The area derives its name from a watermill owned by Westminster Abbey that once stood at a site close to present day College Green. Norden's survey, taken during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1573, records the existence of such a mill although much of the area that comprises Millbank today, was referred to by Samuel Pepys and others as Tothill Fields. Described as a place of plague pits and a "low, marshy locality" suitable for shooting snipe in the nearby "bogs and quagmires".
After Cromwell's victory at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, some 4,000 defeated Royalists were imprisoned at Tothill Fields prior to being sold as slaves to merchants trading with Africa and the West Indies. Facilities at the prison camp on the marshy ground were so poor that 1,200 prisoners were recorded as having died in the primitive conditions.
Ordnance Survey maps of London extract for 1916 showing area around the Tate
Prior to the development of Millbank Prison in 1816, the area was sparsely covered with residential houses, but did feature a distillery by the river owned by a Mr. Hodge and numerous small almshouses, bridewells and pest houses for the poor, criminally inclined and sick. Baltic Wharf, a site just to the north of Vauxhall Bridge, was for much of the 19th century the location of a Henry Castle & Son, a ship breaking and timber merchant. Numerous wooden ships of the line of the Royal Navy were dismantled at this location, their ornate figureheads often displayed on the gates and perimeter of the yard walls.
Millbank's general appearance today dates from the 1930s, when the area was extensively rebuilt to repair damage caused by the 1928 Thames flood disaster, following the collapse of a 25-metre-long section of the Thames Embankment. Millbank shares the name of the main road (A3212) along the north bank of the River Thames, extending northwards from Vauxhall Bridge to Abingdon Street, just south from Parliament Square. There are parliamentary offices situated across this road, notably No.7, built as the headquarters of British American Tobacco. The road was created as part of the Thames Embankment in the mid 19th century and lies above a large interceptor sewer.
The former Royal Army Medical College, situated at Millbank, is the site where the vaccine for typhoid was first developed, and in the late 19th century, was where the world's first modern prison (Millbank Prison) was established. The listed site has since been renovated as a purpose built arts college for the Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2005. The Tate Britain art gallery (former Tate Gallery) is directly opposite near the end of Vauxhall Bridge, providing a distinct arts presence in the area.
The headquarters of the British chemicals giant ICI was originally located at Imperial Chemical House on Millbank (The Smith Square entrance of which was called Nobel House) before it relocated to Manchester Square, also situated in London. The headquarters for the Northern Ireland Office, MI5 and Thames House are also nearby.
On 18 December 1973, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded a bomb on Thorney Street at 8:50am. The bomb resulted in over 50 people injured, including two seriously (see 1973 Westminster bombing).
Millbank Studios reside in the area as an independent broadcast company, owned by ITV. The studio is situated opposite the Houses of Parliament. The BBC Parliament broadcasting channel is also situated nearby (intended to broadcast parliamentary and general political coverage on behalf of the BBC). No.4 is the location commonly used by broadcasters for producing coverage of the Westminster area, including the BBC, Sky News and ITV. RTÉ News and Current Affairs also have their London bureau at the same location. Neighbouring College Green is used as a setting for interviewing politicians outdoors.