Rivelin Valley cemetery

Cemetery of St Michael, Rivelin Valley, Sheffield: chapel interior

On the north-western outskirts of Sheffield, a short walk up the Rivelin Valley from the Supertram terminus at Malin Bridge, a gateway leads to the Roman Catholic cemetery of St Michael, opened in 1862 and still in use:  https://www.saintmichaelscemetery.org.

After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the first parish church in the area was St Bede’s, opened at Masborough on the then outskirts of Rotherham in 1842.  It was followed by the parish church of St Marie in Sheffield (1850), now the cathedral of the Diocese of Hallam, and another large church, St Vincent’s (1853 onwards) was started in The Crofts, an overcrowded area north of the town centre where Irish Catholics settled after the Potato Famine.

Of these, only St Bede’s had a burial ground, until in 1862 the priest at St Vincent’s, Father Burke, purchased eight acres of steeply sloping land in the Rivelin Valley from the snuff-manufacturer Mr Wilson, whose family had also provided the land for the General Cemetery nearly thirty years before.

The cemetery, with a temporary chapel, was dedicated on Michaelmas Day, September 29th 1863.

The present chapel was built in 1877, financed by a gift of £2,000 from the Sheffield tailor and gents’ outfitter, George Harvey Foster, and designed by M E and Charles Hadfield.  This new chapel is 72 feet long and 22 feet wide, built in the Early English style.  It has an apsidal east end, a sixty-foot-high bellcote above the west door, and the south-west porch is embellished with a statue of St Michael slaying Satan as a dragon.

The interior, restored in 2005, is distinguished by the work of an impressive group of contemporary artists.  The marble and alabaster altar, with its figure of the dead Christ, is from the Cheltenham workshop of the sculptor Richard Lockwood Boulton. 

Further decorations were funded by a gift of £430 by the Foster family in 1884 – wall paintings by Charles Hadfield and Nathaniel Westlake, who also designed the west window, and the three east windows, designed by John Francis Bentley who later became the architect of Westminster Cathedral and manufactured by Nathaniel Westlake’s stained-glass company, Lavers & Westlake.

The two most prominent monuments in the cemetery stand above the family vaults of George Harvey Foster (1829-1894), and the department-store proprietor, John Walsh (d1905), respectively gothic and neo-Classical and constructed within a decade of each other. 

The sharp gradient makes exploring the cemetery a strenuous activity, and visitors are advised not to stray from paths because gravestones may be unstable.

Higher up the valley side are two more burial grounds, a very small Jewish cemetery and the Church of England Walkley Cemetery, both opened in 1860.

Chris Hobbs’ local-history website has a feature on Walkley Cemetery:  https://www.chrishobbs.com/sheffield/walkleycemetery.htm.

The Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 17th-21st 2020) tour includes a visit to St Michael’s Cemetery.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Old Dock

Old Dock, Liverpool

Quentin Hughes’ 1964 study of Liverpool’s architecture, Seaport, begins with the inimitable sentence, “The quality of Mersey is not strained”.

The book, reissued in 1993 but now out of print, is illustrated with atmospheric monochrome photographs taken just before the decline in the North and South Docks became terminal.

Nowadays, you can see where the great port started by peering through a porthole in the pavement of the glitzy shopping centre, Liverpool One, to glimpse part of the Old Dock, built by the pioneering civil engineer Thomas Steers (?1672-1750) between 1710 and 1716.

Steers’ career is shadowy, simply because the historical evidence is vague about his achievements.  He came to the north-west from Rotherhithe, and constructed the Mersey & Irwell Navigation (1721-25), the Newry Canal in Ireland (completed 1742) and much else, perhaps more than is now recorded.

In Liverpool Steers was commissioned to build the world’s first commercial wet dock, using lock gates to provide protection from the tides so that boats remained at a constant level for convenient loading and unloading.

He adapted the natural inlet on which the port had developed, building a substantial twenty-foot-high brick wall directly from the bedrock to enclose a 3½-acre stretch of water large enough for a hundred vessels.

The whole project was made possible because the borough corporation had bought the manorial rights from Lord Molyneux in 1672.

Costing £12,000 – twice Steers’ estimate – it was a huge gamble which paid off and laid the foundations for Liverpool’s dominance as a port that grew rich on the notorious triangular trade of cotton, rum, sugar, spices and slaves.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Old Dock became too small to be useful and was badly polluted by the sewage of the surrounding streets.  It was closed in 1826 and filled in.

