Monday, 2 September 2013

I have been to ... the Crossness Pumping Station

Yesterday morning, before fighting the latest battle of my current colonial mini-campaign, my wife and I went to visit the Crossness Pumping Station. It was one of the few days of the year when the Pumping Station is open to the public and has one of the restored beam engines is operating. It was also the venue for a local history event.

The Crossness Pumping Station was built as a result of the 'Great Stink' of 1858. This finally forced Parliament to accept Joseph (later Sir Joseph) Bazalgette's suggested solution to the problem of London's sewerage. London was growing, and the existing sewerage system was unable to cope, and just dumping raw sewerage in the Thames was not the answer. What Bazalgette proposed was the building of two huge collection sewers – one north of the River Thames and one to the south – into which would be fed sewerage from the existing network of sewers, supplemented by new feeder sewers built out into the growing suburbs. These main sewers were inclined from west to east, and used gravity (and rainfall) to move the sewerage eastwards to Abbey Mills on the north side of the Thames and Crossness on the south side. Two large pumping stations were built at those locations, each pumping the sewerage up to river level, where it was stored in reservoirs before being dumped into the Thames. Bazalgette chose the locations after considerable experimentation, having discovered that the river tides at these points would not sweep the sewerage back up the river but would move it out to sea twice every day.

The Pumping Station was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette (the Metropolitan Board of Works's Chief Engineer) and the architect Charles Henry Driver.

It was constructed between 1859 and 1865 and features some spectacular ornamental cast ironwork. The building was once described by Nikolaus Pevsner as being 'a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian cathedral of ironwork'.

The contractor's name, preserved for posterity.

Before and after: this shows the way in which the original paint scheme is being lovingly restored. 
The "Prince Consort" pumping engine amidst the cast iron columns that support the upper floor of the building.
The original pumping engines were built by James Watt & Co, and were all named after members of the then Royal Family ("Victoria", "Prince Consort", "Albert Edward" (the Prince of Wales) and "Alexandra" (the Princess of Wales)).

The "Prince Consort" seen from the upper floor of the buidling.
When the pistons on the engine are in the exhaust position ...

... the beam ...

... pulls the crank connecting rod up.

When steam is injected into the cylinders, the pistons push upwards ...

... rocking the beam ...

... which pushes the crank connecting rod down.

The crank converts the up/down motion of the crank connecting rod ...

... into a circular motion ...

... which turns the flywheel ...

... which can be seen in the background of this photograph.

They were originally single cylinder rotative beam engines with 4'0" diameter pistons, each having a 9'0" stroke. These each drove a 27'0" diameter flywheel. The rocking beam on each engine was 43'0" in length, and on either side of the central beam pivot there was a pump rod that was connected to 4'6" plungers working inside a 12'0" diameter barrel. These could lift 6 tons of sewage per stroke per engine, and worked at a speed of 11 revolutions per minute.

Between 1899 and 1901 the original Watt engines were rebuilt by Goodfellow and Co of Hyde, Manchester. They were converted from simple to compound engines (i.e. the original single cylinders were augmented by high and intermediate pressure cylinders) which increased their efficiency and power output. Other improvements were also made (e.g. steam-operated barring engines were fitted to help start the now very much heavier main engines) and the four 4'6" pump plungers were replaced by one 9'0" diameter plunger.

The Pumping Station was officially opened on 4th April 1865, by Edward, Prince of Wales. Other notables in attendance were Prince Alfred, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor of London.

The brass plate that commemorates the opening of the Crossness Pumping Station.
Its active career came to an end during the 1950s, its last major task being to assist with draining the water from the eastern part of the Royal Arsenal and Abbey Wood after the Great Flood of 1953.

The upper floor of the pump house. All four pumping engines remain in place, and it is hoped that one day all of them will be fully preserved.


  1. Sewage can be beautiful! Very Steam Punk looking.

    I wonder how the current Royals would like having a sewage treatment plant named after them.

  2. The interior with the painted ironwork being restored is most impressive. Far more impressive is the degree of technological advance from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to just 50 years later - widespread use of railroads, Ironclad ships, enormous engines/pumps such as these.

    Perhaps we might learn something from the way what must have been a large amount of money and time was spent to find a reasonable solution to problems created by the impact of their growing population upon their environment 165 years ago...

  3. Ross Mac,

    It was very impressive, and you can see why it has been used as a film location.

    I think you are right about the modern Royals not wanting to have a sewerage plant named after them! Mind you, I doubt that some modern politicians would be so reticent.

    All the best,


  4. Gonsalvo,

    You make a very interesting point. We tend to think that the modern world is unique when it comes to coping with massive social, technological, and economic change ... and yet the period between 1815 and 1865 saw tremendous changes that we just accept as having happened.

    Modern society does not seem to be able to cope with big solutions to big problems. For example I live in South East London and can only cross the River Thames at three places between Tower Bridge and the Thames Estuary. Over the past forty years there have been numerous plans to build another crossing point ... and as yet no decision on what to do has been made. In the meantime road traffic density has almost reached crisis point ... with the main choke-points being the river crossings that do exist.

    I don't think that the Victorians would have waited that long; they would have just got on and done it.

    All the best,


  5. Thank you for posting - I am a fan of Victorian architecture and design. Some of it was imported to the US back then and you can still see glimpses of it in Central Park and other parts of NYC. It has swagger that the current age is missing.

  6. Hadik,

    I am very pleased to read that you enjoyed this blog entry in particular.

    What I did find amazing was the attention to decorative detail that the Victorians lavished on even utilitarian buildings like the Pumping Station. For example, each cast iron column has a decorated capital ... and different designs are used in different locations within the building.

    All the best,


  7. Sounds really cool, Bob. St. Pancras station is a place I'd like to visit. Talk about lavish! I also hear talk of recreating the Crystal Palace... that would be something to see.


  8. Hadik (Dan),

    St Pancras is well worth seeing ... especially since it has been renovated and restored.

    I had not heard about the possibility that the Crystal Palace might be recreated. I assume that the site would be in South London (were t was moved after the Great Exhibition) and not in Hyde Park

    All the best,


  9. Nigel Drury,

    It would certainly be an interesting venue for an event.

    All the best,