A nod at our neighbours: Abbey Mills pumping station. Stratford

Sunday 30 October 2016

Newham's first Heritage Week is over and early impressions were that it was a great success.  For Forest Gate locals the highlights would have included local historians (and significant contributors to this blog) - Peter Williams and Mark Gorman's packed-out (100 people plus)  presentation at The Gate on Gentrification in Forest Gate over the last 170 years. So popular was the talk that they will be re-running it at The Wanstead Tap (see footnote for details), in late November.

Another delight was a rare opportunity to visit Abbey Mills pumping station in Stratford.  This has variously been described as the Cathedral of Sewage, and earlier as the Mosque in the Marshes (to describe its original immediate setting and appearance). It was constructed on the former lands of Stratford's Langthorne Abbey - hence the name.

Woodcut of the original building,
 with minaret-like chimneys

The photos in this blog, gleaned from a number of sources (to whom we express our gratitude), illustrate why the visit was such a delight.  Details of how you may be able to gain access, in the future, are in the footnote.

"The Cathedral of Sewage" - today

For centuries London was drained by the various rivers, such as the Fleet, Tyburn and Hounds Ditch that ran into the Thames.  With the great growth of population in the nineteenth century and the development of rudimentary forms of toilets and running water, the Thames began to fill with raw sewerage, causing major public health problems.

Tour of the "Mosque in the
marshes", soon after its opening
 This culminated in what became known as "The Big Stink" in 1858, where the pungency was so great immediately outside Parliament, that the politicians moved out temporarily to Cornwall, to avoid it.

The Metropolitan Board of Works, one of the earlier manifestations of London-wide local government, commissioned its chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette to find a way of addressing the problem.

Joseph Bazalgette's, whose
 sewerage  system ended
 at Abbey Mills

His solution was gloriously simple, although it took a major civil engineering feat to implement.  It was to build a huge system of sewers which took the sewerage from central London to the far reaches of the Thames and deposit it there, where it was then pumped (untreated) into the Lower reaches of the Thames.

Stratford, Forest Gate and surrounding areas were seen at the time as being almost literally beyond the pale.  London moved all its smelly problems and potential health hazards to this land beyond the River Lea.  So "stinky industries" were driven to what more recently has become the Olympic Park area, sewerage to Abbey Mills and Beckton and cemeteries to Forest Gate and surrounds - where there are five.

Prestigious party gathers for the opening
 of a sewage works' pumping station
 - an unlikely sounding caption

Bazalgette's scheme most dramatically pushed the Thames back from its original shores in central London (The Strand) to its current limit - the Embankment - and a systems of sewers was constructed under the reclaimed land. These sewers continued until they reached the site of the pumping station in Stratford.

The engineering feat was remarkable, and conducted within seven years. But the significance of the achievement was buried under ground.  To celebrate its importance, the Abbey Mills pumping station was erected - at the end of the sewers - as a magnificent building, and testimony to the considerable engineering feat.

The rest of this blog concentrates on the architecture of the site, rather than the engineering, about which much has been written elsewhere.

The mills were constructed at a then cost of £200,000; a very considerable sum, considering the whole of the sewer system that ended its course there only cost £3million.

Bazalgette explained the need for pumping stations, rather than simply allowing the sewage to flow unassisted into the Thames:

The fall in the Thames isn't above three inches; for sewage we want a couple of feet (in order to ensure that the sewers are self cleaning), and that kept taking us down below the river and when we got to a certain depth we had to pump up again. It was certainly a very troublesome job
 We would sometimes spend weeks in drawing out plans and then suddenly come across a railway or canal that upset everything, and we had to begin all over again. It was tremendously hard work.

The station employed up to 300 workers in the late nineteenth century. Mechanisation, improved fuelling systems and modern technology mean that none is  currently employed on the station, on a full-time basis - although this "de-labouring" of the site is presently under review.

It was not until 1998 that the pumping station (much modified) was eventually replaced by the aluminium shed like structure, on the same site, that operates today.

The Bazalgette building is  Grade 2 listed. It has the lay-out of a Greek cross and the walls are faced with Suffolk brick. There are many arched windows on the faces and the roof has dormer windows and is constructed of slate. A lantern with a colonnade rises from the centre of the building.

The overall style owes something to that of an Orthodox church (it is not clear why this design was chosen).  What makes it exceptional is the lavish use of costly materials and ornamentation, such as decorative porches, sculpted masonry, encaustic wall tiles (where the coloured sections run as deep as the tile - rather like sticks of rock), patterned lead and gilded crests.

Most impressive is the internal ornamental ironwork

There were two huge chimneys (about 200 feet high) to clear the smoke from the original coal-fired boiler house that fuelled the pumps.  These were taken down in 1941, for fear that they would be bombed and the resulting damage disable the rest of the pumping station.

Stumps left of former chimneys
Other contemporaneous buildings include the Superintendent's house - currently being restored and a number of semi detached (and very desirable) former workers' houses, which fetch up to £900,000 on the property market today.

Superintendent's house, today

The architect was Charles Driver (1832 - 1900), who specialised in engineering based work, especially railways. For reasons that are not clear, he chose to incorporate six different styles of architecture into the buildings - in a way in which no other Victorian building does.

They are:

Italian Venetian - principally in the arched windows and Venetian corkscrew twist incorporated into the rainwater down drainpipes.

Magnificent arched windows

French Gothic - reflected in the internal iron pillars, and tops of the access towers to the beam engines.

Internal iron pillars

Flemish - the influence seen in the steeply pitched roofs.

Steeply pitched roofs

Byzantine/Moorish - shown in the venting chimneys (now gone - see above), which looked like minarets.

Russian orthodox - evident in the cupola, or lantern.

Looking upwards to the cupola
Celtic - seen in brass and copper florets on the east wing doorway.

Splendid doorways
From its origins until the 1930's the pumping station was steam drive, when electricity took over. The original pumping system was effective replaced in 1998 by the modern aluminium structure, but acts as an overflow, during heavy storms, or as a backup, when repairs and maintenance need to be undertaken on the new equipment.


1 Mark and Peter's  popular talk on the Gentrification of Forest Gate will be repeated at the Wanstead Tap on 30 November - see here for tickets (£3), which are in great demand. 

2 Abbey Mills pumping station is rarely open for public viewing, which seems a great pity. Newham Heritage Week organisers managed to get a weekend's viewing for Newham residents during the event.  It was oversubscribed.  The annual London Open House event features tours of the pumping station.  But this can be very heavily oversubscribed too.  For further details and booking, see here.

Difficult to gain a visit, but well worth it

3.One of Joseph Bazalgette's great-great-grandsons is Sir Peter Bazalgette, currently chair of ITV.  In his time he has also been chair of the Arts Council and prior to that was the man that brought Big Brother to British television. 
Sir Peter Bazalgette -
descendant of Joseph

The standing joke at the time was a version of what goes around comes around. Joseph Bazalgette pumped the shit out of London, while his great-great grandson pumped it in. Ho, ho, ho!

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