On the site the architect John Foster Jnr (1786-1846) built his magnificent domed classical Custom House (1828-38) which was gutted in the 1941 Blitz and, regrettably, demolished soon after the end of the War: http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/the-custom-house.html.

At the time of the Millennium the redevelopment of Liverpool One provided the opportunity to retrieve part of the site’s archaeology, so that visitors can see the literal foundations of the port on escorted guided tours arranged by the Maritime Museum:  https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/visit/old-dock.aspx.

The Old Dock tour is included in the Unexpected Liverpool (June 1st-5th 2020) tourFor further details please click here.

Organ transplant

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: fly-tower (2017)

Before Christmas I was the live act at the launch of photographer Darren O’Brien’s new book about the Sharrow Vale area of Sheffield:  https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/people/new-book-uncovers-hidden-charms-sheffields-sharrow-vale-community-1325708.

The launch took place in the fly tower of the Abbeydale Picture House, and Darren asked me to explain to his guests the history of this unique piece of cinema heritage.

The Grade II listed Abbeydale Picture House was always a gem among Sheffield’s suburban cinemas, and thanks to a succession of sympathetic owners it’s survived to entertain new generations of patrons nearly a hundred years after its opening.

One of six Sheffield cinemas to open in 1920, its original proprietors were local businessmen, led by a professional cinema exhibitor, seeking to capitalise on the demand for entertainment after the First World War.

They hedged their bets by instructing the architect, Pascal J Steinlet, to build a full-scale theatre fly tower, enabling the cinema screen to be flown out of the way of stage performances, and to use the sloping site to include a ballroom and billiard hall beneath the auditorium and stage, with a café to serve cinema patrons.

The directors considered that moving pictures alone might not generate enough trade, and when post-war inflation ate into their original budget of £50,000 they changed plans and installed an organ by the Sheffield firm Brindley & Co.

Because Pascal Steinlet had not been briefed to include an organ chamber, the instrument stood immediately behind the screen, centre stage, making it impossible to use the stage and dressing rooms for performances.

Anxious to generate income, they opened the cinema as soon as they could, on December 20th 1920.  The Lord Mayor, Alderman Wardley, attended the first film-performance, a costume romance, The Call of the Road, starring Victor McLaglen.

Their fear that film alone would not support the company proved correct.  In June 1921 the original board was replaced by the directors of the Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road, who quickly took out debentures to complete the café, ballroom and billiard hall before the end of the year.

In 1928, probably as a response to the imminent arrival of talking pictures, the organ was moved to the back of the stage, where it was barely audible, to make way for cine-variety performances, which continued until the first sound film, Janet Gaynor in Sunny Side Up, played on March 10th 1930.

The organ continued in use until 1940, and the last organist, Douglas Scott, complained that “the volume was poor, due to the fact that the organ chambers were placed as far back as possible on the stage and…at least 20% of the sound went through the stage roof.  The screen and tabs took their toll of sound and when the safety curtain was lowered nothing could be heard in the theatre.”

There’s evidence for this on the back wall of the fly tower, where two rows of holes for the joists of the stage floor are visible, the higher row showing a clear gap where after 1928 the organ would have stood on the original stage floor.  The position of the organ meant that only the downstage half of the stage was usable, so presumably the rake was increased to maintain the sight-lines Pascal Steinlet had intended.

I hope that when the building is comprehensively restored the stage floor will be reinstated so that it can be used for performances.

But I’d think twice about reinstating an organ.

Darren O’Brien’s book Sharrow Vale and the Antiques Quarter (History Press 2019) is available from https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/sharrow-vale-and-the-antiques-quarter/9780750989329.

Three ships

Former Hull & East Riding Co-operative store, Three Fishes mosaic, Hull (2016)

The Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society, having lost its flagship store in the severe blitz of 1941, was determined to rebuild in the city-centre as soon as it could.

A temporary “pre-fab” store opened in 1947, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s in-house architect, E P Andrews, prepared ambitious plans for a prestige building at King Edward Square, the intersection of Jamieson Street and King Edward Street.

It took from 1955 to 1964 to complete – five retail floors and on the roof the Skyline Ballroom and restaurant, where Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd played beneath the dome.

The store’s signature feature, filling the corner façade, was a ‘Three Ships’ mural by Alan Boyson (1930-2018), 66 feet × 64 feet, consisting of over a million glass tesserae, completed in 1963.

It depicts three trawlers to commemorate the city’s fishing industry, their masts spelling the name “HULL”, over the motto “Res Per Industriam Prosperae” – “Success through Industry”.

