Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Woolwich, London

Big sheds

In the early 1900s London’s transport was starting to turn to electricity for its power. The early underground trains had been hauled by steam locomotives, but few people liked the clouds of steam and sooty smuts that plagued the station platforms and the need for ventilation meant that underground lines had to be built near to the surface. Using electric power meant that deeper lines could be constructed, beneath parts of the city where sub-surface lines were impossible to build. So as the underground (and the tram network) began to hook up to electricity, power stations were required, and one was built in Greenwich.

The Greenwich Power Station was originally fitted with four large steam engines driving alternators. The engines were huge and so required the vast big-windowed sheds that can still be seen poking up above the urban low-rise of Greenwich and Woolwich. The building was put up in two phases, in 1902 and 1910, and the design was the work of the London Country Council architect’s department – they must have been proud of the pair of enormous Diocletian windows that light the cavernous engine rooms.

When the 1910 phase of building was completed, turbines – the latest generating technology – were installed in the new part of the building, and eventually the steam engines were removed and more turbines were installed. There are still turbines in the power station, and the equipment is kept in working order and occasionally run as the power station stands by as a back-up facility for the Underground.

Compared to some power stations, such as Bristol’s Tramways GeneratingStation, this is a plain and simple building, but imposing nonetheless. The chimneys and windows can hold their own against the background of the towers of Docklands. The Power Station has a small tower of its own, the small octagonal turret on the right of my photograph, but no source I have found can explain what it is for.


bazza said...

I have a fondness for buildings like this one. I am especially keen on water-pumping stations which are not dissimilar.
There are some magnificent (and apparently empty) ones around London.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes, pumping stations, power stations, and other buildings associated with engineering often embodied Victorian pride in their technological achievements.

Sue Hayton said...

Must have been even more impressive when the chimneys were full height - they have been cut down! Full details are in the GLIAS Journal - The IA of London No 7
Details here -

James Mackay said...

It was not passenger comfort which drove electrification, but the availability of electricity (and lifts) which enabled tube lines to be built deep, beneath existing development rather than cutting a route through it. Smoke would have made it not just uncomfortable, but impossible to breathe, were steam locomtives to run in the deep tunnels. Only the sub-surface Metropolitan and District lines, and therefore the Circle line, and above ground routes, used steam locomotives.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sue: Yes, the towers have been reduced in height. They would have dominated the area at their original size.

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: I see what you mean, yes. So was it economics, essentially, that drove the change? The availability of electricity meant that it became possible to construct deep tubes, and this made it possible to build lines in places where it would have been difficult or impossible to build cut-and-cover lines. And the reason why operators wanted to do this was to make money?

Chris Partridge said...

I'm sorry to strike a negative note, but this is a horrible horrible building and ought to be demolished right now. It's not the design, it's the size and position. It looms over historic Greenwich like a monstrous crow. And it completely overshadows the pretty and historic Trinity Hospital, a medieval almshouse where the residents still wear cap and gown.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Your comments are always welcome, positive or negative. I do see what you mean (though I don't find it quite so horrible as you do), and I didn't consider the context properly when I looked at the building recently.