I was recently looking through a collection of paintings by the 18th century artist Canaletto. Some of views of London took my interest, but one in particular, titled The Thames At Westminster.
What grabbed my attention was the tower that dominates the skyline on the bank. Looking closely to get my bearings I could see the York Watergate in the foreground, it’s the white colonnaded structure by the trees, so this would be the stretch of the Thames just down from Charing Cross Station. The Watergate survives to this day, but the tower doesn’t, so what was it?
The York Buildings Waterworks’ Tower was a water tower on the north bank of the River Thames and a dominant feature of the 18th century London skyline.
The water tower was a wooden structure, 70 feet high (21 metres) and with an octagonal cross-section. It was erected in the late 17th century on a site at the end of Villiers Street, which still exists. Designed and erected by Ralph Bucknall and Ralph Wayne around 1675 it’s purpose was to provide water pressure for the houses along the Strand.
The original water tower was destroyed by fire in 1690 and replaced by the octagonal tower that Canaletto painted in 1750. It probably stood on the site until 1862, when the modern Embankment was constructed, which would have cut off its supply from the Thames rendering it obsolete.
Due to the Embankments construction, the Watergate that stands alongside the tower in Canaletto’s painting became landlocked, and never again served as a stopping off point for its owner, the Duke of Buckingham or for that matter anyone elses river transport.