There are heavy ironies here, because the fishing industry collapsed in the 1970s [https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/business/fish-being-landed-hull-first-2016086] and the Co-op has lost its way in the face of a succession of revolutions in retail.

The Jamieson Street store was closed in 1969 and the front part sold to British Home Stores – a brand that itself came to a sticky end in 2016.

When BHS folded Hull City Council bought the building for redevelopment, with the expressed intention of retaining the ‘Three Ships’ mural if possible, along with two rediscovered interior murals by Alan Boyson, ‘Fish’ and ‘Sponge-Print’.

Though the building had been added to the Council’s non-statutory local list in 2007, and was placed on the Twentieth Century Society’s Buildings at Risk list in 2017, Heritage England declined to list it Grade II in 2016 because it “falls short of the high bar for listing post-war public art”.

In April 2019, Hull City Council firmly committed to retain the three Boyson murals, but six months later, reversed their decision to keep ‘Three Fishes’ because its concrete sub-structure contained asbestos and would “pose a risk to public safety” if dismantled for restoration.

Apparently, the Health & Safety Executive would require the entire building to be wrapped for demolition and the rubble taken away as contaminated waste.

Then, in a sudden turnaround at the end of November 2019, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport awarded the mural Grade II listing. 

Hull City Council was not pleased, having resolved to recreate the image photographically on the replacement structure.

Hull Heritage Action Group, which had campaigned in support of the Boyson murals since 2016, hoped that the Council “will do the right thing”.

Such U-turns often show long-term benefits.  Chesterfield would have lost its fine market place if the Peacock Inn hadn’t turned out to be a fifteenth-century structure rather than a grubby Victorian pub.

And politicians who “do the right thing” can expect to gain satisfying amounts of political capital.

Market Place

Peacock Inn, Chesterfield, Derbyshire (1982)

Chesterfield, by its name, clearly dates back to Roman times, and a short-lived fort is thought to have existed somewhere near the site of the medieval parish church of St Mary, the famous “Crooked Spire”.

The town had a regular market by the year 1156 and gained a charter in 1204.  A street grid developed around a huge market place, the eastern part of which was later infilled by alleyways known as the Shambles.

Its mercantile past is marked by street-names that commemorate ancient trades – Packer’s Row, Knifesmithgate, Saltergate and Glumangate (from “gleeman”, a minstrel, indicating the Tin Pan Alley of medieval Chesterfield).

The open market place, with its stately iron pump, was bordered by fine Georgian inns and shops and, in 1857, embellished with a Market Hall that included an assembly room, a post office, a corn exchange and a tall clock tower.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed this pompous pile as “the crudest show of high Victorian prosperity” and by the 1950s it indeed looked past its best – grubby and shorn of the ogee top to the tower.

In 1964 the Borough Council commissioned the Hammerson Group to redevelop the entire area, and they proposed a covered precinct that would have obliterated the market place, the Market Hall and the Low Pavement shops to the south.

After the Council approved this proposal in 1972, uproar followed. 

A petition against it attracted 34,000 signatures, and a letter to the Derbyshire Times by a twelve-year-old schoolboy, David Ellis, led to the formation of the Chesterfield Heritage Society which served a High Court writ on the Council, asserting that the Hammerson scheme “would not be in the financial interests of the town’s ratepayers.

Low Pavement already included a number of listed buildings when an arson attack on the derelict, unassuming Peacock Inn revealed that the building was in fact a three-bay timber-framed structure dating from c1500 with an impressive tie-beam roof with curved wind braces, which was hurriedly listed Grade II. 

In the face of the crescendo of opposition Hammerson Group chose not to sign the development agreement.

The Council then executed a widely praised policy U-turn and commissioned the distinguished practice Feilden & Mawson to survey the area covered by the Hammerton scheme, while the Department of the Environment listed nearly sixty structures.

This led, with strong public approval, to The Pavements development, which retained the facades of Low Pavement while stripping away the burgage plots behind, building a brick-faced multi-storey car park, turning the Peacock Inn into an information centre and renovating the Market Hall and reinstating its 30ft dome.

The lead architect, Bernard Feilden, commented the Market Hall might be called ugly “but it has been saved because it is so essentially a part of Chesterfield”. 

A more hard-headed argument in its favour was that renovation cost an estimated £250,000 less than demolishing it and building a new replacement.

Meanwhile, the Shambles area, itself threatened by a comprehensive redevelopment by Lloyds Bank Property Ltd but championed by the Chesterfield & District Civic Society, was given conservation-area status which protected the sixteenth-century Grade II*-listed Royal Oak pub.

