Crossness Pumping Station is one of those hidden gems in London that you stumble upon, and wonder why this spectacular site is not known to more people. The intricate ironwork design is a masterpiece of Victorian industrial architecture, and the engineer’s vision changed London forever.
I visited Crossness Pumping Station during the London Open Days and my first thought was “wow, how can a place designed to pump sewage waste be so beautiful!”.
But first, to understand the importance of Crossness Pumping Station and its role in transforming London, we need to go back about 150 years.
London in the 1850s
London in the 1850s wasn’t a very pleasant place to live. Whilst it was one of the most powerful cities in the world, the living conditions were left to be desired. With the constant growth of the population, poverty and the pollution, also began to rise. Imagine, that in the 1850s London didn’t really have a sewage system, all the waste being poured into the streets or into open canals which led to the Thames.
Quite opposite to current times, back in the 1850s only the poorest of the population lived in Central London, in overcrowded homes, under the viaducts which were built for the newly developed Victorian railways. Due to the poverty and unsanitary living conditions, the average life expectancy in London during those times was only 37 years. London was so dirty that the River Thames became a giant sewer, filled with human waste, rotting food, dead animals, and toxic substances from the riverside factories. No wildlife survived.
Between 1848 and 1854 London was hit by a cholera outbreak, also known as the “Blue death”. Infected people would die within just a few hours of being infected,with their skin changing colour to shades of grey and blue. At the beginning it was believed that “the blue death” was airborne transmitted. However, in 1854 Dr. John Snow, a reputable physician whose work modernised the obstetric anaesthesia, developed a theory that cholera was in fact being transmitted through water. He analysed the atypical cases of the cholera outbreak from Broad Street, in Soho, and the results led him to the local pump used for drinking water. The open sewages and the dirt caused the water to be contaminated with bacteria, and the cholera to spread through the neighbourhood.
Dr. John Snow’s findings and the Great Stink, pushed the Parliament into giving full responsibility to the Metropolitan Board of Works to clean The Thames, and build a proper sewage system for London.
Who was Sir Joseph Bazalgette?
Joseph Bazalgette begun his career in rail engineering, working on developing the rail network, during the first part of his life. He was so passionate about working hard on projects to expand the British rail network, that he suffered a breakdown which put him in hospital and ended his transportation engineering dreams.
After he recovered, he took an entry level position with the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, and worked his way up the ranks. He developed many revolutionary projects to improve the city’s sewers, but the Parliament always shelved them, deeming them not necessary. However, the cholera epidemic and the ‘Great Stink’ of the summer of 1858 changed everything, and later that year Bazalgette was named Chief Engineer of the newly formed Metropolitan Board of Works, and was given full responsibility to create a new sewage system for the city.
Bazalgette’s vision was big. He planned a sewage system running parallel to the Thames, in which the 182 draining outlets coming from the city would drain. The system was meant to stop the waste before it reached The Thames, and carry it through underground tunnels 12 miles outside of the city, towards the sea. Bazalgette’s solution saw 82 miles of enclosed underground sewers intercepting the waste and 1,100 miles of street pipes to prevent the raw waste from continuing to run into the streets of London.
Through his vision, Bazalgette changed London forever. He didn’t just build a sewage system for the London of 1865, he built it for the future. When planning, he calculated the figures on the densest populated areas in London in order to come up with the diameter for the pipes, giving each person the most generous allowance for sewage, then he doubled it. He also personally checked every single pipe connection to the sewage system, making handwritten notes, approving or amending things. To this day, these notes are still kept by Thames Water. Today, London has a population of almost 9 million people, and they are still using Bazalgette’s original sewage system.
This is how Crossness Pumping Station was born. Its role was to pump the collected sewage into a reservoir and then release it into the Thames during the ebbing tide.
Joseph Bazalgette didn’t just build a revolutionary sewage system that helped London grow and develop into a modern metropolis, he also changed the face of the city. During the building of the pipes, he reclaimed 7 kilometres of riverside land and created Albert, Victoria and Chelsea Embankments. He designed new roads and streets, including the well-known Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Northumberland Avenue. He also built the Battersea and Hammersmith bridges over the Thames.
