Out of the strong came forth sweetness

Markfield Beam Engine House, Tottenham

Markfield Beam Engine House, Tottenham

What could you possibly do with a redundant sewage works in the middle of north London?  The surroundings of the Markfield Beam Engine House [http://www.mbeam.org], which we’re visiting on the tour Cemeteries & Sanitation:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (June 18th-24th 2015), show how to make an amenity out of the most unpromising situation.

Tottenham, formerly a genteel, salubrious, semi-rural place, suddenly expanded with the arrival of the railway to Liverpool Street in 1872.  The fields disappeared under housing, and with them the estate of Markfield House.

To deal with the inevitable problem of sewage disposal, the Markfield Engine was set to work in 1888.  It’s an elegant machine, free-standing rather than house-built, its superstructure supported by formal Doric columns.

Its surroundings were anything but elegant:  alongside the settlement tanks and filter beds was a slaughterhouse and a pig-farm.  This was the location of the famous “Tottenham pudding”, a wartime recycling project that transformed kitchen waste into pig food, and gained the approval of Queen Mary.

The site pumped sewage until 1964, when the local sewerage system was rearranged and the land transferred to the London Borough of Haringey.  The Borough took the enlightened decision to mothball the beam engine, bricking up the windows to protect it from vandalism.

In recent years, with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and others, the Borough turned the area into a pleasant facility that you’d never guess had been a sewage works, and the restored engine was steamed in September 2009.

The heavy concrete of the settlement tanks and filter beds has been adapted as gardens and a BMX park.  The engine-house is now fully restored and volunteers run the engine half a dozen times a year.  The whole project has cost £3.8 million.  There is an attractive history of Markfield Park at http://www.markfieldpark.org.uk.

It’s a modest, understated place, where mums bring kids in pushchairs and youths play football and ride their bikes.  The nearest you see to sewage now is dog-owners with plastic bags over their hands.

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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