Of all the places that might be described as a “cathedral of steam”, the 1928 engine-house at Kempton, Middlesex, has a stronger claim than most.
When you walk up a flight of steps to the entrance and through the front door, you’re on a level halfway up the height of two magnificent pumping engines, 62 feet high, which lifted Thames river water on its way to supply much of North London . These two giants are, in domestic terms, five storeys high, and climbing to the very top is a vertiginous experience.
When they were completed in 1929 they represented almost the ultimate in steam-engine design, gloriously over-engineered so that, if necessary, they could pump 24/7. The space between the two triple-expansion engines was intended for a third, but in 1933 two much more compact water-turbine units were installed instead. In a sense, that six-year period marks the point when technology moved on past the age of steam.
These huge machines were the last of their type when they ceased operating in 1980. Electric pumps, delivering slightly less water with a tenth of the staff, took over. In 1995 the Kempton Great Engines Trust [http://www.kemptonsteam.org] began to restore them with the support of Thames Water, and seven years later the northern engine Sir William Prescott was back in steam. The southern engine remains cold, and enables tour-groups to inspect its working in detail while observing the twin in motion across the building.
It’s a sight not to be missed. The earth moves.
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.