Crossness Pumping Station
In the summer of 1858, after an exceptional spell of hot weather, with temperatures averaging the mid-30s Celsius (mid-90s Fahrenheit) , the Illustrated London News ruminated with imperial chutzpah: ‘We can colonize the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest of the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames.’
The condition of the river had long been scandalous. Far from running softly, the ‘Sweet Thames’ Edmund Spenser had invoked in one of his celebrated marriage poems had become a putrid sewer. The stench of the river, polluted by everything from industrial waste and human excrement, to dead animals and the occasional human corpse, became increasingly notorious after flush toilets replaced the old commodes whose contents were disposed of by specialists known as ‘night soil collectors’. Up to that time human ordure had a positive association with food production. Along with other manures including horse and cow dung, it had been used by London’s market gardeners since medieval times. In 1617 the Worshipful Company of Gardeners proudly claimed that its members ‘cleansed the City of all dung and noisesomeness’. Each of the London’s wards elected – or doubtless ‘volunteered’ – a scavenger and his raker-assistants, who took street sweepings, night soil and other rubbish to be spread on common land outside the city walls to be mixed with the horse and cattle dung in dumps known as laystalls. At Dung Wharf near Blackfriars animal and human manure were mixed and loaded onto barges and taken to the market gardens which supplied the city with fruit and vegetables, with the most productive gardens located in the riverside parishes of Fulham, Chiswick, Battersea and Mortlake. The same barges that carried the nightsoil returned piled high with fruit and vegetables.
The technology that put an end to this ecological, if odiferous, nirvana was a device we now take for granted as a humble, if necessary adjunct to civilization: the flush toilet. Though invented in the early nineteenth century it had been the preserve of privileged posteriors until the Great Exhibition of 1851, when growing numbers of the aspirational bourgeoisie were able to view samples for themselves. Thereafter an impressive variety of beautifully decorated porcelain bowls made by firms such as Twyford, Wedgwood and Shanks – as well as the eponymous Thomas Crapper - helped to normalize the ‘flush and forget’ approach that rules to this day, as well as putting thousands of night soil collectors out of business.
Far from improving sanitation, however, the flush toilet was initially an instrument of death. Every time one was flushed it put around two gallons of contaminated water into the Thames and its tributaries, increasing the risk of disease. 1831 saw the first occurrence of cholera, causing the deaths of around 5,000 people. Thereafter there were outbreaks every few years, with thousands of fatalities culminating in the great epidemic of 1848-9, which killed more than 14,000 Londoners. The Great Stink, as the press famously dubbed it, finally caused the government to act. In the Palace of Westminster draperies were soaked in chlorine to avert the smell and there was talk of moving the business of government to Oxford or St Albans.
When Lord John Manners, First Commissioner of Works (equivalent of today’s Environment Secretary) was asked in parliament ‘if the noble Lord has taken any measures for mitigating the effluvium and discontinuing the nuisance’ he replied, according to Hansard , that ‘Her Majesty’s Government have nothing whatever to do with the state of the Thames’. Under pressure Benjamin Disraeli, at that time leader of the Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had been spotted leaving a committee room with a mass of papers in one hand and holding a handkerchief to his nose with the other, tabled an amendment to the Metropolis Management Act (1855) placing responsibility for clearing what he called ‘a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors’ onto the newly formed Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). As the Times commented ‘Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench’.
When the bill became law in August 1858 Joseph Bazalgette had already been working for several years as chief engineer for the MBW and its predecessor, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. Building on the work of his predecessor Frank Foster, who was said to have died from the ‘harassing fatigues and anxieties’ of dealing with London’s mounting volume of sewage, Bazalgette devised a plan, costing some £5.4 million (more than half a billion in today’s money) to construct some thousand miles of street sewers to collect the effluent and rainwater that would feed into more than 80 miles of sewers discharging into the tidal estuary at Crossness in the Erith marshes on the south side of the Thames estuary and at Abbey mills by Stratford on the north.
The buildings he devised with his colleague the architect Charles Henry Driver – one of the foremost Victorian exponents of cast iron – reflect an aesthetic that hovers somewhere between Romanesque, French baroque and Italianate, in a style Nikolaus Pevsner chose to call Venetian Rundbogenstil (round arch style). The original structure was both elegant and functional, with an impressive mansard roof punctuated with triangular lucarnes surmounted by a small cupola resembling a crown that served as a light-well for the octagonal gallery above the boiler house. Smoke from the coal-fired boilers that drove the pumps issued from a 208-foot (64m) high chimney masquerading as a soaring renaissance campanile topped by a delicate finial hat. Sadly the mansard roof was removed in 1928 and, like the campanile, only survives in photographs. The tower was demolished in the 1950s for reasons of safety. Greg, the volunteer guide who showed us around explained that maintenance costs would have been prohibitive.