Sadly, Joseph Bazalgette is not recognised enough for all the work he has done for the city of London. There is a small memorial dedicated to him on Victoria Embankment, opposite the Embankment Station, and the road that leads to Crossness Pumping Station also bears his name. However, this is all that reminds us of the visionary architect, whose achievements relieved the city of diseases and the cholera epidemic.
The Modern London Sewage System
Whilst London is still using the same sewage pipes that Bazalgette created, the system has been modernised many times. Crossness Pumping Station was replaced in 1913 with a modern extension, using diesel engines instead of steam power, before being taken out of use in the 1930’s.
Today, the waste is processed instead of being dumped into The Thames. The decision to stop dumping waste into The Thames was taken in 1878, when the SS Princess Alice paddle steamer collided with a collier, killing between 600-700 people. Most of the people died because of the toxic polluted water, not because they were unable to swim. The dumping of waste into The Thames stopped completely in 1998.
The system Bazalgette built, is however struggling. There are plans to build a new 25 kilometre long super sewer under The Thames which will be ready by 2024, to release the pressure on the 150 year old current sewage system. This is not a replacement for Bazalgette’s system, it is just an upgrade.
The Glory Days of Crossness Pumping Station
Crossness Pumping Station was inaugurated on the 4th of April 1865, in the presence of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, Prince Alfred, Prince Edward of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, the Lord Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, among other highly ranked people.
A quote from the London Illustrated News, at the inauguration of Crossness Pumping Station said: “a sensible vibration was felt throughout the building, showing that the enormous beams, lifting-rods and flywheels were in operation.”
With four engines in full power, Crossness Sewage Treatment Works was able to pump 6 tones of waste per stroke, per engine, at 11 revolutions per minute. The engines were built at Bazalgette’s specifications by James Watt &Co at the Soho Foundry in Birmingham. Each was named after a member of the royal family, and because of the stunning design of the sewage station, the royals approved: “Victoria”, “Prince Consort”, “Albert Edward”, and “Alexandra”.
Twelve Cornish boilers consuming 5,000 tons of Welsh coal annually were needed to power the engines. As the years passed, more and more improvements were made to the sewage process, from separating solids and adding sedimentation tanks, to developing a system of electrolytic purification of the waste.
The building of the new London sewage system and the opening of Crossness Pumping Station has seen fast results in the decrease of diseases caused by bacteria in contaminated water. The death rate from such diseases fell over 90% in the first 10 years since the inauguration, eradicating cholera in London.
The Architectural Marvel of the Crossness Pumping Station
Not in a million years would I have imagined that a sewage pumping station could be so beautiful. In the Victorian times people used to love art and colours. Rich families would decorate their homes with eclectic pieces of art, paintings and ceramics, their walls would be covered with floral wallpaper, and their ceilings adorned with embossed paper. Even the bathrooms had carpets and decorated toilet bowls.
Crossness Pumping Station was built by William Webster, who came to London to open his own business, after refurbishing many churches in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. His reputation of a great builder earned him the Crossness project. He worked closely with Joseph Bazalgette and undertook projects for Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, as well as an extension to the Houses of Parliament.
The bricks used to build Crossness Pumping Station were “Suffolk Whites”, very fashionable back in the 19th century. The decorative tiles were originally made by Maw & Co. and restored in 2006 with replacements supplied by the same company, which is still in business today.
Whilst the outside of the two-storey high main building at Crossness Pumping Station is designed in a Romanesque style, the interior is an explosion of colour, with red, green and yellow iron detail.
The pumping station features an octagon with spectacular ornamental cast ironwork, about which historian Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner said that it was “a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian cathedral of ironwork”.
The octagon had a much simpler role that you would imagine: to light up the hall. Above it was an opening in the roof which allowed the light to get through. The railings around the octagon are some of the few original ironwork pieces that survived years of neglect.
Some areas of the Beam Engines House are not yet restored, and you can see the terrible state of decay the building and the engines have gone through since they were last used, around the 1930s. It took 18 years to fully restore Prince Consort engine, and now the efforts have moved towards Victoria.
