Engine-driving at Kew Bridge

Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Kew Bridge Steam Museum

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum has been renamed the London Museum of Water & Steam.  I wonder how long it will take people – if they ever do – to stop calling it “Kew Bridge”.

This celebrated treasure-house of steam technology shows stationary pumping engines and other steam-age machinery, live and in action on a regular basis.  Such is the concentration of exhibits that the place runs seven days a week – not simply for periodic steaming days like most out-of-town steam-engine museums.

The pumping station was originally built by the Grand Junction Water Company, whose name disconcertingly advertised that they originally drew their water from the Grand Junction Canal:  after two inlets had proved to be polluted even by early Victorian standards, the Kew Bridge pumping station was built in 1838 to pump water from the supposedly cleaner River Thames to its existing reservoirs.

As demand increased a succession of beam engines were installed on the site, including two of the largest ever built, the 90-inch and 100-inch Cornish engines, and a strange beast that is effectively a beam engine, but with no beam – the Bull engine.

By the time the steam engines were finally decommissioned in 1945 the Metropolitan Water Board, realising that here was a ready-made museum of steam, took the enlightened decision to preserve the site.

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum [http://www.waterandsteam.org.uk] grew from a trust founded in 1973 to enable volunteers to operate the site, and it has become a significant London tourist attraction, easily accessible by rail and providing entertainment as well as education all the year round.

I once took the members of what was then the Guide Dogs Adventure Group to Kew Bridge as part of a ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage’ weekend.  (This was for the people, that is, not the dogs – the engine-house cast-iron floors were not paw-friendly).  You can’t show blind people a beam engine without getting a bit greasy:  they need to sense the height and breadth of the thing and to feel its motion.

One blind teenager in the group asked if he could drive one and, sure enough, he was given the opportunity to grab the levers and make the earth move.  Health-and-safety might prevent this now, but at that time the people at Kew Bridge were able to provide a life-enhancing moment for a guy without sight who wanted the hands-on experience of driving a vast steam engine.

I can’t find the Guide Dogs Adventure Group on the web, but a story that’s founded in its work is at http://www.travistrek.org.uk/scott.html.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Temples of Sanitation, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2015 Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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