Abbey Wood, SE2
The Crossness Enginehouse is quite simply one of the most wonderful “secret” sights of London. Its origins may be in the gutter, but it is most definitely looking at the stars.
What is it? A sewage pumping station. But oh, WHAT a sewage pumping station. Looking more like a Gothic cathedral than a piece of industrial history, this wonderful building is a supreme example of Victorian engineering at its most flamboyant.
It was built in 1865 as part of the great sewage network designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as a response to the serious health problems caused by the influx of people migrating to The Big Smoke during the Industrial Revolution. Things had got pretty bad – if massive cholera outbreaks and dysentery weren’t enough, The Great Stink of 1858 which literally stunk MPs out of Parliament was. Something Had To Be Done.
Bazalgette designed a clever system that took all the capital’s effluent out through massive drains to the Thames Estuary by gravity, but by the time it reached the places where it was to come out – Abbey Mills in the North, Abbey Wood in the South, it was forty feet underground.
With typical Victorian chutzpah, engineers thumbed their noses at complexity and designed enormous steam pumping houses which brought the effluent up to the right level to catch the out-going tide and be carried away to sea. The house at Crossness had four gigantic pumps, each one named after members of the Royal Family, which were miracles of their time – and are still pretty marvellous today. They were designed to be viewed and the building itself is entirely decorated in gaudily-painted cast iron flamboyance. Corinthian columns topped with acanthus leaves and pear drops, floral motifs, sweeping arches and encaustic tiles offset the marvels that are the pumps themselves, and the great Norman-style arches carved in stone on each of the entrances ensure the visitor knows that they are in the presence of greatness.
Over the years it was adapted and improved until it stopped being used in the 1950s. Then began a period of shame. Neglected and abandoned, the engines fell first into disrepair, then into ruins. The great iron engines first seized then rusted, and it became a haunt for vandals and thieves. Much was lost.
Then in 1972, the story took a more hopeful turn, when what would become The Crossness Engines Trust was founded. A dedicated team of volunteers started to clean, rebuild and replace the crippled carcasses of the engines, to scrape away the years of rust and literally chip-out the deep underground pipes which had been filled with sand (a deeply unpleasant job.)
They de-rusted and repainted the frilly ironwork and started the mammoth task of saving the building itself. A few years ago, they re-fired the first of the great steam pumps, The Prince Consort, and now they open the building on high days and holidays for the public to enjoy the gigantic flywheel churning round, the whopping great engine arm pumping up and down and the steam released in a little “toot toot” every so often. Young visitors are sometimes allowed to start the engines, though Health & Safety is quite an issue and most have to watch from a safe distance.
They still have far more to do at Crossness than they’ve finished. Everywhere you look, decay is still in action. They’re not hiding that – and it is part of the whole experience to see the almost romantic ruin of the massive pumphouse, and to marvel at the dedication of the volunteers.
There is a small exhibition of photos and documents, plus an entertaining display of all antiques lavatorial – including some wonderfully-named early loos – fancy reading the paper sitting on The Shark, Le Symphonie or The Closet of the Century? How about flushing with the patent Deluge?
I was expecting to enjoy Crossness, but I was in no way prepared for the sheer grandeur of the place. Go. Do go. Really – you won’t be disappointed. It is secret, rare and One of Our Own.
Next “Public Steaming Day” is June 2nd.