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Pumping New Life into the Gleaming, Victorian-Era Relic that Rid London of Cholera

Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence)
Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Although once charged with the incredibly unglamorous task of eliminating sewage from London, the Crossness Pumping Station boasts a stunningly ornate interior. For decades it lay abandoned, targeted by vandals, rust, and pigeons freely relieving themselves, but following a lengthy restoration completed last month, visitors can now see the structure as it was when it first opened in 1865. Besides fresh paint jobs that make its masterly ironwork and carvings shine again, the station has also received a new cafe and now hosts exhibitions as well as tours.

A massive feat of Victorian engineering, Crossness Pumping Station emerged as part of a total reconfiguration of London’s entire sewage system, designed by Metropolitan Commission of Sewers’s Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette to solve the city’s grave water contamination problems. The Thames was so polluted then that in the particularly hot summer of 1858, a ghastly stench radiated from its waters. The historic event became known, simply, as the Great Stink, and it jolted members of Parliament to find a longterm solution. The following year, Bazalgette began work with architect Charles Henry Driver on Crossness, which opened in 1865; Abbey Mills Pumping Station, also embellished, followed, with completion in 1868.

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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station (photo courtesy Mike Jones) (click to enlarge)

“Bazalgette’s solution in the 1860s was to intercept the tributaries of the Thames by building massive sewers along the Victoria and Albert Embankments,” Mike Jones, trustee of the Crossness Engines Trust, told Hyperallergic. “And to take the sewage out to Abbey Mills on the North and Crossness on the South, and dumping straight into the river there, rather than have sewage flowing backwards and forwards to Westminster, which it was tending to do at the time.”

Closed in the 1950s, the old Crossness Pumping Station sits on the site of the operational Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. It became a Grade I-listed building in 1970, and the Crossness Engines Trust began restoration in 1987. Lack of funding and other obstacles stalled the entirely volunteer-managed project, but it received a boost thanks to a £2.7m (~$3.5m) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which helped to fully realize landscaping projects and exhibition programming. Public access has been available sporadically for a number of years, but this July marks the first time you may appreciate Crossness and its gardens in its full, restored glory. Visitors, though, still have to check online when the station is open, as the dates shift depending on volunteers’ schedules. Jones said it may be a few years before the site has the proper resources to operate with a set calendar.

Crossness still shelters its original four huge, rotative beam-engines, considered the largest of their type in the world. All around are intricate wrought-iron screens, restored to green, red, and gold hues that restorers have carefully matched to reflect the original color scheme. The building’s windows also feature arches made of high-quality, hand-rubbed red bricks that taper slightly to create the curved forms. Perhaps the most impressive details, however, are the carvings on columns near the windows: no two are the same, according to Jones. And adding a whimsical touch to the vivid environment are columns embellished with painted figs — a natural laxative.

Beam Engine House screen before and after
Beam Engine House screen before and after (photo courtesy Mike Jones)
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Painted figs (photo courtesy Mike Jones)

Back in the day, when the pumping station received sewage, it would either pump the waste directly into the Thames or, if the tide was sweeping in, divert the waste into a holding reservoir until the tide turned. This solution to the city’s stench was such a huge deal that crowds of dignitaries visited Crossness to celebrate its opening with much fanfare on April 4,1865. Inauguration day drew about 300 members of Parliament, 17 lords, the archbishops of York and Canterbury, and the Prince of Wales, who had the honor of turning on the system. Everyone later enjoyed a meal on-site as the Band of the Royal Marines performed; curiously, there was actually more cause for celebration than attendees realized.

The Prince of Wales opening the Metropolitan Main-drainage works at Crossness in 1865 image via Wikipedia) click to enlarge)
The Prince of Wales opening the Metropolitan Main-drainage works at Crossness in 1865 (image via Wikipedia) click to enlarge)

“At the time they didn’t know, but the impact of Bazalgette’s system was that it eradicated cholera from London,” Jones told Hyperallergic.

Like many in those days, Bazalgette was a miasmatist, believing cholera was transmitted through contact with contaminated and foul-smelling air. (The English physician John Snow had recently conducted research suggesting cholera’s transmission by water, but government officials turned down his theory.)

“So in a way, Bazalgette built the sewer system for the wrong reason,” Jones said. “He was trying to get the smell out of London, but in building the sewer system he actually removed the dirty water, which was the cause of cholera.”

London experienced its final cholera epidemic in 1866, a year after Crossness opened, and the outbreak occurred in an area that had not yet received access to Bazalgette’s new sewage system. Today, the station’s engines no longer have the duty of pumping heaps of waste, with the building serving instead as home to tours and temporary exhibitions. Some will relate to the history of Crossness, but the space may also welcome community events including art shows, Jones said. It also suits performances well — having similar acoustics to a church, the building is known as “the Cathedral on the Marsh.” Together with Abbey Mills, Crossness is a beautiful, physical reminder of the hidden, underground network of pipes comprising the giant civil engineering project that forever changed Londoners’ lifestyles.

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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
4 April 1865
Dignitaries during the inauguration of the Crossness Pumping station on April 4, 1865, with the Prince of Wales standing in the front row, bottom left, clutching a top hat (photo courtesy Mike Jones)
Beam Engine House - 1860s
Crossness Pumping Station in the 1860s (photo courtesy Mike Jones)
Crossness Pumping Station in 2009 photo via Wikipedia)
Crossness Pumping Station in 2009 (photo via Wikipedia)
Beam Engine House - pre 1898
Inside the Crossness Pumping Station, pre-1898 (photo courtesy Mike Jones)
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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
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Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent (photo © Christine Matthews, licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
Barring engine before and after
Barring engine before and after (photos courtesy Mike Jones)
Beam Engine house decoration - after
Beam Engine house decorations (photo courtesy Mike Jones)
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Various decorations during restoration (photo via Mike Jones)
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Beam engines (photos courtesy Mike Jones)
London sewage system, showing the pumping stations (image courtesy Mike Jones)
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