I don’t want you to get the impression I’m obsessed with London’s sewage system but, see, the thing is, without the extraordinary achievements of our engineering forebears, the London that developed over the last 150 years would not have happened. And while many were involved in that achievement, one man’s contribution really does stand out: Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
During last year’s A to Z blogging tour I stopped off at ‘E’ with
E for Embankment
You’ll find it here and it will tell you something about Bazalgette’s achievements in central London.
But let’s move everything on a ways, out east. In U is for Utilities I introduced you to Abbey Mills on the north bank of the river, the Temple of Sewage. But as you’ll see if you glance at this post, this is still a restricted site, a marvel that has yet to be revealed generally.
Instead let’s cross the Thames and head even further east. This is, frankly, a rather depressing part of London’s sprawl. As you leave Woolwich with its Victorian barracks and rather splendid buildings behind, you find yourself on faster wider roads and surrounded by some post WW2 over-spill developments; these are not the quaint curios to the west much loved by Betjeman and his Metroland, which sprang up after WW1 but the brutalist blocks of a Stalinist architecture that compromised good taste with urgent need. Thamesmead grew like a necessary canker, filling empty acres with a sprawl that is home to many but unloved by most.
And as you reach its end, as you approach the river and the remnants of industrialisation you find this.
Another sewage plant.
Crossness is smaller and maybe less well known than Abbey Mills. It was, though just as essential.
Let me explain.
In the 185os London’s population was exploding, the industrial revolution was adding to the filth and the newly popular water closet was adding to the already polluted streets and river. Given that this was also the source of fresh water for the population it was hardly surprising there was an explosion of disease. Cholera and Typhoid especially. When Parliament awarded £3 million to the Metropolitan Board of Works it was a huge sum. But very necessary.
The solution that would need this cash involved taking the sewage, in a combined drain with the sewage mingled with surface water run off, down river to the two storage and pumping stations at Abbey Mills and Crossness. Here the dirty water was held until the tide turned so that it could be washed out to sea.
Hardly a perfect solution and soon enough the denizens down river at Barking and Gravesend were complaining. When the Princess Alice sunk and 640 people died, some by asphyxiation because the sewage (some 75 million gallons) had recently been released and the gasses, just above the water, meant it wasn’t breathable, something had to be done. That’s when they built sludge pits to treat the sewage with the solids converted into sludge and dumped far out in the North Sea; one of the first barges used for this purpose was the Bazalgette – some memorial!
This continued to be the solution until EU regulations came into being at the end of the 1990s and now the sludge cakes are burnt to generate power for the new fangled treatment plant next door.
As for the original building, well, the boilers were removed in the 1950s and the ornate chimney stack demolished but there wasn’t anyone capable of dismantling the huge beam engines and fly wheels (built by James Watt & Company) so they and the building were mothballed.
A trust was formed in the 1980s to preserve this extraordinary work of Victorian engineering and gradually plans for restoration grew.
Of the four engines: Victoria, Albert, The Prince Consort, Edward, Prince of Wales and Alice (his wife), two either have been or are to be restored; the other two left as found so as to show the befores and afters.
Work has progressed so that Victoria is capable of ‘steam up’ and being run as it used to be. Apparently it is nearly silent, so accurate is the engineering.
If you get the chance, go.
We’d not have the city we enjoy without this place and they are extraordinary achievements.
And if you chose a day when the steam is up, report back. It’s still on my bucket list.
A few more pictures..