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Sit back and enjoy one of London’s best views: The swan benches on the Albert Embankment

Swan bench © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The swan benches line Albert Embankment between Lambeth and Westminster Bridge

I’ve previously blogged about the creation of the Victoria and Albert Embankments in the 19th century which coincided with the creation of the camel and sphinx benches, the sturgeon lamps and Cleopatra Needle’s sphinxes. However, there is another item of street furniture which appeared around the same time – the swan benches on the Albert Embankment.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Bringing some grace to the Thames: The benches are often used by patients and visitors to nearby St Thomas’s Hospital

In Victorian London, the rapidly expanding population were creating major issues including the disposal of waste and sewage, most memorably the ‘Great Stink’ in 1858. The local government recognised the infrastructure couldn’t cope with surge of people living and working in the city and established the Metropolitan Board Of Works in 1855. One of board’s biggest projects was the creation of the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments on the north bank of the River Thames and the Albert Embankment on the south. The MBW’s Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819–1891) oversaw the extensive project, which involved reclaiming marshland and making the river slimmer in that part of the capital. As well as creating a sewage system and new streets to relieve traffic congestion, a lot of slums on the banks of the river were cleared. In regards to the south bank, the creation of Albert Embankment was also designed to protect low-lying areas of Lambeth from flooding at high tide. The creation of the Victoria Embankment started in 1862, with work commencing on the Albert Embankment in July 1866 and was finished in November 1869. The Chelsea Embankment wasn’t finished until 1874. The embankments were named after the reigning monarch of the time Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, who died in 1861.

In the typically Victorian way, the new Embankment needed to have suitable ‘street furniture’ to give London – heart of the British Empire – a look of prestige and style. English architect George John Vulliamy (1817–1886) was hired as the Superintending Architect. Among one of his many projects in addition to the iconic London ‘dolphin’ lampposts, were creating benches for both sides of the Thames. On the north side, the benches’ panels and arms were designed in the shape of Egyptian sphinxes and camels – complementing Cleopatra’s Needle. On the south side of the river, there aren’t quite as many ornamental benches. However, on the stretch of Albert Embankment between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges are 15 benches featuring cast iron swan panels and arms. These benches were Grade II listed in 1981 and are established within Lambeth’s Conservation Area due to their aesthetic and historical significance. Although I am yet to find official confirmation, I would assume the swan benches have been similarly designed by Vulliamy and made by Z.D. Berry & Son of Regent Street. While the reason behind the Egyptian theme of the Victoria Embankment benches is established, the significance of the swans is not clear.

Swan bench Westminster Embankment © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Enjoy the view: Take a seat on the swan benches and gaze across the River Thames at the Houses Of Parliament

The name Henry Doulton is stamped on the base on the benches. I admit I couldn’t find a definite answer (but would welcome anyone who knows to comment below), but perhaps Sir Henry (1820-1897) contributed to the funding of the Embankment. Sir Henry was a key player in the expansion of the family ceramics company Royal Doulton, which was founded by his father John (1793-1873). The company had factories on various sites in Lambeth over the years located just a couple of minutes walk from the Embankment. Sir Henry’s brother Frederick (1824–1872) was a MP for the Liberal Party and a member of the Lambeth Vestry of the Metropolitan Board Of Works from 1855 to 1868. Today, the only remainder of the pottery industry which once stood there is the former Royal Doulton headquarters building on the junction of Black Prince Road and Lambeth High Street, a neo-Gothic building (built 1878) now renamed as Southbank House. Royal Doulton left the Lambeth premises in the 1950s for Stoke-on-Trent.

Whatever the reasoning behind the design of the swan benches, today they stand elevated on a concrete plinth so people can sit and admire the fine view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Located so near to St Thomas’s Hospital, the stretch of Embankment and benches are popular with hospital patients and visitors.

  • The swan benches are on the Albert Embankment, in between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges. Nearest stations: Westminster, Lambeth North or Waterloo.

For Metro Girl’s blog post on the Vulliamy’s camel and sphinx benches on the Victoria Embankment, click here.

