Wednesday, August 24, 2016
After the stink
Among our greatest heroes should be Joseph Bazalgette and the other Victorian engineers and builders who created London’s network of underground sewers. The scandal of Victorian London’s inadequate open sewers (poor disposal, contaminated drinking water, cholera, typhoid, and appalling smells) was finally confronted in 1858, the year of the ‘Great Stink’, when the odour from the Thames was so great it penetrated the nostrils of the powers that sit in the Houses of Parliament.
Joseph Bazalgette’s enormous and far-sighted engineering project put an end to this. Miles of pipes and brick-vaulted tunnels stretch beneath the capital, removing the effluent to a vast reservoir (49 Olympic swimming pools’ worth, in language appropriate to August 2016), which was then emptied into the Thames at high tide, to be flushed out to sea. Most of those pipes and tunnels are still use today.
The pumping work was done at steam-powered pumping stations, one of which was the Crossness Pumping Station on the Erith Marshes in the Borough of Bexley. This South-East London engineering marvel was opened in 1865 and was used until 1956, when a new sewage-treatment works was installed. But the building has survived, thanks to its extraordinary architecture, grant-aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the hard work of volunteers and restorers. The original pumping engines are there too (they have 52-ton flywheels and may be the largest remaining ones of their type in the world).*
It’s the architecture that gets me going, of course. The white Gault brick exterior is impressive, but the inside, a riot of multi-coloured ironwork, is what’s special. This is the sort of iron extravaganza that raises the same sort of cloud of journalistic clichés as the great London railway termini: it’s a cathedral of cloaca, a palace of poo, a temple of…
Enough of that. It’s an irrepressibly Victorian building, its walls and windows drawing on the Romanesque revival (semi-circular arches, artfully arranged in groups), on Gothic (foliate ornament, pointed motifs in the balcony railings), and on the sheer power of engineering. In other words it represents that coming-together of ancient and modern that the Victorians liked so much – as in the railway stations again. But there’s something else. They built this stuff to last. We’re still the beneficiaries of their thoroughness, of their glorious over-engineering, every time we flush a lavatory in Lambeth or load the dishwasher in Dagenham. Think of that, as you admire the iron curlicues, which have lasted too, thanks to the engineers’ skill and the restorers’ art.
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* Visiting times are limited at the moment. They’re on the web here, where there is also much more information about the building, its engines, and its restoration.
Photograph I nearly always use my own photographs on this blog, but this time the image above is copyright © Christine Matthews and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.