Edwin Lerner

Vauxhall London: Unveiling the Mysteries of a Historic Neighborhood

The main attraction in Vauxhall is a building you cannot enter. Vauxhall Cross is the headquarters of the Special Intelligence Services (formerly MI6) and the employer of Britain’s most famous fictional secret agent, James Bond, often referred to simply by the number 007. The double 00 prefix indicates that Bond has a ‘licence to kill’, an invention of his creator Ian Fleming who worked for Naval Intelligence during the Second World War when the double 0 symbol indicated that a document was classified as ‘top secret.’

Vauxhall Cross Building

The Vauxhall Cross building was designed by Sir Terence Farrell. There was little change from £300 million to construct the building and buy the site. It is not universally popular with those who work in it and has attracted a variety of nicknames, such as Ceaușescu Towers and Legoland. It was blown up in the Bond film Skyfall, and there were loud cheers when the movie was shown at a special premiere to the staff there in 2012. The late Queen Elizabeth II opened Vauxhall Cross in 1994, and the current king, as Prince of Wales, had also visited the building. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played the theme from the James Bond films when the royal barge passed by in 2012.

Despite its well-known use, nothing on the outside of Vauxhall Cross indicates what goes on inside. It has, however, been described as ‘London’s worst kept secret’ and has been featured in several Bond films, especially in a memorable boat chase in the pre-credit sequence of the Pierce Brosnan film The World is Not Enough which culminates at the Dome in Greenwich.

The building was attacked for real in September 1990 when a rocket was fired at it from nearby Vauxhall Gardens. No serious damage was done in this attack, which was probably instigated by dissident members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the relative failure of the attack showed that Vauxhall Cross’s defence systems worked effectively. It is now designated as a protected site under prevention of terrorism laws, and trespassing on it is treated as a criminal offence. Although Vauxhall Cross is never open to the public, you can see it clearly as you approach this part of London, either from Vauxhall Bridge or as you leave Vauxhall Underground Station, which is on the Victoria line. Vauxhall also has a bus and overground rail station.

Vauxhall Cross, Secret Intelligence Service aka MI6 Building in London. Photo Credit: © Richard Cooke via Wikimedia Commons. Vauxhall Cross, Secret Intelligence Service aka MI6 Building in London. Photo Credit: © Richard Cooke via Wikimedia Commons.

Royal Vauxhall Tavern

Turn right after you leave the Vauxhall bus or underground station, and you will be able to see the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which has become one of London’s most famous gay pubs. Daniel Craig, the last actor to play James Bond, has said that he often likes to drink in gay bars because they have a less aggressive atmosphere than straight ones. There is no record of him drinking at the Royal Vauxhall but it is rumoured to have been visited by Freddie Mercury, the late frontman of the band Queen, together with Diana, Princess of Wales, who was disguised as a man. (This story is disputed by Mercury’s close friend Peter Freestone.)

The late actor Paul O’Grady, who often performed in drag as Lily Savage, was a regular performer at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. He is known to have quipped that the police raiding the tavern, who were wearing rubber gloves to protect them from possible Aids infection, had ‘just come to help with the washing up’. The raid, which took place in 1987, was seen by many in the gay community as an example of persecution of their lifestyle and has not since been repeated. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is now a Grade II listed building and is open to the public. Blue Badge Guide Dani Harte has written about it in her survey of London’s gay venues.

Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Photo Credit: © Ewan Munro via Wikimedia Commons. Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Photo Credit: © Ewan Munro via Wikimedia Commons.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

As an area, Vauxhall has a chequered and colourful history. It is just a mile from the centre of London and is part of the London Borough of Lambeth. From Vauxhall Bridge, you can gain a fine view of the clock tower at the end of the Palace of Westminster. It is usually called Big Ben, but this is actually the name of the bell. ‘Big Ben’ was probably named after a famous bare-knuckle boxer called Benjamin Hall, who was still fighting when the tower was built in the mid-nineteenth century. It was originally called the Clock Tower but was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 as part of the celebration of the diamond jubilee for the late queen.