Or for more on Vulliamy’s Dolphin lamps, click here.

To read Metro Girl’s other blog posts on London history, click here.

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Who do you sphinx you are? The history behind the camel and sphinx benches on Victoria Embankment

Victoria Embankment Bench © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl

Take the load off and rest your weary legs here: One of the camel benches on the Victoria Embankment

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

The Egyptian-themed benches were designed to complement Cleopatra’s Needle

Anyone who has strolled along the Victoria Embankment may have noticed the ornate benches alongside the river. Dotted along the north of the Thames between Battersea and Blackfriars Bridges, the cast iron and wooden benches provide more than just a place to rest your weary bones. Unlike the pedestrian-friendly South Bank, the north bank of the Thames isn’t as pleasurable to walk along due to the busy traffic churning out fumes. As a result, all the benches face the river so you can sit with your back to the traffic and enjoy the view.

The benches are one of the many ornamental details created for the Embankment by English architect George John Vulliamy (1817-1886). As well as the benches, he is also responsible for the sphinxes and pedestal for Cleopatra’s Needle and the ‘dolphin’ lamps on both sides of the river. In the centre of London, the Thames used to be a lot wider until the 19th century, city bosses needed a new sewage system to cope with the rapidly expanding population. Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819-1891) came up with a scheme to reclaim some 22 acres of marshland, creating a new sewage system and a new road, taking the pressure off The Strand. In the typically Victorian way, the new Embankment needed to have suitable ‘street furniture’ to give London – heart of the British Empire – a look of prestige and style.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

A Sphinx bench (left) and a Camel

Camel bench Victoria Embankment © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

I’ll support you: The camel supporting the bench is sitting down

Hired as the Superintending Architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Vulliamy created the ‘Dolphin’ (actually, sturgeon fish!) street lamps along the retaining river wall in 1870. Several years later, he decided to look to Egypt for inspiration when it came to designing the benches, a place he had visited in the early 1840s. Pre-empting the arrival of Cleopatra’s Needle – a gift from Egypt – in 1878, Vulliamy opted for a design which would complement the ancient monument when it eventually arrived. Near the site of the Needle itself, the benches in the City of Westminster feature armrests of Sphinxes, before camel armrests appear in the City of London section of the Victoria Embankment. The benches were made by Z.D. Berry & Son of Regent Street and placed on the Embankment in 1877 – a year before Cleopatra’s Needle was erected. Of course, weather and pollution have damaged the benches over the years, with Westminster and the City of London councils restoring and faithfully reproducing them when needed.

Camel bench Victoria Embankment © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

The benches are on raised platforms so the user can see the sights along the Thames while seated


To read about the history of Cleopatra’s Needle, Click here

Or to read about the swan benches on the Albert Embankment, click here.

Or to find out the story behind Vulliamy’s Dolphin lamps, click here

To read Metro Girl’s other blog posts on London history, click here.

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Cleopatra’s Needle: How an Egyptian obelisk ended up by the Thames… and why isn’t it Thutmose’s Needle?

Standing on the banks of the River Thames is a piece of Egyptian history.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The ancient Egyptian obelisk Cleopatra’s Needle stands on Victoria Embankment

Regardless of your knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, few would disagree that Cleopatra and Tutankhamun are two of the nation’s most famous rulers. While Tutankhamun’s reign was relatively short and his fame is largely down to the discovery of his tomb, Cleopatra was known for many reasons – her power, her beauty and being the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. So when it comes to the ancient Egyptian obelisk standing by the River Thames on the Victoria Embankment, Cleopatra’s Needle is a lot more glamorous a name than one would have been a lot more accurate… Thutmose III’s Needle.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The bronze sphinx includes the words ‘the good god, Thuthmosis III given life’ written in hieroglyphics