Visiting the Crossness Pumping Station
Crossness Pumping Station was closed at the beginning of the 20th century and fell into disrepair by 1950. At some point it was on the list of buildings to be demolished. However, an army of volunteers managed to rescue the site and it is now a Grade 1 Listed Building. Not without loss though, such as the chimney and the clock turret, which were demolished in 1957.
With funding from the English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, Crossness was renovated and brought back to life. Only one of the engines still works, it is operated by a small boiler and turned on during certain visit days. The rest of the building has been transformed into a museum, hosting an exhibition about the cholera epidemic and the ‘Great Stink’ of London.
Visiting the Crossness Pumping Station is possible during the open days, and booking in advance is required. Tickets for visiting Crossness Pumping Station cost £10/adult (if the Prince Consort engine is in steam) or £8 (if it’s not). Tickets for children between 5 and 15 years old cost £3.
It is worth mentioning that wearing high heels is not allowed in the engine room. Wear comfortable clothes and flat shoes. As it is an industrial site, you will be given a safety helmet before entering the engine room.
The RANG railway
Crossness Pumping Station is located at the end of a 700 meters long walk from the entrance to the site. Last year, a new narrow-gauge railway was built, thanks to a crowdfunding project, and a team of volunteers who managed to restore one of the original trains built for the 1986 Stoke-on-Trent Festival.
Whilst the small train might look like it’s carried by a steam locomotive, the engine is actually oil fuelled. The ride for a trip back to the Victorian times is free of charge, but donations are encouraged to support keeping it running.
The Great Stink Exhibition
A few meters long red brick tunnel, equipped with sounds of dripping water and a couple of plastic rats on the floor, make the entrance to the Beam House. What a more imaginative way to step back in time and learn more about the events that led to the building of Crossness Pumping Station?
Big panels across the large hall go through the years of the cholera epidemic, the works of John Snow and the vision the Sir Joseph Bazalgette. There is even a replica of the Broad Street water pump, together with an old notice of how to treat cholera at home: a pint of wine and camphor, mustard and linseed powder, sal volatile and essential oils of either peppermint, cloves or cajeput. What a combo!
There is also an exhibition about the history of toilets in England, and fact sheets about objects which were used as toilet paper around the world in the past.
The Beam Engines House
The visits to the engine room are timed, and you have around 20-30 minutes to explore the site, if you are not visiting as an organised group. If you book as a group, you will be led by a guide. The first thought that comes into mind after going though the door is “wow”. Photos don’t really do justice to how beautiful the site is, and how intricate the ironwork is.
There are quite a few volunteers who are happy to chat and answer all your questions about the engines, boilers or artwork. There are also panels displaying schematics and information about the engines, as well as mysteries such as a brass pulley wheel attached to one of the column’s flowers, which has no known purpose.
The Valve House
The Valve House is used as a mechanical shop, with lots of tools and pumps used in the restoration process. This is where the inauguration of Crossness Pumping Station took place in 1865.
The Small Engines House
As you leave Crossness Pumping Station, don’t forget to pass by the Small Engines House. Here you will find an exhibition of historical small engines, some of which will be switched on, used for powering tiny vehicles, or for random uses such as pumping the water in a fountain.
How to get to Crossness Engines
Crossness Pumping Station is located in Abbey Wood, South East London. The easiest way to reach it is by train direct from London Bridge to Abbey Wood station, which is a half an hour journey. From the train station you can either walk to Crossness Engines (a mile and a half) or take an Uber or a taxi. There are a few buses that go towards Crossness from Abbey Wood train station, but they only get as close as Bazalgette Road, which is quite a long road.
On the days in which the Prince Consort engine is in steam, there is a shuttle bus that connects the Abbey Wood train station to Crossness. A return ticket costs £3.
If you would like to drive to Crossness Engines, parking is available at the end of Bazalgette Road, just before the main entrance to Thames Water.
Crossness Pumping Station Open Days
During the year, there are several Crossness Pumping Station Open Days when you can visit this masterpiece of Victorian industrial architecture. You can check the current schedule on the Crossness website.
The museum is also open during the London Open House Day (usually the third weekend in September), when you can visit free of charge, but keep in mind that the Prince Consort engine won’t be steaming on this day.
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