The largely completed scheme was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in November 1981.

Within a period of little more than five years Chesterfield was transformed.  Instead of gaining a covered shopping precinct that destroyed the historic core, the town retained its scale and its open spaces, conserved and improved for the future.

And the borough’s politicians, having abandoned what must have looked like a good deal in the 1960s, could pat themselves on the back for being in the forefront of the sensitive environmental thinking that Prince Charles has championed in the years that followed.

Steel workers’ resting place 3

City Road Cemetery, Sheffield: Catholic Chapel of St Michael (2014)

When the very last Sheffield tram came off the streets in October 1960 an assiduous member of its load of enthusiasts made sure that, as the gates of Tinsley Tram Sheds closed behind it, its destination indicator showed ‘CEMETERY GATES’.

The cemetery gates at which Intake trams sometimes turned back was City Road, established by the newly-formed Sheffield Burial Board on a site east of the town-centre purchased from the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1881. 

The original buildings – Church of England and Nonconformist chapels, a gateway and lodge on Manor Lane and a gatehouse and offices on City Road, all in late Perpendicular style – were designed by the Sheffield architects Matthew Ellison Hadfield & Son.

The initial apportionment of land was between the Church of England (slightly over 20 acres), the Nonconformists (13 acres) and the Roman Catholics (7 acres), leaving 9 acres to allocated as required in future.

There was no Roman Catholic chapel at the cemetery until 1898, when the Duke of Norfolk commissioned a design with a hexagonal sanctuary and a central lantern above the altar, 60 feet long, by Matthew Ellison Hadfield’s son Charles.  Dedicated to St Michael, the foundation stone was laid on July 22nd 1899, and it was consecrated on October 11th 1900.

A subsequent resolution by the Burial Board allowed the space in front of the chapel to be used for burials of Catholic clergy, and it became known as the Priest Vaults.

In 1901 Sheffield Corporation, having taken over the functions of the Burial Board the previous year, gained legal powers to construct one of the first municipal crematoria in Britain, and commissioned Charles Hadfield and his son Charles Matthew Ellison Hadfield to design an octagonal structure alongside the Nonconformist chapel, based on the Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury so that the steel exhaust from the cremator could pass through the Gothic lantern which provided light and ventilation to the space below. 

Charles M E Hadfield’s bronze catafalque was constructed by the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts and installed in the chapel, and a columbarium was installed in the south side of the City Road entrance range.

The crematorium opened on April 5th 1905.  The first cremation was of Eliza Hawley of Upperthorpe, on April 24th 1905, in the presence of her family, the architect and the Town Clerk.  A further six cremations took place in the following six months to November 1905.

The Church of England chapel was demolished in 1982, having been made redundant by the construction of a modern chapel to the north of the crematorium.  All the other original buildings on the site remain, though the Catholic Chapel has been derelict for years.

City Road Cemetery is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 17th-21st 2020) tour. For further details of the tour please click here.

Everton landmarks

Everton Library, Liverpool: entrance (2019)

One of the destinations on the Unexpected Liverpool (June 1st-5th 2020) tour is the iron church of St George, Everton, which I first visited so long ago – in 1978 – that I could photograph on the opposite side of the road the Catholic Church of Our Lady Immaculate, the only vestige of Edward Welby Pugin’s Catholic Cathedral to be built in 1853-6.

Our Lady Immaculate was knocked down in the early 1990s but there are still other significant buildings to see in the vicinity of St George’s.

Almost directly across the road on a triangular site is Everton Library (1895-6), a bold, varied but taut freestyle design – a blend of Jacobean and Arts & Crafts – by the versatile Corporation Surveyor Thomas Shelmerdine (1845-1921) who, between 1871 and 1912 built several other branch libraries and the grand Hornby Library in the city centre, the ponderous gates to Sefton Park, the fire station and tramway offices at Hatton Garden, another fire station at Kirkdale, several schools and a couple of colleges and a tactful extension to the Town Hall.  He laid out St John’s Gardens once it was decided that the Anglican Cathedral wouldn’t be built there.

Everton Library closed in 1996 and is now in a parlous state because of vandalism and neglect alike:  [https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/stop-rot-plans-evertons-jewel-10961779 and https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/signature-living-plans-transform-decaying-15342770].   Repeated efforts to convert it into a community hub and enterprise centre have foundered, and it figures in the Victorian Society’s 2019 list of endangered buildings:  https://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/everton-library-liverpool.   