Any disappointments felt on viewing the outside melt as soon as one enters the interior. The Engine House with its octagonal loggia and double arcade of columns, its decorative frieze and delicate scrolling guard-rails is a wondrous hymn to cast iron, Driver’s favorite material, in an idiom that pays tribute to Byzantine, Romanesque and baroque antecedents, while celebrating the almighty power of steam. The religious feeling is obvious, in the exuberance of the acanthus finials, the capitols surmounting the pillars, the decorated arches, the intersecting vaults and the splendid central octagon that evokes a tabernacle with its cast iron screens and
elegant floral patterns. One’s immediate response is that this must be a holy place or temple ‘of hammered gold and gold enamelling’ where the local moniker – Crossness Cathedral – is no exaggeration. It takes a moment to recall that this monument to Victorian magnificence was devoted to a banal but necessary function: the disposal of human excreta.
The four double-acting, single cylinder, rotative beam engines housed in the building produced some 125 horse-power, with each engine driving a pair of pumps with cylinders, rods and plungers. The system was adjustable, allowing the engines to cope with different heights of sewage lift. These great machines, with main beams weighing 47 tons, were made in James Watt’s factory in Birmingham and brought to Crossness by canal and river. As the weight limit for the barges was 20 tons, the beams and 52-ton flywheels had to be made in sections and assembled on site - an impressive feat of engineering design when one considers that all the precast drawings were done by hand.
Remarkably given the Victorian reputation for prudishness, each of these great sewage-pumping engines bore the name of a royal personage: Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward (Prince of Wales) and his wife Alexandra. Royal protocol was evidently unfazed by the function to which these massive engines were dedicated. Given the way they were cleaning up the river and improving public health, approval was both guaranteed and universal. Indeed the station was opened in 1865 by none other than the Albert Edward, the future Edward VII, who was accompanied by a number of MPs, the Lord Mayor of London, and both Archbishops.
The huge endeavor to clean up the river was successful, and popular, and in due course Bazalgette received a knighthood as well as posthumous recognition as one of the great Victorian engineers alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Ironically, the idea that cleaning up the river would defeat cholera by making the Thames less smelly was based on a false premise. The so-called ‘miasma theory’ which still prevailed among doctors – and parliamentarians – held that cholera was transmitted by contaminated air ingested through the lungs: hence the belief that preventing the infernal
stink would improve public health. Famously it was the outbreak in the vicinity of Golden Square, Soho, that led to a change in medical opinion. In June 1854 four years before the Great Stink, Dr John Snow, an epidemiologist who had already published papers challenging the miasma theory, was working on his alternative hypothesis that cholera was transmitted by an ‘oral-fecal-route’ by means of contaminated water. He was making house-to-house inquiries in south London where two private water companies – Southwark & Vauxhall and Lambeth – were laying down drinking water pipes for public consumption. Having established that the former was drawing its water from the Thames downstream from the latter, which had moved its intake upstream to a cleaner reach of the river, Snow expected to demonstrate that people who drank water from the Southwark & Vauxhall pumps were suffering higher mortality rates. When the Soho outbreak occurred he rushed north of the river where, by applying the same methodology of relating fatalities to the local drinking water supply, he persuaded the Board of Guardians of St James’s parish to remove the handle of the Broad Street water pump. Snow’s action is now an iconic event in medical history.
Despite his intervention, Snow’s theory that cholera is transmitted by water did not gain traction at the time when Bazalgette engineered his sewage system, and it was not till 1866, the year after Crossness opened, that the oral-fecal hypothesis was finally vindicated. That year an outbreak of cholera in London’s East End, between Aldgate and Bow, claimed some 5,600 lives. 93 per cent of the fatalities took place in a district not yet connected to the new sewage system. Culpability lay with the East London Water Company which had been discharging sewage too close to their reservoir, allowing drinking water to become contaminated by the incoming tide. Medical opinion finally caught up with Snow. Dr William Farr (1807-83) an epidemiologist who had vigorously opposed Snow’s belief that cholera was water-born, was finally converted. Commenting on Farr’s investigation into the East London outbreak, The Lancet pronounced that his report ‘will render irresistible the conclusions at which he has arrived in regard to the influence of the water-supply in causation of the epidemic’. The 1866 epidemic proved to be the last major outbreak of cholera in the capital.
