Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Crossness: The Cathedral of Sewage Works

Two hundred years ago London was a mess with raw sewage flowing into the Thames and thousands dying of cholera. In 1858 the "Great Stink" from the river got so bad that Parliament had to close and it was therefore generally agreed that something had to be done.

Enter the engineer Joseph Bazelgette who supervised the building of the great Victorian sewage network for London: 100 miles of intercept sewers, 450 miles of main sewers and 13,000 miles of local sewers. It was future-proofed by being built with double the necessary capacity and is still being used today.

All that waste was sent down the estuary to two pumping stations, one on each of the river banks, which discharged it into the out-flowing Thames.

The pumping station on the south side was built at Crossness and opened on the 4th April 1865, by a lot of big-wigs including the Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor of London.

It could have been one of those hidden away, not to be talked about, bits of ugly but necessary machinery. But for some reason the Victorians built the pumping station as a cathedral of industrialisation, ornate cast iron decorations around a central Octagon.
The building contains some of the largest steam engines in the world: their scale can be judged in this picture of two of the beams:
It has a wonderful Gothic feel to it, and you won't be surprised to hear its been the set of many films, TV programmes and pop videos:
It was last used to pump after the great floods of 1953 and then abandoned. It might have been sold for scrap but fortunately the works were so heavy it would not have been cost effective, and was therefore left to rot.

So it was saved by default for the nation, and is now a Grade 1 listed sewage works. It's not open that often as the restoration program still has many years to go, but one such opportunity arose last weekend as part of the Totally Thames festival.

I passed it when walking from Erith to Greenwich and wanted to go in but it was closed, so I kept an eye open for an opportunity - and was glad I did!
As to that artist mentioned in the previous post? Well of course it was John Martin who came up with the idea 25 years before Bazalgette implemented it.

I've posted about him before, as his life seems amazingly rich, including art and engineering, writers and royals, from racing on steam engines with Brunel to giving a home to the author of "The Mummy".

And Crossness seems to be the embodiment of that mixture of the two cultures, where form and function both show the ideals of the Victorian era.


Tillerman said...

Is England the only country in the world with a "Grade 1 listed sewage works"

JP said...

Its these sorts of things that makes one proud of ol' blighty!

Kat said...

What a gorgeous sewage works! (It's not every day you get a chance to say that) :)

JP said...

Indeed - you can see how it got its Grade 1 Listed status!

Anonymous said...

How do you keep your content so fresh if you don't flush it away? Nice. Bazelgette's bust along the riverside somewhere, near the IET?