Crossness Pumping Station in London was officially opened on the 4th of April 1865. This magnificent building, nowadays a museum, was part of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewarage system. I visited there twice in the very beginning of the new Millennium and wrote articles for two Finnish water magazines.
I am sure that many of my readers have heard about The Great Stink that took place in London in the very hot summer of 1858. The River Thames was sick. It was so polluted that in that summer even the Members of Parliament had to escape from the stink. They finally realized that improving the London sewerage system cannot wait any longer. As I wrote in my other article, “165 miles of main sewers were reconstructed and additional 82 miles of underground brick sewers were added to intercept the sewage outflows”. This was not all as 1100 miles of street sewers were also built for raw sewage that had previously flowed on the streets. (Please note, that the numbers can vary from source to source.)
That was all underground. The visible structures were the embankments as well as four sewage pumping stations, two on the north of Thames, two on the south. On the south of the river the intercepting sewers brought sewage from South London area first to Deptford Pumping Station (also known as Greenwich Pumping Station which is, as far as I know, the official name, at least Tideway uses that name) and from there the sewage continued to Crossness, the eastern end of the southern outfall sewer. Here four steam driven pumps lifted the sewage to a covered, brick vaulted reservoir and from there it was discharged into The Thames during the ebbing tide. At high tide it went straight to the river. (Btw, the Grade II listed reservoir is now used to store storm water.) Bazalgette was not interested in sewage treatment, the idea was just to get sewage as far away from the city and the residential areas as possible. (Later the things changed also here as in Crossness there is one of the biggest sewage treatment works in Europe.)
Crossness pumping station was opened on the 4th of April 1865 by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Below is the invitation to the opening ceremony.
This picture of Prince of Wales opening the pumping station was published in The Illustrated London News, Vol. XLVI, p. 341 on the 15 of April 1865:
Stephen Halliday writes that the official opening was performed by Albert Edward
…in the presence of two archbishops, other members of the royal family, MPs and numerous other dignitaries. One of the four beam engines that lifted the sewage was named after the Prince and switched on by him, the three others bearing the names of other members of the royal family: Queen Victoria, Albert the Prince Consort and the Prince of Wales’s wife Alexandra of Denmark. (Halliday, 2019, p. 117)
Halliday writes that after the official opening ceremony the construction work continued for many more years and Crossness was not completed until 1867. (Halliday, 1999, p. 98).
During the years of the operation there were lots of changes. And finally, in 1953 the beam engine house, boiler house and triple expansion engine house were made redundant due to the new treatment works.
In the mid eighties the first steps were made to start restoring the buildings and the engines. The Crossness Engines Trust was set up in 1987.
My visits in 2000 in photos
I have visited this Grade I listed place twice and I wrote two articles about it for Finnish water magazines, Vesitalous (general magazine for professional people in water industry) and Vesiviesti that was a personnel magazine of then Helsingin Vesi, nowadays Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY. I started my article in the latter one by writing that first time I visited there because of the beam engines [I was at the time a member of Steam Engine Society of Finland and there are some of the largest rotative beam engines – by James Watt & Co. – in the world; Prince Consort has been said to be the largest] and the second time because of the unimaginable beauty of the place. I continued that on the third time I hopefully would see an engine on steam. The third time has not happened and one of the engines, above mentioned Prince Consort, has been in a full working order since 2002!
Anyway, my idea was to show here some (read: the most decent ones) pictures that I took on these two visits. First the black and white ones and then in the end there are some colour pictures that are quite terrible, but still… There are a couple of nice b/w shots that I am happy about. But anyway, this is a documentary photo story, not an art story. (By clicking the picture it will be opened in a new window.)
As I mentioned, in the end you can see colour shots of the same areas.
Here are some interior shots. Before the tour we were given a short presentation. The tour was given by Peter Skilton.
The volunteers were busy working while visitors were admiring the building around them:
Details around the original main entrance that can nowadays be seen only from the triple expansion engine house:
Three pictures above are all of the triple expansion engine house that was added to the north of the beam engine house (1897). The new building that architecturally was designed to fit with the existing engine house, was needed to add pumping capacity. Triple expansion steam engines were installed there to operate four extra pumps. Later they were replaced by diesel engines. I still remember watching down to that deep space on my first visit. Please go to see Matt Emmett’s (the guy behind Forgotten Heritage) photographs here, to get a better idea of the place (as well as the film I mention in the very end of the story).