The Crossness pumping station continued to function, with upgrades and modifications, into the 1950s. In the 1880s after a boating accident in which more than 650 people were drowned, with contamination seen as a contributory cause of death, the MBW stopped dumping untreated waste into the river, sending sludge by barge to be dumped offshore. The first of these vessels – the SS Bazalgette – remained in service till 1998. After the European Union banned sewage dumping in the North Sea under the 1991 Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, and environment secretary Chris Patton vowed that Britain would no longer be the ‘dirty man of Europe’, residual sludge has been incinerated. The engines were also subject to modification. In the 1890s, with a growing population creating ever greater volumes of sewage, new engines were added so that modifications could be made to the original beam engines without disrupting the flow. The old engines, upgraded and recalibrated, continued to operate until 1956. Thereafter they were left to rust and decay and would doubtless have been sold for scrap had it not been for the Crossness Engine and Boiler House acquiring Grade 1 listed status. Since 1985 Crossness has come under the protection of the Crossness Engines Trust, whose President is Joseph Bazalgette’s great-great-grandson, Peter, television executive and former chair of the Arts Council of England.
The Trust, with some 500 paid-up members, began work in 1986. For the first six months, according to Greg, they were shoveling guano from the generations of jackdaws and pigeons who had been living and nesting in the buildings. The great engines and ironwork are now being restored by teams of volunteers, with grants from the National Lottery and English Heritage. Most of the volunteers we met on our visit were enthusiastic retirees. ‘We use the skills that they’ve acquired in previous lives’ Greg tells us ‘although we’re getting quite good at letting volunteers discover skills they never had’. Around 50 of them turn up regularly. The oldest, Harry, now 97, has been working there since his eighties. A true devotee he finds the twice-weekly parties of visitors something of a distraction. ‘We usually find we have to bend our program to suit them’ he says ‘When you’ve got the bit between your teeth you don’t what that sort of thing’. Several volunteers have expert qualifications as plumbers or electricians that allow them to check the work of others; but a lot of the work, Greg tells
us, is fairly low tech, just a matter of elbow-grease ‘Anyone can buff up a piece of cast iron or clean a spiral staircase using a needle-gun.’
The ambience is friendly but also professional, with people signing in as in any office or factory. Fund raising is based on the hours volunteers put in, with donations related to levels of skill: While an unskilled volunteer can be logged to raise £50 for each hour worked, a professional’s service can yield as much as £350. The state of a spiral stair next to one of the older boilers – the result of half a century’s neglect - gives an idea of the work that remains to be done. But the atmosphere of devotion is palpable, with people quietly going about their appointed tasks with a minimum of fuss.
There can be little doubt that the dedication of the Crossness volunteers, with the hours of de-rusting, oiling, buffing and scrubbing, devoted to the Victorian gods of hygiene, will succeed in restoring the interior of this splendid temple to its former grandeur. With hindsight, however, one is bound to question if the original vision was flawed. Bazalgette’s project was conditioned by the predicament he inherited – a river rendered lethal by quantities of human excrement and other pollutants. But in 1834, more than two decades before the Great Stink, John Martin, the visionary painter whose huge canvases of apocalyptic events depicted in the Bible were viewed by millions in halls specially hired for the purpose, offered his own solution to the problem of London’s sewage. He proposed that a pair of intercepting sewers be built below the banks of the river, to terminate at the Tower on the north, and at the Surrey Canal on the south. Two vast receptacles would convert the sewage into manure for agricultural use, with the gas burnt off by firing.
In March 2017 Thames Water, a company owned largely by Kuwaiti investors and Canadian pension funds, was fined £ 20 million – one of the largest fines in UK corporate history – for discharging 1.9 billion litres of untreated sewage into the river. While the judge stated that he wanted to send a message to shareholders that pollution on this scale, killing fish and endangering livestock, was unacceptable, the fine was only a pinprick for a company that makes an operating profit of around £ 2 million each
day. While Bazalgette may have rightly entered the pantheon of London heroes for taming and cleaning the Thames, it seems ironic that it would take more than a century after the completion of his work for Martin’s more hygienic and healthy solution – incineration – to be realized, while the organic recycling of human waste as practiced in the centuries before the Great Stink, by the adoption modern smell-free composting toilets, is limited to garden allotments and the pioneering green enthusiasts on society’s ecological fringe.