Above: Looking down on the pumping engines at the beautifully restored ironwork inside the large building.
Crossness is the name of a ‘ness’ or projecting piece of land which projects into the Thames on the south side. The ‘ness’ is just inside the London Borough of Bexley. The pumping station is also in the London Borough of Bexley and took its name from the name of the land.
This is one of the great conservation stories about a London heritage building. The subject we are talking about is sewage – and vast quantities of it. The date we are talking about is around 1850. Before that date, particularly in Tudor times, there were no water-closets and ordure – to use a polite term – was simply dumped outside residences, being emptied out of chamber pots. The smell must have been terrible and those in neighbouring houses did the same and were supposed to sweep it away, usually towards the Thames. Some of the ordure was collected in carts and dumped into barges on the Thames where it was carried off and put on farms to ‘enrich’ the land.
By the 18th century, many houses in London had water-closets, with the contents ending up in cesspits in the garden which also needed to be dug out from time to time by – you have guessed it – cesspit cleaners. Gradually waste pipes were added to the water-closets which simply conveyed the waste material, by gravity to a stream which, in turn, conveyed it to the Thames. The whole scheme was, by any standards, totally inadequate.
With large numbers of people living in London – and increasing year by year – the matter continued to become worse. The idea of a proper sewer system was not even considered because of the cost involved. If you think London was bad it should be pointed out that Paris and many other cities were no better and they did not take action until much later than London. Everyone agreed that the problem was bad and everyone knew what needed to be done. Nobody was prepared to say so, because of the cost.
During the summer of 1858 – July and August in particular – London endured one of its very hot summers. Untreated human waste and industrial effluent were present in large quantities in the River Thames and on its banks when the tide was low. The situation gave rise to what the Press called ‘The Great Stink’. An attempt was made to alleviate the smell by tipping lime into the water but, of course, it had little effect. As it happens, the Thames flows past the Houses of Parliament and, therefore, the Members of Parliament were exposed to the full force of the smell. For them, it was too much and drastic action was at last taken.
The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was the principal instrument of London-wide government from December 1855 until the establishment of the London County Council in March 1889. The Metropolis Management Act of 1855 gave the MBW the control of the sewers. The ‘man of the moment’ was Joseph Bazalgette – the Chief Engineer to the MBW – who decided on plans for an ambitious scheme for totally new sewers in London. Without going into the details, it is self-evident that you cannot build a section of sewer pipes. If you build a section of pipes then where does everything land up and what happens to it? It is essential that the whole system is completed before it will work. Bazalgette drew up plans for the 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of additional street sewers (collecting both effluent and rainwater) which would feed into 82 miles (132 km) of main interconnecting sewers. The project was put out to tender between 1859 and 1865.
London has the Thames running through the middle and so smaller sewers fed into larger sewers which finally drained into two disposal sites. On the north of the Thames, this was at Abbey Mills (near Beckton) and on the south side of the Thames there is a similar site at Crossness (which is now near today’s housing estate at Thamesmead). The whole scheme was very efficient and, once constructed, it is still working today. It is a great tribute to Bazalgette’s brilliance as an engineer. Initially, the sewage ended at the two pumping stations where it was then discharged onto an out-going tide. This part of the scheme was in use for several decades but today new plans have been put in place to treat the sewage before the discharge takes place.
The original building at Abbey Mills is still there and the site has been extended – with additional pumps being added. At Crossness, the Southern Outfall Works, as the complex was originally called, was officially opened on 4 April 1865. There were four huge beam-engines to carry out the pumping, each one being named after royalty – Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra. The engines are probably the largest anywhere in the world. The steam-powered engines worked well but new technologies were later developed. In 1913 the four engines were replaced by diesel which was built on a new site nearby and the old steam power fell silent. The machinery was too large to be moved and so it sat in its original position and gradually decayed.
That could well have been the end of the story for Crossness. By 1956, all the steam-powered machines had been decommissioned, with the last major use of the Prince Consort engine being to help pump water after the great floods of 1953. In 1987 the Crossness Engines Trust was set up to restore the engines – a large part of the work being done by an unpaid volunteer workforce. As well as the need for engineering knowledge to get one of the engines back into working order, the original work of the engine and the surrounding stairs and railings all needed to be cleared of rust and repainted. It was a huge task which many thought might never be achieved. The work has been made possible by over £2.7 million in grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies. Although there have been various open days along the way, it was not until 2016 that the impressive building and the machinery inside were declared open. There is much more to be done but this ‘dinosaur’ from the Victorian age has, in part been saved for the nation.
The site is relatively inaccessible for pedestrians, being about 30 minutes walk through derelict roads to reach it from the nearest station at Abbey Wood. By car, it is just a matter of finding out when the site is open to the public and driving to the car park. For these reasons, the building is not visited by as many people as it would be if it were near public transport. However, with time, it is to be hoped that the problem of access will be overcome. It is something that everyone in London ought to see – in order to marvel at it.