Queen Mary’s Steps – a remnant of London’s lost riverside
Queen Mary’s steps, tucked away in the corner of in the Ministry of Defence gardens are one of the reminders that the Thames used to be much wider than it is now.
During the construction of the Ministry of Defence building in the 1930s, fragments of a much earlier, long-lost complex were discovered – Whitehall Palace. The Palace was begun by Henry VIII and by the end of the sixteenth century was the largest in Europe. It covered the area from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square on both sides of the current Whitehall; a warren of buildings built around a maze of small courtyards and areas including four tennis courts, bowling greens, cock fighting pits and a jousting yard. It remained the principle royal residence until it burned down in 1698. The only building to survive was Banqueting House where Charles I had been led to his execution in 1649.
The steps were built for Queen Mary (William and Mary) in 1691 and led from the terrace in front of her apartments, down to the river’s edge so she could board the state barge. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much chance to use them as she died of smallpox three years later. Her lying in state, in Banqueting House, was the last major event at the old palace before it burned down.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the sewage problem in London had got out of hand; the Thames had degenerated into a cesspit. The numerous cholera outbreaks were thought to be caused by miasma (foul air) produced by the stinking foreshore mud. The embankment was built to house Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer designed to solve this problem by carrying the waste east out of the city to be dumped in the sea.
See Queen Mary’s steps and hear more about how the Victoria Embankment saved London from the Great Stink in Jen’s River in Chains walk this Friday, 24 April. Part of the Footprints of London River Walks Festival.