A few yards from the Library stands the lively, turreted half-timbered The Mere Bank public house (1881), bristling with terracotta panels and plasterwork, and until recently still trading, though they haven’t updated their Facebook page since Hallowe’en:  https://www.facebook.com/MerebankPub.

In the distance, and visible for miles across the Mersey, is Everton Waterworks (Thomas Duncan, 1853-7) [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTRfHTX0bJE], which consists of an underground reservoir and a Piranesian high-level water-tank, 90 feet above ground-level, holding 2,700 gallons, dwarfing the two Italianate pumphouses, built to provide a head of water in the time before 1891 when Liverpool took its water from Lake Vrynwy in mid-Wales.  Everton Waterworks has been long disused, yet a mystery buyer purchased it for £71,000 in March 2019:  https://lbndaily.co.uk/mystery-buyer-pays-70000-evertons-victorian-water-tower.  It remains to be seen what they plan to do with it.

The Unexpected Liverpool (June 1st-5th 2020) tour not only includes a visit to St George’s Church, Everton, but also to the sister iron church of St Michael-in-the-Hamlet, ToxtethFor further details please click here.

Exploring Sydney: St James’ Church, King Street

St James’ Church, Sydney, Australia

Immediately after building the Hyde Park Barracks, its architect, Francis Howard Greenway (1777-1837) was commissioned to build St James’ Church, King Street (1824) directly opposite.

It’s a classical Georgian design, essentially a preaching box with a tower and spire, repeatedly adapted in keeping with the classical dignity of Greenaway’s intention.

Though it’s not as old as St Philip’s Church, York Street (founded 1793, current church by Edmund Blacket, 1848-56), St James’ is steeped in Sydney’s history and its monuments tell powerful stories of lives lived and lost.

Indeed, it’s described as the “Westminster Abbey of the South”.

The first significant memorial was executed in England by Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) to commemorate Captain Sir James Brisbane (1774-1826), who died in Malaya and was cousin to the Thomas Brisbane (1773-1860) who gave his name to the Australian city. 

Other wall-tablets relate early episodes in the violent conflict between the British invaders and the indigenous Australians, which led to the deaths of –

  • Captain Collet Barker of His Majesty’s 39th Regiment of Foot “who was treacherously murdered by the aboriginal natives on the 30th of April 1831 while endeavouring in the performance of his duty to ascertain the communication between Lake Alexandrina and the Gulf of St Vincent on the South West Coast of New Holland [ie, Australia]”
  • John Gilbert, ornithologist, “who was speared by the blacks on the 29th of June 1845, during the first overland expedition to Port Essington [in the far north of what is now Northern Territory] by Dr Ludwig Leichhardt and his intrepid companions”, accompanied by the motto “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Scientia Mori
  • Edmund Besley Court Kennedy, assistant surveyor, “slain by the aborigines in the vicinity of Escape River [near Cape York, Queensland] on the 13th of December AD 1848” and Jackey Jackey (d 1854), “an aboriginal of Merton District who was Mr Kennedy’s sole companion in his conflict with the savages and though himself wounded tended his leader with a courage and devotion worthy of remembrance, supporting him in his last moments and making his grave on the spot where he fell”

Because of its proximity to the law courts and centre of government in Sydney, St James’ Church has always played a major part in the life of the city.

It contrasts with Sydney’s Gothic Revival St Andrew’s Cathedral (Edmund Blacket, 1868) and the magnificent St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (William Wilkinson Wardell, begun 1868, completed 2000).

Exploring Sydney: Hyde Park Barracks

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney, Australia

My initial travels in Australia gave me a false impression that the country’s architectural history begins with the Gothic Revival.

In fact, over sixty years passed between the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the gold rushes that transformed the Australian economy from 1851 onwards.

I came to realise that the early architecture of Australia is Georgian – particularly the churches and public buildings of Tasmania and the surviving Georgian buildings in and around New South Wales.

Francis Howard Greenway (1777-1837) was a young Bristol architect who became bankrupt and was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation for forgery.  He arrived in Sydney in 1814 and quickly made the acquaintance of Governor Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1842;  in office 1810-1821), who was instrumental in developing New South Wales from a convict settlement to a nascent colony.

The Governor commissioned Francis Greenaway to design and build the first Macquarie Lighthouse at South Head, Watson’s Bay (1817;  replaced 1883).  When this project was satisfactorily completed Macquarie emancipated Greenaway and made him Acting Civil Architect under the Inspector of Public Works, Captain J M Gill.

