Millbank, Westminster

A Thames-side street in south Westminster, home to several significant institutions, with a residential quarter in its hinterland

Hidden London: Tate Britain

This was land belong­ing to West­min­ster Abbey when it was first record­ed in 1546. The name referred to the pres­ence of water­mills on the embanked river­side. The last of these mills, which stood at the very north­ern end of Mill­bank, was pulled down ear­ly in the 18th cen­tu­ry.

Mill­bank Pen­i­ten­tiary opened in 1816, built in the shape of a six-point­ed star and sur­round­ed by an octag­o­nal wall. This was the largest prison in the coun­try and became infa­mous for its harsh regime, although its found­ing prin­ci­ples were rel­a­tive­ly enlight­ened by the stan­dards of the time.

The river­side wall and the road now called Mill­bank (for­mer­ly Grosvenor Road) were cre­at­ed in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry as part of the Thames Embank­ment project.

The pen­i­ten­tiary was demol­ished in 1892 and the Roy­al Army Med­ical Col­lege and the Tate Gallery were erect­ed on its site. Behind these, the Lon­don Coun­ty Coun­cil laid out the arts-and-crafts influ­enced Mill­bank estate at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, pri­mar­i­ly to accom­mo­date ten­ants who had been dis­placed by the rede­vel­op­ment of Clare Mar­ket in Hol­born. It remains one of the cap­i­tal’s most aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing munic­i­pal hous­ing estates.

The Tate Gallery’s build­ings were designed by Sid­ney JR Smith, the archi­tect cho­sen by sug­ar mag­nate Sir Hen­ry Tate, who had donat­ed the paint­ings that formed the nucle­us of the new col­lec­tion and much of the nec­es­sary fund­ing for the gallery’s con­struc­tion. The build­ings have been pro­gres­sive­ly extend­ed, notably in 1987 with the open­ing of the Clore gallery, which hous­es works by JMW Turn­er. With the trans­fer of the post-1900 col­lec­tion to Tate Mod­ern on Bank­side, the orig­i­nal build­ings were rebrand­ed Tate Britain. A mul­ti-stage refur­bish­ment dubbed ‘the Mill­bank Project’ is present­ly under way and will be com­plet­ed by 2030. The ini­tial phase has already trans­formed the old­est part of the gallery.

Hidden London: Millbank Tower
Mill­bank Tow­er

In 1997 the Labour Par­ty relo­cat­ed its head­quar­ters from work­ing-class Wal­worth Road to the 32-storey Mill­bank Tow­er, which stands just north of Tate Britain. To some, the move sym­bol­ised the ascen­dan­cy of Labour’s mod­ernisers, who were labelled the ‘Mill­bank ten­den­cy’. Labour moved out in 2002 to save mon­ey.

From 2007 to 2014 the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty based its cam­paign head­quar­ters at 30 Mill­bank, in the same com­plex as Mill­bank Tow­er. Protest­ing stu­dents laid siege to the build­ing in Novem­ber 2010.

The for­mer army med­ical col­lege became home in 2005 to Chelsea Col­lege of Arts, now part of Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts Lon­don. Secu­ri­ty ser­vice MI5 is based at the for­bid­ding-look­ing Thames House, which orig­i­nal­ly served as the head­quar­ters of ICI.

One of Turner’s first experiments in oil, Moonlight, a Study at Millbank (c.1797), hangs in Tate Britain.

Postal district: SW1
Riverboat pier: Millbank Millennium


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* The picture of Tate Britain at the top of this page is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Andy Hay, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. The picture of Millbank Tower is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Philip Halling, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of those licences.