I visited the Cambridge Museum of Technology on 30 October 2019 after a month of re-opening the museum. So my timing was perfect. I spent there for four hours seeing most of the site and photographing and studying the history of the Old Sewage Pumping Station and the industrial history of Cambridge. This post is rather a photographic story about my visit than anything else. There is no point of repeating everything that is said in some other places on internet. I will give a couple of links in the end of the article to read more about the site.
The Cambridge Museum of Technology is located in an Old Sewage Pumping Station that the local council had built in 1894 to solve Cambridge’s sewage and rubbish problems. It was closed in 1968 and fortunately saved from demolition. Before too long a museum was created to tell the story of Cambridge’s industrial past.
(Please note that by clicking the image you can see a full size version of it in a new window. I also took some shots with a tablet when I was unsure if my film camera was able to capture the subject, and some of them I decided to share here as well, you will find them in the end of the story. The collection of images are also shown in a new window, and you can return to the article by clicking the X in the top right corner.)
In the nineteenth century the River Cam that flows through Cambridge was an open sewer and the streets were filthy and people were suffering from diseases. There were sewers covering parts of the town, but the waste water was discharged into the river. The old sewers were also in a bad condition. The problem was understood, but there were no funds to solve the problem until in the end of the century.
A scheme was produced finally in 1891. It was designed by Council engineer John Wood. That included building a pumping station on the bank of the river Cam. Old sewers were replaced and 37 miles of new sewers were built. An intercepting sewer brought the sewage by gravity to the site, where it was collected in a well beneath the pumping station. From there the sewage would be pumped to the sewage works (in the beginning it was a sewage farm, but converted into a sewage treatment works in 1937) at the village of Milton, about three kilometres away. The waste water treatment plant is located so far still there, but there seems to be plans to relocate it (see here).
The new pumping station started working in 1895. It really had an impact on the residents’ life as the death rate fell by 15 per cent. The pumping station was not only removing sewage and dealing with the rain water, but it also burned household and trade rubbish that was brought to the south end of the pumping station. The rubbish was sorted and combustible material was burned in the furnaces to run the two pumping engines. Below is a shot of one of those Hathorn Davey sewage pumping engines.
Cambridge was growing and the steam engines were not anymore sufficient to cope with increasing volumes of liquid, so an extension was built and two gas engines were located there. This was in 1909. In 1937 an electric pump was added to be used in the events of a storm surge. The pumping station was working another three decades.
Then a new pumping station was built and the Old Pumping Station became redundant. It was closed in 1968. It was to be demolished as no other alternative was seen.
But a group of engineers who were employed by Cambridge Scientific Instruments Ltd considered that the Hathorn Davey engines were interesting part of engineering history and the research students from the University Engineering Department had a plan to take care of them in situ. A campaign was set up and before too long also the real value of the engines was discovered. In fact these engines in the museum are the only remaining Hathorn Davey engines of this type still working by steam.
The Cambridge Society for Industrial Archaeology was formed and later another organization, the Museum Trust, to negotiate with the City Council. Little by little volunteers could start working and the first open weekend was held in May 1971. Over 5000 visitors visited the site. But that was only a start. It has been a long journey to become a museum that it is nowadays. Most of the work has been done by volunteers. In 2013 The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the museum a major funding for developing the site. The museum was re-opened in autumn 2019.
This tiny extract below is from a poem Ode to Cheddar’s Lane (author unknown) is copied from a booklet Sewage, Stench and Steam (1999) that tells a story about saving the disused pumping station and turned it into a museum:
And Cheddar’s Lane will be preserved
For future men to see
Thanks to those mad, intreped chaps
Of our Society.
So when you walk down Cheddar’s Lane
Don’t hurry past too fast
But pause and spare a kindly thought
For workmen of the past.
The visit starts (if you want to follow the planned route) from the electric room where you can familiarize yourself with the place with a help of texts, video and a model of the pumping station, and also learn about Cambridge’s clean water supply and electrifying Cambridge .
This extension was built to house the Crompton Parkinson electric motor that drove a Gwynne’s centrifugal pump in the basement. The pump was used only if other pumps couldn’t cope with the increased water during bad weather.
The route continues to the gas engine room. As mentioned earlier this extension was built in 1909 to house two National Gas Engine Company’s engines to increase pumping capacity. In the room you can watch a video how the engines are working:
A picture showing the actual engines is in the end of the article in the colour photo section, but you can also see it by clicking this. And if you want to see one of those engines in action, please click this.
