The Most Beautiful Sewage Plant

Jul 13, 2021 2 comments

Situated on the banks of River Thames, about 9 km east of Greenwich, is a two-story brick building housing one of the most beautiful Victorian-era sewage pumping station.

Nicknamed “cathedral of the marshes” after the adjacent Erith Marshes, this magnificent building features spectacular ornamental cast ironwork. The exterior originally had a giant humbug-striped chimney, and its doorways were modeled after Norman cathedrals.

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The ornate interior of Crossness Pumping Station in London. Photo credit: Jay Peg/Flickr

The first of its kind in the world, the Crossness pumping station was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan board of works, to solve London’s big stinking problem caused by the dumping of untreated sewage and industrial waste into the Thames until the river was little more than an open sewer devoid of any fish or other wildlife. Aside from the unholy stench arising from the river, water supplies were being contaminated across the rapidly expanding city, leading to killer epidemics like cholera.

Bazalgette’s plan was to take sewage as far as possible from the city through gravity flow and steam-powered pumping engines, and then dump it untreated into the Thames far to the south-east of the city. For this, he constructed a network of intercepting sewers, running parallel to the river, some 82 miles in length. These collected sewage from over 450 miles of existing sewers that themselves received contents from over 13,000 miles of small local sewers, dealing daily with half a million gallons of waste. Construction of the sewers was a stupendous undertaking involving the excavation of 3.5 million cubic yards of earth, and requiring 318 million bricks and 880,000 cubic yards of concrete and mortar. Bazalgette also built three huge embankments along the shores of the Thames inside which ran the sewer lines.

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Exterior of Crossness Pumping Station, Photo credit: Ethan Doyle White/Wikimedia

For the most part, the sewage moved by gravity, but in places such as Chelsea, Deptford, Abbey Mills and Crossness, pumping stations were built to to raise the water and provide sufficient flow. Of these, the pumping stations at Abbey Mills and at Crossness were the most architecturally magnificent with ornate domes resembling those of a Byzantine church. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, described the building’s architecture as "an unorthodox mix, vaguely Italian Gothic in style but with tiers of Byzantine windows and a central octagonal lantern that adds a gracious Russian flavour.”

Inside the building are four giant steam-powered beam engines named after members of the royal family—Queen Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra of Denmark. The colossal machines could lift 6 tons of sewage per stroke per engine to a height of 30 to 40 feet, and into a reservoir, which was then released into the Thames during the ebbing tide. When the pumping station was decommissioned in the 1950s, the cost of dismantling the engines were so enormous that they were left in place. For more than fifty years, the pumping station and the machines remained idle, accumulating dust until they were restored into a tourist attraction in 2015.

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The interior of Crossness Pumping Station. Photo credit: David Edwards/Flickr

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Photo credit: Gabrielle Ludlow/Flickr

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Photo credit: andrew/Flickr

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Photo credit: Jay Peg/Flickr

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Photo credit: Jay Peg/Flickr

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Photo credit: Jay Peg/Flickr

Comments

  1. Reorganize BetterJuly 15, 2021 at 7:57 PM

    Wow, all that ornateness and massive equipment, yet the pumping station was used for less than 100 years. It's interesting also that the restoration was financed by organizations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Meanwhile, the class of people who manage all that wealth are waging a war against the descendants of the people who designed and built that pumping station and its machinery. It's evident that in the UK, "Heritage" is for inanimate things, but not for people...unless they happen to be unwhite immigrants or descendants of unwhite immigrants who were imported to replace the "Heritage" people of the UK.

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