The name Cleopatra’s Needle is shared between three Egyptian obelisks – the London one’s twin in New York City and a third in Paris – which came from a completely different site in Egypt. The London and New York pair are made of red granite from the quarries of Aswan, weighing a hefty 224 tons each. Standing tall at 68ft (21 metres), they were originally erected in ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis by Pharoah Thutmose III (1481-1425BC) around 1450BC. Ramesses II (1300s-1213BC) added the hieroglyphs around 200 years later to commemorate his military victories. The obelisks remained in Heliopolis for around 1,400 years before they were moved north by the Romans to Alexandria to be placed in the Caesareum around 12BC. Although the Caesareum in Alexandria had been built during Cleopatra’s (51-30BC) reign, the obelisks didn’t arrive there until around 15 years after she had committed suicide. So why her name is associated with the obelisk is inaccurate, but probably brings a bit of glamour to it – but when it’s nearly 3,500 years old, I don’t think it needs the help to be any more impressive! The obelisks didn’t stay standing for long and were toppled some time later, spending centuries in the Egyptian sands.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Ancient world meets modern: The needle is dwarfed by the Art Deco Shell Mex House (b.1930-1931) and its recognisable clock tower

Cleopatra's Needle sphinx © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Survivor: The west sphinx and its pedestal, as well the obelisk base were damaged by a German bomb on 4 September 1917

Central Park obelisk © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The London obelisk’s twin stands in Central Park in New York City

These days, Egypt is rightly intent on keeping on to its treasures. However, in the early 19th century, Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) was happy to give away a piece of antiquity. Following the victories of Lord Nelson and Sir Ralph Abercromby in the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandra in 1798 and 1801 respectively, Ali gave one of the obelisks to the United Kingdom as a thank you gift in 1819.  Although honoured, the then-Prime Minister Robert Banks Jenkinson (1170-1828) and his government couldn’t justify the huge expense it would have cost to transport the 224 ton monument to the UK. It remained in Alexandria for over five decades until anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson (1809-1884) decided to fork out the money and organise the mammoth feat for  the obelisk to be dug out of the sand at Alexandria and brought to London. The obelisk left Alexandria on 21 September 1877, encased in an iron cylinder – nicknamed The Cleopatra – which included a stern and rudders and was towed along by the Olga ship. However, when it was over halfway to its destination, a storm in the Bay of Biscay put the crew of The Cleopatra in danger. The initial rescue attempt led to six crewmen from The Olga drowning, but eventually The Cleopatra’s Captain Carter and his five crew were rescued. Amazingly, The Cleopatra didn’t founder and was discovered drifting in the Bay a few days later and eventually retrieved by the Fitzmaurice and towed to Ferrol Harbour in North-West Spain. From there, she was towed to Gravesend, Kent, by the paddle tug Anglia, arriving on 21 January 1878. Finally, on 12 September 1878 – 59 years after the UK had been given it as a gift – Cleopatra’s Needle was erected on the Victoria Embankment of the River Thames.

Although they certainly look the part, the two sphinxes ‘guarding’ the obelisk aren’t quite so old. The bronze sphinxes were designed by George John Vulliamy (1817-1886) and created at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881. They include the words ‘the good god, Thuthmosis III given life’ written in hieroglyphics. It has been pointed out they aren’t really guarding it, but rather looking at it and should have been facing outwards from the obelisk. Despite surviving intact for nearly 3,500 years, London’s obelisk came close to being destroyed in World War I. A German bomb landed near the needle on 4 September 1917, causing damage to the pedestal of the obelisk, the pedestal of the sphinxes and to the west sphinx itself. However, the damage remains to commemorate the event and can still be seen to this day. A plaque has been placed on the western sphinx to explain this. Meanwhile, it’s twin was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1881.

  • Cleopatra’s Needle is located on Victoria’s Embankment, just south of Embankment Gardens. Nearest station: Embankment.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Looking at… not quite guarding: One of the two Victorian faux sphinxes


For more on the Thames Embankment history, read about the lamps on the Thames Embankment or read about Vulliamy’s sphinx and camel benches.

Cross the road to Embankment Gardens to see the 17th century York Water Gate or the racy monument to composer Arthur Sullivan

To read Metro Girl’s other history blog posts, click here.

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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 (1819-1891) 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, (1817-1886) 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 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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