From the first floor level:
Below is the boilerhouse. Here you can see an old interior shot of it. The exhibition is located in the old boilerhouse.
There are two workshops facing each other. They are Grade II listed. The other one, the one we could visit, is located behind the photographer’s back:
The fitting shop door:
The fitting shop:
The last pictures that I show from my first visit are of the former centrifugal engine house, opened in the mid of the 1910s. During the visit it was still in use, working as a storm water pump house. The building is locally listed:
A visit to the storm water pump house did not belong to the official tour, so it was a bit extra before our tour started. We could peek into the still active place from the door. I guess that we got this chance because there was some very official looking people visiting the place at the same time. (According to the information from Thames Water, the building is not in use anymore.):
I stayed at Crossness a bit longer, spending some time in the museum that was called Museum of Sanitation Engineering (I guess it’s nowadays called The Great Stink Exhibition). I had planned to walk back to the Abbey Wood station, but I got a lift from a guy who had been doing some painting work there.
The second visit
My second visit took place on the 15th of July. I heard that a big group will come a bit later. Before that I got a private guiding offered by Peter G. (I have written the name on my diary, but cannot read my handwriting) and thus I was able to concentrate better on taking photographs. Then I joined the group. Later I interviewed Trust member David Wilkinson for my article.
This is what I wrote in my second article that included also the picture on the left:
When the sunlight is filtering through the windows of the upper floor through the grate floor down to the level where the massive fly wheel is located, the impression is a very cathedral-like. Not even the fact that everything is covered by rust, does not prevent the formation of that impression – or maybe it just emphasizes it.
The next one is from the triple expansion engine house, did I really want to photograph the windows…?:
Beautiful, rusty detail:
I finished the day by exploring the museum again. George Jennings won posthumously for his company the Grand Prix at the 1900 Paris Exposition, for his siphonic pan. The toilet on this picture is of that design.
Once again I got a lift to the station. What a lovely visit it was again. I thought I would visit there again soon. But it has not happened so far. Twenty years ago I was told that the idea was to restore only half of the engine house and leave the other half in the rusty state, but I don’t know what’s the situation at the moment. I know that the restoration work with the pumping engine Victoria is in progress.
Colour shots from both visits
I don’t like taking colour photos so that might be the reason why I never learnt to take good colour shots. On my visits to Crossness I, however, took some colour photos as well, because it’s so … colourful. So here are some colour shots, but if you want to see some splendid ones, check the links in the end of the story. (I know both Matt Emmett and Andy Marland and believe me, they are great photographers, whom work I value a lot.)
All the exterior shots are from my first visit:
With these shots below (taken on the second trip) I tried to show how colourful the place is. Both shots are slightly out of focus, a problem that has followed me all my “career” as a photographer. William Webster (see the photo on the left hand side) was builder who worked for example with Joseph Bazalgette and constructed this beautiful place between 1859 and 1865.
This next shot shows the beam of the Prince Consort engine that was almost fully restored at the time of my visit. The beam is green. The original slide is very dark, so I am not quite sure if I got the colours right. This is also from the second trip.
My shot of Prince Consort from the second trip is unsurprisingly out of focus again. I had taken a black and white shot of it with flash, but as I am even more hopeless with flash than I am with colour film, I chose the colour one:
The last image is taken from the first trip in July 2000.
Text and photos © Katriina Etholén
Stephen Halliday: The Great Stink of London. Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. Sutton Publishin, 1999.
Stephen Halliday: An Underground Guide to Sewers. Or: Down, Through and Out in Paris, London, New York &c. Thames & Hudson, 2019.
Crossness Conservation Area. Area Appraisal and Management Plan. February 2009. Click this to see the document (in pdf form).
Viktoriia Makeenko’s article with great pictures by heritage photographer Matt Emmett. (I do recommend you to check this.)
The View From The North website, here you can see Crossness photographs by Andy Marland.
Britain Express article by David Ross with lots of colourful photos from the site.
My short article The Great Stink with some Crossness images.
There are also lots of great videos on YouTube. I would recommend you to watch almost a half an hour long video from IKS Exploration, Forgotten Victorian Pumping Station (Crossness, London). That film takes you also to the areas that are closed from the visitors. (Just go to YouTube and search by using the name of the film and its makers, easy to find.)