The engineer’s office is here, too. It was used by the manager in charge and the under manager:
Now it’s time to have a bit closer look at the main thing in the museum, two Hathorn Davey steam pumping engines that were installed in 1894. This is in fact the view you see when you first enter to the museum:
The compound tandem pumping engines were made by Hathorn Davey & Co at the Sun Foundry in Leeds. This type of engine was one of the company’s most successful engines.
In the picture above you see (better click the image to enlarge it) also so called Steam Man (next to the stand), officially Davey Differential Valve Gear that “automatically regulates the supply of steam to correspond with the amount of sewage and rain water being pumped”. You can read the rest of the explanation (with drawings) here. And here you can see the engine in steam. Below is one more picture, now taken from another direction.
Below is a pressure gauge board. Here you can read what the different brass gauges indicate.
And here is a graph recorder. I liked to photograph it, that’s why I show three images of it:
Here’s what the museum guide writes about the device:
The graph recorder recorded the boiler steam pressure, the depth of water in the well and the time of day. This allowed the managing engineer to understand better whether to blame the engine driver, the stoker, or some other factor for times when the water in the well was too high. A clockwork mechanism drives the hands on the clock face and the rotating drum for the graph paper. Each week the ink pen would need refilling, the graph paper replacing and the clockwork spring rewinding. (Stubbings 2013, p. 8)
Before entering the boiler house, the visitor passes a beautiful Dey time register clock:
Boiler house and the ash tunnel
The boiler house that shares a wall with the engine house was originally housing three Babcock & Wilcox boilers. The main fuel at the time was household rubbish; coal was only the alternative fuel.
At the time of opening the pumping station the council was collecting rubbish six days a week (one source tells that seven days). When it arrived to the tipping (top) bay of the pumping station, the nonburnable material like glass and metal was separated. Some of the glass bottles could be returned to a shop, damaged bottles were dumped. Lots of them were later found at the site. Metal was sold as scrap. Pile of tin cans was flattened by running a steam roller over them. Metal was baled in a brick-built shed that is still standing in an area. Picture of the shed is seen later in this article.
The burnable material was dropped into brick-built destructor cells. Each boiler had two of them, one on each side.
One of those three original boilers, number 1, is still intact. It’s the one closest to the door (see my photo above). In the 1950s a new refuse incinerator was installed and the boiler number 3 and its both destructor cells and one belonging to boiler number 2 were removed. Because of this it’s nowadays possible to see the inclined boiler tubes and the steam drum of the boiler number 2. See the photo below.
But the times were changing and so the nature of domestic rubbish was changing as well. It became less useful as fuel and it became difficult to produce enough steam for the engines and thus too much sewage started to accumulate in the wells. That’s why in 1923 another Babcock & Wilcox boiler was installed to produce greater heat. The boiler number 4 burnt only coke. In the 1940s it became the main boiler when the amount of rubbish collected dropped significantly. In 1942 the pumping station stopped burning household rubbish altogether. Trade waste was still burnt. Nowadays the number 4 is used on steaming days to provide steam to run the engines.
Below are two pictures of the number 4 boiler. Please note that the water level gauges and the steam pressure gauge are not fitted at the time of my visit. (See here how it looks like when they are all in place.)
Below are still three more images taken from the boiler house before moving on. In the middle one you can see again the exposed inclined tubes of boiler number 2 as well as its steam drum above the tubes. On the top of the picture there is the former tipping bay that is now exhibition area (more about that later) and in the bottom of the picture there is an access to the flue that is running under the destructor cells and boilers. (The flue is a 30 metres long semicircular tunnel that connects the furnaces to the base of the chimney.) Here you can see a colour shot of it giving a bit better idea.
In the last picture you could notice an auxiliary grate that enabled coal to be used if there was not enough rubbish to burn, like during the weekends.
The next destination is the ash tunnel. You can read more about it here.
The nearly cool ash is raked out through the ash doors that you can see in the photos, close-up in the one below. The doors covers the destructors’ fire grates. All these five destructor cell fire doors with sliding doors were updated in 1924 (photograph below). The only original one from 1894 is missing from these photos. You can see part of the old design, where the door is hinged at the top, by clicking this.
The tipper trucks that you see nowadays, are not original, but are similar to the original ones. The trucks were running on rails and the full trucks were pushed by hand to the turntable that was located by the base of the chimney. From there they were pushed to wherever you wanted the load to be emptied.
