The new network took sewage to the edge of London (Greenwich) where it could be stored in huge underground reservoirs before being pumped out into the Thames at high tide. Then it could flow out to sea without polluting the city's drinking supply. When Crossness was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in April 1865, he said that the importance of this sanitation process to the long-term health of South London was vital.
My interest in Crossness is not as an outstanding example of Victorian engineering, although that was impressive. Sir Joseph commissioned the well-known engineer James Watt to create and build the steam engines that would be needed to power the pumps. The giant rotary beam engines and pumps did the job heroically and although there were major modifications after 1856, Bazalgette’s vision carried Crossness through till 1956.
My interest is in the architecture, an absolute surprise and delight in an extremely utilitarian project like sewage. From the outside, the design included rather ornate brick work, Romanesque window arches and door columns.
But the interior.. oh the interior! Crossness pumping station was an amazing and extravagant display of Victorian painted cast ironwork. But, she said, the scale and importance of the endeavour surely justified such exuberance. I love her reference to Nikolaus Pevsner who said this building was a 'cathedral to ironwork'. I also liked the fact that the four engines were named for the royal family: Victoria, Prince Consort, Prince of Wales Albert Edward and Princess of Wales Alexandra.
John Shewell in The Great Steam Cathedral loved the ornately iron fittings of course, but he was particularly taken by the mini sculptures, the steel lattice floor and the huge skylight on the roof to let in light throughout the vast interior. For him, all these elements contributed towards the feeling of being inside a Cathedral. The scale of the operation was huge: four engines stood in the four corners of the building, whilst the centre was taken up by the utterly gorgeous octagonal structure. The monogram of the Metropolitan Board of Works featured throughout, and the contractor included his own name prominently on one side.
Since the general public would never see the inside of a pumping station, who was all the decorative ironwork designed for? There was plenty of internal space for the workers, plus a lovely garden for their leisure outside. But I don’t think Crossness was designed for the workers’ pleasure. Crossness Pumping Station was a pioneering and palatial piece of Victorian architecture: Joseph Bazalgette designed it palatially because he could.
Joseph Bazalgette must have been loving his work.The original Abbey Mills Pumping Station in East London E15 was also designed by Bazalgette and architect Charles Driver, soon after Crossness was up and running (1865-8). Not dissimilar to Crossness, Abbey Mills was built in an even more ambitious Byzantine style, complete with a slate mansard roof and central dome. The round headed windows had polychrome decoration while the larger central window to the upper storey was divided by cast ironwork. This Victorian wonder was so cathedral-like, the chimney resembled a campanile.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station, East London
Tired of London blog has added a useful post on Markfield Beam Engine and Museum in Tottenham. Victorian / Edwardian Paintings has added a post on one of Brunel’s engineering triumphs, The Thames Tunnel. Opened in 1852, a few years before Crossness, the tunnel was also a perfectly functional bit of city infrastructure that took on a huge significance for Victorians. Apparently there was nothing scientific, architectural, engineering and beautiful that they could not design and build. Unmitigated England has written about the Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester. Once used for pumping sewage up to Beaumont Leys in Leicester, the incredible Gimson steam engines still look very impressive in a Victorian Valhalla of decorated iron pillars.