The name Vauxhall is also something of a mystery. The popular etymology is that it is a corruption of a Russian word ‘voksal’ which means ‘central railway station’ and that Tsar Nicholas I made the mistake when he was visiting London in 1844. In fact, the name may well be a corruption from Russian, but it is more likely that it comes from the Russian word for ‘pleasure garden’, a popular venue in Vauxhall for many years.

In their day, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were notorious for secret and illicit romantic assignations and for prostitution, several women of the night plying their trade in more or less open fashion in the area. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were built at the time of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and were originally free to the public, a charge later being introduced.

Vauxhall Sign. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner. Vauxhall London Sign. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.

On a more salubrious note, the music of George Frederick Handel was performed there on several occasions, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens being able to accommodate a large audience of 10,000 or more. Handel originally came from Hanover but accepted an invitation to live in England and become court composer. He was considered an adopted Englishman by the time of his death in 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. A statue of him stood in Vauxhall Gardens but was later taken to the Abbey and stands above his grave opposite that of William Shakespeare.

The Gardens are now closed but Vauxhall City Farm has opened on the same site, an urban farm in the heart of London which enhances the life of those in the city. The farm is open between 10:30 am and 4 pm daily and is free – but a donation of around £3 is suggested. Visitors can touch and feed the animals with specially selected foods which are available to purchase at the farm.

Nearby the Nine Elms fruit and flower market covers 57 acres (23 hectares) of Vauxhall. Until the 1970s it was in Covent Garden and was the scene of a play by George Bernard Shaw called Pygmalion, now probably better known as My Fair Lady, a musical written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe which tells the story of Lisa Doolittle, a flower girl from who was passed off as a duchess by Professor Henry Higgins. Indeed, the play and musical give many overseas visitors their first impressions of London. The Covent Garden area, however, became too congested for the wholesale market and so it moved from its central location to Vauxhall, where more space was available. It is an early morning market which is open to traders from 4 to 10:30 am and has a turnover of £650 million a year.

Vauxhall is also the original location of the factory of the car company of that name. Founded by a Scotsman Alexander Wilson in 1925, it was acquired by General Motors of the USA who changed it from a maker of luxury cars to one of standard vehicles for a mass market. Many of these cars are virtually identical to those produced by the Opel car maker in Germany, which was also owned by GM but was sold to Stellantis in 2017. The cars that carry the Vauxhall marque are now made in Luton or Ellesmere Port near Liverpool.

New American Embassy in London between Vauxhall at Battersea. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. New American Embassy in London between Vauxhall at Battersea. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

American Embassy in London

The new American Embassy moved to the Vauxhall area in 2017 and was formally opened in 2018. The then president, Donald Trump, was invited to open the new embassy but turned down the invitation and blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for a building he did not care for. (In fact, long before Obama took office, the American Congress passed a law saying that all US embassies should have their front entrance at least 100 feet from the nearest street.) This new law made a move from the old embassy location in Grosvenor Square a necessity and the USA’s new embassy is the only one of a major country south of the River Thames.

Many Australian visitors would also want to visit the Vauxhall area to see the Oval cricket ground where Surrey plays. It is a test match venue, and it was here that the famous Australian batter Donald Bradman played his final test innings in 1948. Needing just four runs to gain a test average of 100, he was out for nought and ended his career with an average of 99.94, this number still used by the ABC network of Australia for its post office box.

Although manufacturing has long since moved away from Vauxhall and the Pleasure Gardens are closed, Vauxhall remains an important part of London and is still the home of Vauxhall Cross, where the employers of James Bond (the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6, as it was originally known) are based. It is also where the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s famous gay pubs, can be found and enjoyed by both Londoners and visitors alike.

Edwin Lerner

Named Edwin (an early king of Northern England) but usually called ‘Eddie’, I conducted extended tours around Britain and Ireland for many years and now work as a freelance guide and tour manager with a little writing and editing on the side.  I specialise in public transport and walking…

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