Cross­ness Pump­ing Sta­tion

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Malise Ruthven

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.

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