Two summers ago, OHNY intern Sarah Serpas took a class called Exploring British Architecture in London. Through walking around the greater-London area, she was exposed to a wide range of buildings and urban environments from the most lavish country palaces to lower income developments. However, perhaps the most interesting encounter was a Victorian sewage pump station, which has been restored to much of its former glory solely by the work of committed volunteers. The Crossness Pumping Station is certainly a unique piece of architecture and engineering worthy of admiration. 

Only 24 times a year, a group of passionate engineers open up and turn on a beautifully restored 19th century sewage pumping station located several miles east of London on the River Thames. Although it may sound like an oxymoron to have “beautiful” and “sewage” in the same sentence, The Crossness Engines are truly a work of art. The Crosness Engines Trust has been responsible for the restoration of the pumping station on a purely voluntary level. No workers on the restoration are paid. This rare example of large-scale victorian engineering has been returned to much its former glory through the hard manual work of volunteers alone.

The Victorian-era was a time when design and aesthetics were stressed for even the most utilitarian public works, and the beautiful wrought iron, bright paint, and intricate brickwork of this restored station reflect Victorian engineering and style. The complex of buildings for the pumping station was built in a romanesque style, with heavy brick accented with various different colors. In the picture above we see the engine room, which holds four engines, named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward, and Alexandra. Prince Consort is the only engine which has been fully restored, and is turned on for visitors in a dramatic spectacle.

Several members of The Crossness Engines Trust come dressed in their best Victorian garb in order to share this charmingly restored public works masterpiece. Behind this man’s blowing coattails is an example of another type of structure with red brick arches and white accents. Although the buildings have different ornamentation, they all form a cohesive complex.

Once inside the engine house, you are greeted with a gorgeous surprise. An elegant wrought and cast iron structure in the center of the engine room lets in light, and provides a breathtaking amount of color with painted flowers and leaves. The tops of the columns are reminiscent of corinthian columns, and the grills have a swirling leaf pattern, all serving to bring beauty and nature into the sewage plant.

Throughout the engine room, you will find Metropolitan Board of Works insignia (MBW). The Metropolitan Board of Works was responsible for the creation of better sewers and these pumping stations, which were desperately needed at the time. The panel on the right has been restored, while the other was purposefully left in the state it was found. This photograph truly shows how much work The Crossness Trust has put into this project. However, they have not simply painted the iron structures, much more work has gone into making centuries old machines of a massive scale operate again.

The Crossness Engines were designed at a time of cholera outbreak and sewage overflow in London. During the unusually hot summer of 1858, a “Great Stink” plagued the city as a result of the overflowing drainage system. With the introduction of flush toilets, the old system originally designed to carry storm water could not meet the higher demand. The situation became unbearable when the House of Commons was forced to hang chemical soaked fabric on the windows in a futile attempt to keep out the stink. After the pungent crisis was resolved, Parliament gave instructions to the new Metropolitan Board of Works to resolve the issue for good. A man named Joseph Bazalgette was behind the creation of the new sewage system. He also designed several new pumping stations throughout London, including Crossness. In the span of three years, 82 miles of brick intercepting sewers flowing by gravity were built. The pumping stations were used to facilitate the removal of this sewage out to sea.

 

Today, these pumps have no sewage running through them, but until the 1950s these pumps were still operating. This diagram from Crossness’ website details how these engines are constructed. The main beam is on the second floor of the engine room, and the massive pumping cylinders lie underneath. Since the scale of the pumping machines is so massive, it is impossible to capture the feeling of these machines in a single photograph or even a single video. The experience of being in this room with such a large piece of machinery is breathtaking.

I was with a group of other students, and we were anxiously waiting for our Victorian guides to turn on the engine. In this photograph a dapper engineer releases steam, and a student helps to turn on the boilers underneath the floor. This starts the pump going into motion. Surprisingly, for such a large piece of machinery there wasn’t much noise, which must mean that the engineers have done a bang up job of renewing the pump.

After turning the knob, this gigantic flywheel begins to spin. It rotates at around 7 rpm, which may not seem impressive, but for a wheel that large it was fast. This flywheel assisted in pulling down the main beam, which would pull the pump plungers up and down, and push sewage out and away from the city of London.

When technology gets old, it must be fit into the new way of life until eventually it cannot be modified to work in modern society. In 1913, the steam engines for these pumps were switched out for diesel engines,which created more convenient power. The pumps worked up until 1956, when they were laid to rest and considered completely obsolete. After being left to ruin, they were rediscovered in 1980 and set for demolition. A steam engine expert, John Yates, intervened to call for the restoration of these engines, saying “There is no other comparable group of engines in one house.” Volunteer engineers and preservationists then formed The Crossness Engines Trust and set about restoring one of the engines, and repainting the beautiful ironwork throughout the station.  The group has been working to restore this masterpiece of public works since 1985, and have made impressive progress in making the pumps show their former glory. The next few photographs detail restored and unrestored parts of the building.

 
 
 
 

Crossness is open for tours on a few select days a year, including for Open House London this upcoming fall. The restoration is obviously not finished with Crossness, but spectacular renovation has been done here. Eventually, the Crossness Engines Trust plans to convert the complex into a Museum of Sanitation Engineering. They have been collecting material for the museum such as old pumps, and other pieces of machinery from throughout England. If their past progress is any indication, it seems to me that the generous and committed volunteers at The Crossness Engines Trust will be able to carry out this goal. In the meantime, they continue to peel rust off this one of a kind structure.

The Old Works
Crossness S.T.W.
Belvedere Road
Abbey Wood
London SE2 9AQ

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.