Past and future - Nine Elms

Published: Tuesday, August 18, 2020

As the borough recovers from the Coronavirus pandemic, Wandsworth Council, through its Smart Growth plan, is seizing the opportunity to make profound changes that will make it a greener, better place to live. In a series of articles, we are exploring the past and looking forward to the future of our borough.

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A light installation in December 2019 celebrating the history of the area and its famous trees

Nine Elms is Europe’s largest regeneration area and for almost ten years Wandsworth Council and its partners across the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea opportunity area have worked to transform great swathes of former industrial land into a brand-new town centre, create a cultural hub and build an engine of growth for the whole borough. By 2030, it is estimated that 33,000 people will call Nine Elms home.

There’s been a settlement at Nine Elms for hundreds of years and the area has changed from a marshland dotted with windmills, to market gardens and then an industrial powerhouse. It’s now a thriving community where people live, work and socialise.

This area of Wandsworth is named after nine elm trees that once bordered the main road. Nine elm trees were known to be standing on Nine Elms Lane in the 1840s. They are thought to have been replanted several times since then. In recent years, one of the elm trees was blown down in a storm and the other was believed to be felled due to disease.

Nine Elms in 1848 showing the row of elm trees

As part of the rejuvenation of the area, the council and the local community planted the missing two elm trees in 2019 and celebrated with an art installation in December which showed images of the elm trees projected onto local buildings.

Originally marshland, a fort was built in Nine Elms during the English Civil War and in around 1660 the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were constructed – a popular spot for pleasure seekers for around 200 years.

Randall's Mill, 1830

Nine Elms was also noted for its windmills, including the infamous Horizontal Windmill - a 120 feet high cylindrical structure containing over 90 perpendicular boards, which operated rather like venetian blinds. One of south London’s forgotten rivers, the Heathwall, drained into the Falcon Brook, making Battersea an island and creating good conditions for market gardening. The area was famed for the size, abundance and quality of its asparagus crop - known as ‘Battersea Bundles’ - and its bountiful lavender fields.

The area’s market gardens also produced high-quality cut flowers and exotic fruits like melons and pineapples. In celebration of the area’s market garden heritage the Nine Elms Cultural Strategy sets out support for the emergence of a Food and Horticulture Quarter, centred around the New Covent Garden Market and Food Exchange.

The London Gas Company works, 1878

The Heathwall eventually became an underground sewer in the 19th century. That century also saw the arrival of the London Gas Light Company gasworks on the site of an old mill with coal arriving by river. The large site employed many local people but an explosion in 1865 killed ten and dust from the coal and coke was an ongoing problem. The works eventually closed in 1970, and the dock is now home to a houseboat community.

Nine Elms in the 1970s

The big gasholders near Prince of Wales Drive were well-known locally, especially the big blue one, and featured on the artwork for the Quadrophenia album by The Who, recorded in nearby Ramport Studios. They were finally demolished in 2015 to be replaced by hundreds of new homes, many of which are shared ownership or low-cost rent. Bits of the gasholders, such as the metal shields on the frames, are being incorporated into the new building or saved for posterity.

The blue gasholder dominated the skyline

Near to the gasworks, a massive waterworks opened in 1840. Water was drawn from the Thames, passed through reservoirs and filter beds then pumped to local homes and businesses. Unfortunately, the water quality from the river here was notoriously bad and there was an outbreak of cholera. Eventually Battersea Power Station was built on the site.

In 1976 Wandsworth Council adopted a policy of ‘controlling and encouraging the use of the land at Nine Elms’ for housing and jobs, arguing that without taking action ‘the large areas of vacant land will continue to lie idle.’ But attempts to attract businesses to the area led to it becoming dominated by large warehouses and anonymous buildings. Work to shape the development of the area in a more coherent way began in 2011 with the formation of the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.

Marketing material from the early 1980s to attract business to the area: “Nine Elms has long been an eyesore…. (but) new buildings, roads and landscaping will replace the dereliction.”

The Partnership’s masterplanning puts an emphasis on improving transport links to support the growth in residents and businesses and encourage new investment. There is a history of rail transport in Nine Elms. The Nine Elms railway station, the London and Southampton Railway's London terminus, opened in 1838, but although this brought growth, the lines also cut neighbourhoods in two. The station was closed to passengers in 1848 when a viaduct was constructed extending the line to a new station at Waterloo. The station and surrounding tracks continued in use for goods traffic but the station building was badly bombed during the war - Nine Elms suffered extensive bomb damage with the power station, gasworks and large amount of industry making it an obvious target – and the site was eventually used to build New Covent Garden Flower Market in 1974.

The Nine Elms railway station

But now the London Underground’s Northern Line has been extended and two new Tube stations are scheduled to open in Autumn 2021. Two new piers also mean commuters can travel by riverbus to and from the City.

New Covent Garden Market is also being redeveloped to provide modern facilities for traders, and another famous landmark, Battersea Dogs Home, has also had an upgrade and continues to rehome hundreds of cats and dogs a year.

In 2012 planning approval was given for a new US Embassy on Nine Elms Lane, built to the highest sustainability specifications. Attracting the Americans was a major coup for the area, as was the news that tech giant Apple is moving its new London HQ to Battersea Power Station.

The US Embassy

The area is also taking shape as a cultural quarter. New tenants include publishers DK and Penguin Random House, Chocolate Films and the World Heart Beat Music Academy. New public art has been commissioned, Matt’s Gallery is getting ready to open and there is a new theatre and cinema at Battersea Power Station. In 2018 London’s largest free contemporary arts festival Art Night chose Nine Elms, Battersea and Vauxhall for its first foray into south London.

The regeneration of the area will also create new green spaces and public realms, and sections of the riverside have been opened up to the public for the first time since the 1930s. Eventually the whole riverside area will be transformed from derelict industrial sites to a offices, homes, shops, restaurants, parks and cultural venues.

The first section of a riverside walk. The long-term aim is to create a joined up, green and walkable route along the Nine Elms and Vauxhall riverside, lined with new parks and public squares. 

Up to 20,000 new homes are being built, of which around 4,000 will be affordable. Many of the homes will be at Battersea Power Station – we'll look in more depth at the history of that iconic building in a future feature. As well as all the new residents moving in, the improvements will benefit the existing members of the community, many of whom live on the Savona, Patmore and Carey Gardens estates built after the war.

Leader of Wandsworth Council Cllr Ravi Govindia said: “Until fairly recently Nine Elms was the warehouse for central London, and now it’s well on the way to becoming a digital powerhouse, as well as home to thousands of people. As development continues we will draw on this rich history and will continue to open up the riverside and former industrial land for people to enjoy.”

The Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership works with the Battersea Society to commemorate the history of the area. Visit their website.

Find out what’s happening in Nine Elms and the history and future of the area on the dedicated website

The community celebrates Happy Street - an upgrade of the appearance of the Thessaly Road railway bridge by artist Yinka Illori