Millbank is on the otherside of the Thames to Vauxhall and takes its name from the mill belonging to Westminster Abbey. The mill stood on a lonely and marshy riverside road linking Westminster to Chelsea, till it was demolished by Sir Robert Grosvenor who built a house c1736.
The house was pulled down around 1809 and a prison (Millbank Penitentiary), designed by Jeremy Bentham, was built at the cost of �500,000 and finally finished in 1821. It was the largest prison in London for a while. The prison walls formed an irregular octagon and enclosed 7 acres of land. The layout was wheel like with the Governors house in the center, with 6 buildings radiating out to the outer wall turrets forming the spokes.
It was a cold gloomy prison with a maze of passages totalling 3 miles in length. The prison was intended to house up to 1000 transportation prisoners at any one time. Each had a separate cell and were forbidden to talk to one another and they had to make shoes or mail bags. The general conditions were bad and epidemics of cholera and scurvey in 1822-3 that affected half the prison with 30 deaths. The average stay was for about three months which allowed staff time to assess where the prisoner should be transported to. All Great Britain and Ireland transportation prisoners were processed through Millbank with about 4000 passing through its walls each year. In 1843 it was converted to house general prisoners and later it held military prisoners. It was closed in 1890 and pulled down in 1902 to make way for The Tate Gallery.
It was only when Thomas Cubitt started developing Pimlico in the 1820s that the area was built up. In David Copperfield, Dickens mentions that the area was mainly 'a melancholy waste' : ' A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcasses of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails and I know not what strange objects accumulated by some speculator and grovelling in the dust underneath which, having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather, they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves.'