By the mid-1800s London was suffering due to its growing population and its limited ability to dispose of sewage. In the summer of 1858 the problem reached its climax – cholera was rife and the atmosphere hanging over the city was so bad that the period became known as the ‘Great Stink’. London’s Metropolitan Board of Works decided that something had to be done, and commissioned the design and construction of a new sewerage system to serve London. The great Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s scheme was chosen, which involved building an elaborate network of over 100 miles of pipework, which was designed to deposit effluent safely into the Thames well away from the populated areas of the city. At the south-eastern end of this network a grand pumping station was built, the Crossness Pumping Station – the buildings and machinery of this vast Victorian masterpiece survive to this day, and yesterday I paid them a visit.
Unlike the functional utility building of today, the Crossness Pumping Station site was built with typical Victorian pride – probably designed by architect Charles Driver, the main beam engine house looks more like a grand town hall than a building dedicated to pumping bodily waste – there are ornate parapets, fine reliefs above the doors and it is full of examples of the most ornate and colourful Victorian cast iron work. Today the site is managed by the Crossness Engines Trust, who have been steadily restoring the machinery and buildings – one of the four huge beam engines in the main building, the ‘Prince Consort’, has been returned to full working order complete with bold red, green and yellow livery matching the staircases, screens and balustrades at the building’s centre.
The Boiler House acts as the visitor centre – there are small steam-powered devices on display in this large hall, some of real historical interest, such as one of the heat pumps that originally circulated warm air around the Palace of Westminster. There are also information displays on the history of the site and on the toilet habits of previous generations – there’s a hilarious and rather painful-looking board dedicated to how people cleaned themselves after a visit to the loo for example. Did you know that until we invented toilet paper, people used moss, old lace and even corn cobs? Elsewhere on the site you’ll find the workshop, which saw its first use as a banqueting hall when the opening of the Crossness Pumping Station was celebrated in the company of the Prince of Wales in April, 1865. It now houses the workshop – the lathes, presses and grinders here are used to manufacture replacement parts for the machinery undergoing restoration.
The Crossness Pumping Station is opened up to visitors once a month. Each opening is themed – this month the theme was motor vehicles, so in addition to the Victorian buildings and machinery there were restored cars to investigate – several Austins, Rovers and a Bentley and also a shiny Ford Cortina were on display. There were also some fine examples of larger vehicles – a Leyland fire engine and Dennis omnibus from the mid 20th century and an earlier Devon County Council steam engine.
You can find the next available open day for the Crossness Pumping Station over on their website. Entry is only £5, which is a steal given the amount of history packed into the site. A regular free minibus service operates from Abbey Wood railway station to Crossness and back if you aren’t driving, or just don’t feel like the 3km walk to the Thames riverside! You’ll find a few more pictures from my recent visit on Google+ here.