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

How Joseph Bazalgette flushed the capital into the modern age

By Nigel Whitfield

Posted in Geek's Guide, 30th May 2015 11:00 GMT

Geek's Guide to Britain At various times in the history of the UK, there’s been a massive stink at Westminster, accompanied by demands that “something must be done”. We’ll be stumbling through the demands for PR after this year’s election for a while yet, but spare a thought for the politicians of 1858 who had to endure The Great Stink.

With a river soaked in effluent, the stench back then came from outside the House of Commons rather than inside. Cholera raged across London, killing three times as many as in areas with cleaner water. While John Snow had traced an outbreak in Soho to a water pump, many still believed in theories about miasma – that the source of illness was in the air.

Against this background, Joseph Bazalgette was given the go-ahead to build the sewer system that finally made London a really modern city. With a system of interconnecting sewers both North and South of the river connecting to the growing suburbs, the Thames was finally tamed. In fact, the system had been planned four years previously, in response to the cholera crisis, but it was the Great Stink that gave the impetus to pass an enabling Act.

Bazalgette’s system is really two separate ones, with the separate branches of each converging, before ultimately the sewage was still dumped into the river – just not where it would bother anyone who really mattered. In the north, the sewers converge at Abbey Mills, where a pumping station linked them to the Northern Outfall Sewer, visited by El Reg’s Bob Dormon not so long ago, who was tracing its high fibre diet. In the south, sewage was originally dumped into Deptford Creek. By 1860 work had begun on the Southern Outfall Sewer, which was to take the waste all the way to Crossness, on the edge of the Thames a little way beyond Woolwich. And in 1865 – 150 years ago this year – the Crossness Pumping Station was opened.

Just seven years after the Great Stink, this masterpiece was opened

Ebb and flow

At Crossness, a huge covered reservoir stored everything that comes from the sewers south of the river. Covering over six acres, and capable of holding 27 million gallons, it was filled by the engines in the pump house raising the sewage up, and then opened at high tide, to allow the contents to flow out to sea as the waters ebb. In 1865, sewage treatment as we know it hadn’t been developed, so the aim was simply to dump the muck as far away from where it mattered as possible.

The Prince Consort. Could you name a sewage pump after a Royal today?

The Victorians, of course, did things in style. Just as two years before, a banquet had been held at Farringdon Station to mark the opening of the world’s first underground railway, so Crossness was opened with pomp and circumstance, with the Prince of Wales starting the engines in the company of two other princes, a Duke and a pair of Archbishops.

As you might expect, given the spirit of the age, the four engines – built by James Watt – were given suitably regal names: Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra. Another four engines were added in 1897 to provide additional capacity. A few years later, the original steam engines were upgraded with additional cylinders, before the four additional engines were replaced by diesel in 1913.

By 1956, all the steam-powered machines had been decommissioned, with the last major use of the Prince Consort engine being to help pump water after the great floods of 1953. Like much old Victorian machinery, their story would have ended with rot and decay, were it not for the Crossness Engines Trust.

The Alexandra engine

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.

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.

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.

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.

Look closely – some of this is wood, not iron

Work in progress

Parts of Crossness, it has to be said, are very much still under construction. To make access easier in future, a new pathway is being built which avoids the need to cross the Thames Water sewage works, and the garden outside is still in its earliest stages. The main part of the building is accessible, though of course you won’t be able to get up to view the top of the engines.

There's a striking contrast between restored and unrestored sections

It will also, of course, be a little easier to reach when Crossrail opens, making the journey to Abbey Wood far faster. For now, it’s half an hour from Cannon Street, or a DLR to Woolwich Arsenal and then a change of train. While you’re in that part of London, besides the various attractions at Greenwich, other things worth a visit include Eltham Palace, Severndroog Castle and the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.

Visiting on a day when the engines are steaming isn’t all you can do at Crossness. My guide, Mike Jones, explained that they always need volunteers. Many of those in the past have been active in the areas immediately useful to the project – working on the restoration of engines, painting the ironwork, and so on. But with work progressing on the new visitor facilities, they’ll also need more customer service volunteers, tour guides, people to keep the garden in order and much more.

Ultimately, to enable the engines to work more often, there’s likely to be a need for more people who can work them, too. There’s more information about volunteering here.

Without the Crossness Trust, this mighty Victorian equipment would have been lost

And to help get you in the mood, you can see more photos from my visit on Flickr here and here. ®

GPS

51.506044, 0.133640

Postcode

SE2 9AQ

Getting there

Train: Overground to Abbey Wood National Rail. Minibus shuttle from station to Crossness every 30 munites on steaming days, starting at 10.15am

Entry

Opening times vary, due to ongoing restoration. There will be five steaming days open to the public during 2015: April 19, June 21, July 26, August 23 and October 11. The centre will also open May 30 and 31 at various times as part of the Thamesmead Arts Festival

Fee: Adults £6, Children £2, under 5 free.

Other resources

Crossness Engines Trust

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