628, but in 1649 York House devolved to George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham who was in exile in Antwerp. When Buckingham returned to England, in the summer of 1657, he rented the house in turn to the Spanish, the Russian, the Danish, the French and the Portuguese Ambassadors, all of whom would have used the watergate.

The view below is from the Survey of London and dates to around 1670, it shows that this ornate landing place was accessed from the river by a long flight of steps. The watergate itself was set upon two open arches which allowed the water to flow under it. What appears to be a long causeway runs across the foreshore from the foot of the steps and enabled passengers to walk safely across the muddy foreshore at low tide to board a boat.  

In 1672, Villiers was forced to sell the estate to cover his debts. The Survey of London states that the house and gardens were bought in separate building plots connected by a network of streets which retained a link with the former occupants (George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street and Buckingham Street) and a riverside terrace walk was created with the York Watergate in the centre. William Morgan’s 1682 map of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark on Layers of London shows the new streets. York watergate was no longer a private landing place, it became a ‘public plying place’ known as York stairs, where Londoners could take a wherry to travel on the Thames and was listed a such in 1708 by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen.

William Morgan’s 1682 map of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark

The picturesque setting of the watergate – and its proximity to the York Buildings Water Tower- a dominant feature of the 18th century London skyline – made it a favourite subject for artists. In 1792 Thomas Malton the Younger included the water tower and watergate in the book “A Picturesque Tour Through the Cities of London and Westminster, Illustrated With the most interesting Views”.

A painting by Daniel Turner ‘York Water-Gate and the Adelphi’, dated to around 1800, shows a granite sett causeway, with pile and plank construction, running across the foreshore from the bottom of the steps. The Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society reports that squared Scots granite was used to pave Westminster’s streets from 1765 and came from Aberdeen by sea. The causeway was probably paved using the same materials as the street, of which it was the waterside extension. The painting also shows that the watergate arches have now been infilled and the foreshore level seems to have risen significantly since the 17th century.

Painting by Daniel Turner ‘York Water-Gate and the Adelphi’ (c. 1800) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daniel_Turner_-York_Water-Gate_and_the_Adelphi-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Until well into the nineteenth century, leases or sales of houses on the former Buckingham estate contained a clause granting the right to use both the terrace and the watergate. However by 1828, C. and J. Greenwood’s map on Layers of London indicated that the watergate was once again a ‘Private stair’. Bell’s New Weekly Messenger featured an article, in January 1843, describing the watergate as set within “a small exclusive terrace, planted with lime trees, and to which you cannot obtain access except by the key of one of the neighbouring residents.”  

The watergate fell into disuse and Henry Pether’s 1850 painting ‘York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight’, shows the causeway in a state of disrepair. 

Henry Pether ‘York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight’ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:York_Watergate_and_Adelphi_Buildings,_London.jpg

In 1862, the foreshore in that area was reclaimed as part of Bazalgette’s development of the Victoria Embankment. York stair was severed from the Thames and was initially scheduled for demolition which happily did not happen. In October 1865, the Illustrated London News announced that plans had been “drawn up to move the gate to a site opposite Whitehall Gardens” where it would still front onto the river and would serve as a landing stage for small boats. But instead, the gate was left where it was, marooned over 130m from the river, set lower than the surrounding gardens, and partly forgotten. 

In 1874, the new Embankment Gardens were opened as a public space and revived interest in the watergate which, at the time, was privately owned. In 1878, the Hampstead & Highgate Express announced that  a proposal had been made to the Board of Works to use the gate as an entrance to the embankment from Buckingham Street – but this idea came to nothing because the watergate owner requested £5,000 in payment.

On 19 February 1885, the London Evening Standard reported that as no one was responsible for repairs the watergate was “in a most neglected and decaying condition”. Local residents had petitioned for the gate to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Board of Works, however the Board was “not prepared to take any action in the matter“. Residents then asked for it to be declared an Ancient Monument under Sir John Lubbock’s Act, to ensure its preservation. 

A month later the Pall Mall Gazette also called attention to the neglected state of the watergate which it described as “half buried in a deep hole” as a consequence of the Victoria Gardens having been constructed at a higher level than the watergate. 

The watergate’s decayed state is obvious from this photo published in ‘The Queen’s London’ in 1896 (a book showing the ‘streets, buildings, parks and scenery of the Great Metropolis’ during reign of Queen Victoria).

Eventually, in 1893,  the London County Council (LCC) obtained parliamentary powers to acquire and preserve the watergate as an object of public interest. The LCC carried out general repair work and re-roofing in 1898, and improved its setting by purchasing land around it to form a series of stairs and retaining walls that can still be seen today.

By 1911, pollution was the greatest threat to the watergate and the LCC paid for cleaning and maintenance of the stonework. Time and the elements had taken their toll – the stonework was described as “decayed” with “heavy incrustations of sooty matter”. A committee recommended the urgent expenditure of £75 for treatments with baryta water (barium hydroxide) – it was thought that by applying successive coats of baryta water the chemical would weatherproof the stone. This treatment, which was said to have been successfully used on other ancient buildings, including Cleopatra’s Needle and the Victoria Memorial opposite Buckingham Palace, was proposed by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which had its headquarters in neighbouring Buckingham Street. 

Today, the watergate is a Grade I listed structure. It still sits far from the river, showing just how much of the Thames foreshore was lost due to the construction of the Victoria embankment. A nearby plaque briefly explains the watergate’s history, but how many of those who pass by take the time to read it? It requires a great leap of the imagination to see the Thames running at its feet, or the Duke’s barge waiting at the steps, but as the watergate approaches its 400th anniversary, shouldn’t we make more of it? 

Discover the 3-D model of the watergate by David Fletcher https://skfb.ly/6GwAW who has created a number of wonderful online models of stairs and causeways.

This blog is part of our CRaFT project, studying the causeways, riverstairs and ferry terminals on the Thames from Vauxhall to Greenwich through the centuries https://colas.org.uk/craft-project/

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