Seen a Dolphin in the Thames? Story behind the lamps on the Thames Embankment

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Lining the Thames: One of George Vulliamy’s ‘dolphin lamps’ on
the Victoria Embankment

Many capital cities around the world have a river running through them. However, when it comes to the Thames, one thing that makes it so recognisable is the striking Victorian lamps lining the Embankment. The street lighting in question are called the ‘Dolphin lamps’, but actually appear to be sturgeon fish.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Spreading south: Replicas of Vulliamy’s lamps popped up on the Southbank to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977

Prior to Victorian times, the Thames was a lot wider in the centre of town, but was slimmed down by the building of the Victoria Embankment on the north side in the late 19th century. Civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette came up with a scheme to reclaim some 22 acres of marshland and built a new road and sewage system for the rapidly expanding capital. While this transformed the city, it also meant many riverside buildings were demolished, such as York House. Building of the Victoria and Chelsea Embankment meant Londoners had somewhere new to stroll beside the river so of course, some attractive new street lighting would be required.

Step forward George John Vulliamy, the Superintending Architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works, who created the unique riverside lamps built into the retaining river wall in 1870. Many different designs were submitted, including one by Bazelgette, however Vulliamy’s designs were chosen for the centre of town. The cast-iron lamps featured two sturgeons with their bodies wrapped around the lamp column. Facing the Embankment, the face of Neptune peered out with the year 1870 inscribed underneath him. Vulliamy was said to have been inspired by the dolphin sculptures on the Fontana del Nettuno in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo during his extensive travels around Europe. As well as the lamps, Vulliamy also designed the pedestals and sphinxes for Cleopatra’s Needle – the ancient Egyptian obelisk gifted to London by Egypt in 1819 – and the sphinx and camel benches to complement it along the Victoria Embankment.

For decades, these lamps only stood on the Victoria Embankment. However, in 1977, city authorities decided to create replicas on the opposite Albert Embankment on the Southbank to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Instead of the year underneath Neptune on the Victoria Embankment, ‘EIIR’ was inscribed to mark Queen Elizabeth II.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Fish face: Despite being described as dolphin lamps, they appear to be sturgeon

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Iconic: The lamps lit up on a stunning September evening

For a blog post on the history behind Westminster’s ‘Coco Chanel’ lampposts, click here or for to find out about the last gas sewer lamp, click here.

To find out about the swan benches on the Albert Embankment, click here.

For Metro Girl’s other London history blog posts, click here.

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About LondonMetroGirl

Media professional who was born, brought up and now works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, restaurant reviews and attractions, as well as the odd travel piece. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 25 February 2013, in Architecture, History, London and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I have seen these so many times and have never known the origin! Love your blog!

  2. Well done. I love your blog!

  3. James Addison

    My problem is, while clearly they are fish not dolphins, they don’t look much like the illustrations I have seen of sturgeon, which seem to have elongated faces rather like swordfish. It would be appropriate if they were sturgeon since it is a royal fish and two of the embankments are named after royalty.

  4. Another nice blog post… In recent years it seems to becoming more common to refer to these as sturgeon, but – as pointed out in another comment – they don’t look much like sturgeon either. Older books I have that mention them call them dolphin lamps. My understanding is that they are heraldic dolphins. In heraldry it was normal to show a dolphin with scales, spikey fins and a blunt head as an image search will show.

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