The former tipping bay area (that was at some point partially walled and covered) is nowadays presenting Cambridge’s industrial past; brewing industry, iron founding, brickmaking, gas industry… and exhibiting interesting machinery.
You can see there for example this steam-powered vacuum pump that was used to extract juice from soft fruits at Chivers and Sons‘ factory in Histon:
This wooden extension was built in the 1940s to cover the whole tipping area – as it was just partially walled earlier – in order to hide the light coming from the furnaces that could otherwise act as a marker for the enemy’s aircraft.
Here are two other shots that I took while I was looking around in the top bay area:
It was time to go out and photograph the chimney stack, or to be precise, a base of it as the ca 53 metres tall structure didn’t quite fit into a photo taken that close. During the renovation, it was repaired by famous steeplejack, Fred Dibnah in 1992. I have enlarged a part of the photo to show the flue reaching the base of the chimney.
Behind the K6 telephone booth there is a print shop that is located in a former workshop. It’s open on Sunday afternoons for demonstrations, so I missed it.
I wrote above that the trucks full of ash and clinker were pushed by hands along the rails. But later the task was made easier by the use of steam. There was a steam powered winch that ran on the site from 1926 to 1958 pulling the wagons from the pumping station to the top of the hill where the load was emptied to fill surrounding clay pits (the ash was also used for mending the roads). The original winch house was demolished and equipment crapped after a lorry crashed into it in 1958. The current steam winch came from the former Tilmanstone Colliery in Kent.
I also mentioned earlier the old baling shed. You can see it in the photo below. Behind it (the long building, called Pye Building) there are the facilities for the new exhibitions.
Nowadays the baling shed is not a storage for baled metal but it houses an oil engine and a pump that were installed in 1926 at the sewage farm in Milton. They were built by Blackstone & Co. The engine drove – among other tasks – the pump, which moved sewage sludge to areas where it was dried before it could be used as fertilizer. Below you can see the engine (on the left) and the pump.
The exhibitions in the Pye Building behind the Blackstone engine shed tell the stories of two local companies, Pye and Cambridge Instrument Company. These exhibitions are new additions (opened in 2019) and definitely worth visiting. There are lots to see, so be sure you have enough time to see everything.
Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, as it was called in the beginning and got to be known simply as “The Scientific” by locals, was founded in 1881 by Horace Darwin, whose father happened to be certain Charles Darwin, and Albert Dew-Smith. Most of the instruments that were manufactured in the early years, were for physiological laboratories.
For me, as a former record collector, the name Pye was much more familiar. The foreman in the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company was William Thomas Pye. In 1898 he left the company to join his son, William George Pye, who had set up the first Pye company in a garden shed in 1896, and which was to become W G. Pye and Co. It was a humble beginning of a company that would become the “largest private sector company in the Cambridge area for much of the 20th century, with a strong global presence”, as put in the exhibition leaflet.
If I ever visit Cambridge again (which I hope to happen someday), I will pay another visit to the museum, too.
Text and photos © Katriina Etholén
Cambridge Museum of Technology
The Old Pumping Station
(Please note that the entrance to the museum is from the riverside)
Current opening times (museum is closed from 3 November until 5 December):
10.30–16.00 every Saturday, Sunday and Monday
Below are the websites, where you can find information about the museum and exhbitions. After the colour photo gallery I give some website addresses where you can study more about the museum as well as the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company.
Stubbings, David: Cambridge Museum of Technology. History of the Sewage Pumping Station, Cheddars Lane [museum guide]. Cambridge Museum of Technology and Jigsaw Design and Publishing Ltd, 2013.
Underwood, J.: This Building. Camside Publications, 2006.
Underwood, Jeane: Sewage, Stench and Steam. Camside Publications, 1999.
Unwin, Donald J.: ‘The Scientific’ – The Story of the Cambridge Instrument Company. Cambridge Industrial Archaeology Society and the Museum of Technology, 2009 .
Unwin, Donald: The Tall Chimney. The unique Hathorn Davey sewage pumping engines & the working small scale replica. Cambridge Museum of Technology, 2007.
Plus information provided in the museum and museum website.
A good article about Cambridge Museum of Technology: A Story of Sewage and Waste Disposal in the Victorian Industrial Revolution
Please note that this site is a bit out-dated, but it has good information about the things you see in the museum: Trail for Cambridge Museum of Technology
A blog article about the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company