Taming the Thames – The place that plugged London's Great Stink

How Joseph Bazalgette flushed the capital into the modern age

A matter of trust

In 1985, a group was formed with the aim of preserving the engines and ultimately restoring them. Converted into a Trust to give it legal standing in 1988, it was granted a lease in 1993. The Trust’s aim is to restore the buildings and engines to their 1899 condition, and create an exhibition to accompany them. Despite delays, work is proceeding thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it’s hoped that a new access route to an exhibition – avoiding the still-working sections of the Thames Water plant – will be complete next year.

Crossness Pumping Station

The beam at the top of the Prince Consort engine

In the meantime, the engines aren’t sitting idle. Prince Consort has been fully restored and work continues on Victoria. At open days several times each year, Prince Consort is steamed and visitors can see the engine in action, as well as admiring the interior of the pumping station. With the next scheduled steaming day set for June 21st, I arranged a visit to the site to see what’s in store for Register readers.

On entering, the first thing you’ll see is a large space, which at the moment contains a temporary exhibition, as well as a refreshments area. This was part of the boiler house, though it’s now an airy space with a few static displays about Bazalgette’s sewage system, including a collection of toilets, some small engines and pumps, and a scale model of the building. By the time work is complete, there should be a lot more in the exhibition.

Under steam

The real centrepieces of any visit, of course, are the engines themselves. As you can see from the photos, much of the Victorian ironwork has been beautifully painted. Considering this was a sewage pumping station, the effort put into its design and building is astonishing – and so too must have been the day-to-day work, keeping brass handrails beautifully polished, as well as tending to the engines.

Crossness Pumping Station

There's a wealth of ornate detail in the ironwork

Entering from the boiler shed, you’re actually coming in the back way: the original front entrance now leads to the Triple Expansion shed, the additional building created in 1897. That newer building is largely empty now, with a huge basement where the old pumps used to be giving a good idea of the scale of things.

Back in the main part of the building, while most of the ironwork in the central section has been restored, a glance around shows that this is still something of a work in progress. The Prince Consort engine is fully restored and working, while Victoria is being worked on. Both engines are at the same end of the building, and the plan is to do most of the work on that side of the engine house, while the other side is largely untouched.

That gives quite a dramatic effect – look one way from the central atrium and you can imagine that little has been touched since the pumps there finally stopped and started to gather their rust. Turn through 180 degrees and you’ll see vibrant colours, a huge beam engine – working under steam on the dates listed below – and another being restored, as if you’ve turned not just 180 degrees but back over 100 years.

Crossness Pumping Station

Turn around, and you'll see the unrestored half of the engine hall

Looking at all this, one of the things that strikes you is how quickly it was all done, and on what scale. From an enabling bill in 1858, it took just seven years before Crossness started pumping. Bazalgette’s system of sewers still forms the backbone of London’s waste system 150 years on, when the city is about four times the size it was.

You can’t help thinking that, if this were done today, it would take a lot longer to build, it would be grim, grey concrete, and there’s no way the bean counters would allow something with such excess capacity to be constructed. It would be a pared-back system, with barely capacity enough for the next 25 years, not 150.

Crossness Pumping Station

Look closely – some of this is wood, not iron

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