Francis Greenaway’s most important surviving work is the Hyde Park Barracks (1818-19) for male convicts at the head of Macquarie Street in central Sydney.

Built by convicts for convicts, the Barracks was more like a hostel than a prison.  In order to make use of their labour, the colonial government had to provide a measure of physical freedom to transported prisoners who worked, in gangs or on attachment to free employers, in the already crowded town.

The central three-storey dormitory block stands in the middle of a courtyard, surrounded by domestic and administration buildings and the deputy superintendent’s residence.

Convict transportation ended in 1840 and eight years later Hyde Park Barracks was converted to a female immigration centre, part of a government initiative to recruit single women from Britain and Ireland to counterbalance the preponderance of men in the colony.

In the decades that followed the former barracks underwent repeated changes of use, and gathered numerous extensions which are now made evident by a detailed series of models of the site.   There is a succinct summary of the site’s history at https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/hyde_park_barracks#ref-uuid=2779d140-faa9-2aa0-ad8d-f4230aca4590.  

In recent times the accretions have been cleared away and the whole site subjected, like the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, to detailed archaeological investigation, interpreted in a similar minimalist light-touch manner that at the same time informs the visitor and requires imagination to reconstruct what has gone:  https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/hyde_park_barracks_archaeology#ref-uuid=2779d140-faa9-2aa0-ad8d-f4230aca4590.

Temples of Sanitation – Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester

Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester Museum of Science & Technology

While Burton Corporation was building Claymills Pumping Station to rid the town of brewery and household effluent, sending the ordure and the smell to the unsuspecting village of Egginton across the county border in Derbyshire, their colleagues in Leicester were also catching up with the effects of rapidly expanding population on their town’s limited sanitation.

Sewage-disposal had been a problem for the expanding borough from the 1850s onwards. 

The civil engineer Thomas Wicksteed (1806-1871) designed a scheme for his Patent Solid Sewage Manure Company to drain the town and purify the resulting solid matter as manure. 

Though the scheme markedly improved the condition of the River Soar, the manure failed to sell and the enterprise failed. 

Indeed, pail closets continued in the poorer districts of the town and the removal of ordure by carts, canal barges and railway wagons was a continuing nuisance.

A new scheme was devised in 1885 providing two arterial sewers linking to a sewage farm on the outskirts of the borough and the Abbey Pumping Station was constructed between November 1887 and May 1891 to pump sewage 1½ miles to Beaumont Leys. 

The imposing Elizabethan engine-house, begun in 1889, was designed by the Leicester architect Stockdale Harrison (1846-1914).

The four pumping engines, very like the slightly earlier ones at Claymills and by the same local firm of Gimson & Company, are now the largest surviving Woolf compound steam-engines in the United Kingdom, and Abbey Pumping Station is one of the few places where four steam pumping engines can still be seen within one engine house. 

The high-pressure cylinders are 30in × 69¼in, and the low-pressure cylinders are 48in × 96in.  Each flywheel is 21 feet in diameter, and the beams are 28 feet long.

Leicester’s population grew more than threefold between 1861 and 1901 and continued to expand through the first half of the twentieth century. 

At Abbey Pumping Station settlement tanks and an electric pump were installed in 1925, and capacity was reinforced by the installation of a ram pump in 1939. 

The station continued to steam until the opening of the Wanlip Sewage Treatment Works in 1964.

The site was then converted into the Leicester Museum of Science and Technology which opened in 1974.  

The original eight Gimson Lancashire boilers had been replaced in 1925:  of these replacements only one survives, and the boiler house now contains other museum exhibits.  Two of the engines are restored to working condition, though limited boiler-capacity prevents them both being steamed simultaneously for longer than a very short time. 

There are other sewage-related experiences in the Museum. 

The site railway, first installed in 1926 and operated by a small petrol locomotive, has been adapted for passengers.  Trains are hauled by a restored steam locomotive, Leonard, from the Birmingham Tame & Rea District Drainage Board’s Minworth sewage treatment works.

A display entitled ‘Flushed with Pride’ (a title borrowed from Wallace Reyburn’s inimitable 1969 biography of the water-closet manufacturer, Thomas Crapper) includes a lavatory with see-through bowl and cistern, into which visitors can drop artificial faeces and watch them journey from the U-bend to the main sewer. 

Such rare delights are not to be missed.

Details of public openings at Abbey Pumping Station are at http://www.abbeypumpingstation.org/default.asp.

Abbey Pumping Station is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 17th-21st) tour, based in Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.