Crossness pumping station - your local cathedral of sewerage

Posted 23 April, 2011 Anthony Tan (staring at yet another render. But still loving it for some reason..)

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One of London's less well known attractions, Crossness really should be on your list of things to do if you're in any way interested in Victorian machinery, ironwork, sewerage, or just getting out to see something particularly interesting.

Crossness then

As the title alludes to, Crossness is a gigantic sewerage pumping facility (the concept of treating the stuff took a bit longer to arrive on scene) that dates back to Victorian times. A part of the London Main Drainage scheme, Crossness was a key component in moving the sewerage generated in the city, out of the city (to everyone's great relief I'd suspect) and operated as essentially, an industrial pumping station. Of course, back then, when they built things like this, they did it with a little bit of a flourish and so it's a lot more than just a glorified pump-house...

Crossness now

Listed as a Grade I building, the hard work of the Crossness Engines Trust (completely volunteer run by the way) has gone towards part restoring the facility, and getting one of the engines - Prince Consort - back up and running in a demonstration mode. It's being worked on so you have to wear hardhats and be careful around the machinery, but they do allow a number of visits from time to time during the year to see how it's all coming along.

This coat of arms lies above what would've been the original entrance, and might give you an idea of the relative importance of this undertaking. These days we might see corporate logos and whatnot, but this was of a different ilk.

What's amazing about the facility is the sheer scale of the place and the care that went into the construction. This is something that feels somewhat majestic, the fact it's dealing with effluent is just neither here nor there. The ironwork is both solid but ornate, and incredibly decorative - there's flourishes in places you wouldn't expect basically - and seems to be somehow, appropriate.

While impressive as raw iron, the Trust has put some serious work into repainting a section of the facility as close to original as they can gather and it's surprisingly colourful. In operation, it'd probably be horribly noisy with the clank and grind of machinery and the hiss of steam (and the smell of sewerage), mind, but still I can only imagine it'd add to the massive, mechanical beast feeling you get from it. I don't think I'm too far off when I compare it to a cathedral, but you'll really need to go see it to get a feel for what I mean. Even now, almost 150 years on, there's an elegance and a solidness to the place that's reassuring, and makes me marvel at what it must've been like to be an engineer back in Victorian England - I can't imagine it would've been any less impressive back then!

Getting out there

So yes, enough rambling, I've attached some pictures below to give you a taste of what there is to see.. I'd strongly suggest just going out on an open day to have a look in person - bring a camera. It's only about an hour out (less?) from Waterloo East station, and entry is a mere £5 for hours of fun (no, really, it's a lot of fun).

Open days (as announced at 23 April 2011)

  • Sunday March 27th
  • Sunday May 1st
  • Sunday June 26th
  • Sunday 18th September - Open House London (Free entry)
  • Sunday 23rd October

Some sample shots

As a bit of a teaser, here are some pictures. If you'd like more, head on over to the gallery, or read on for some history for the curious. From left to right (top row first) you see the restored Prince Consort engine with me for scale; a better view of the beam; the steam plant in the bottom of the building that helps drive it; then the octagon entrance you pass through; and then some views of the ironwork and the overall space. Really, you should check out the galleryfor better images though.

Some history

London has been a big city for a long, long time now, what with being a hub of commerce, trade, all that kind of good stuff, and even today, you can see bits of the infrastructure creaking and needing periodic maintenance as it starts to unlace at the seams. It's all pretty good at a core level though - there's water, electricity, transport isn't bad (yay boris bikes!), and the sewerage system well, works.

Not so in the 1800s. Back then, London was still filled with scadloads of people (not so much different from today) doing what people do, and generating copious amounts of sewerage. The management system for this was essentially, chuck it in the Thames. Couple problems here - first, drinking water was still drawn from the river (*shudder*), and well, you've got an open sewer.

The problem had been recognized for a while, but because of the fragmented nature of public administration, it wasn't effectively tackled until things got bad enough to affect the running of Parliament and the courts in the form of The Great Stink of 1858. Zip forward a few years, and the Metropolitan Board of Works accepted a plan by chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette to construct a proper sewerage system involving laying a huge amount of sewers to intercept sewerage, and an associated set of massive pumping stations to move the sewerage into storage tanks which wold then flush out into the Thames at high tide.

One of the pumping stations constructed as part of the project was Crossness. Situated on the south side of the Thames it was opened in 1865 but abandoned in the 1950s to decay and neglect.

 
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  1. Just for reference, a Grade I building is considered to be "of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important" - Buckingham Palace is also listed as Grade I.
  2. The Crossness Engines Trust are the driving force behind the restoration and work being done on it these days and deserve your support