The Crossness Pumping Station, located in the midst of the treatment works that deals with all the sewage of South London, represents one of the most remarkable stories of the post-war industrial-heritage movement.
I first visited Crossness with a Matlock Travel Society group in 1987. Our Derbyshire coach-driver was astonished that we should travel all that way to have a sandwich buffet in a sewage works.
At that time the engines had been disused since the 1950s, left to rust, and were prey to thieves and more than usually intrepid vandals. The lower levels of the engine house were filled with a hundred tons of sand and cement to prevent accumulation of methane. The degree of dereliction was spectacular.
The small group of enthusiasts from the Crossness Beam Engines Preservation Group talked hopefully of bringing the place back to life. It was, frankly, hard to believe.
In fact, Crossness has huge significance. John Yates, of the Historic Buildings Division of the Greater London Council, had written in his 1980 report, “The engines as they now stand reflect the best practices of mechanical engineering in two periods: first, the middle period of steam engineering, largely reliant upon cast iron, and the late period with steel a dominant material. They are certainly the largest surviving rotative beam engines in this country, and are probably the largest in the world. There is no other comparable group of engines in one house…”
In 1993, after protracted negotiations, the Crossness Engines Trust, which arose from the earlier Preservation Group, secured a long lease from Thames Water of the engine house and its immediate surroundings, and set about restoring Prince Albert, the last of the four engines to have operated in 1953.
There followed a ten-year saga of patient, unglamorous, physical restoration work, much of it carried out by a core team of not much more than a dozen: http://www.crossness.org.uk/restoration.html.
By 2003 Prince Albert gleamed as good as new.
When the beam moved under steam for the first time in fifty years, grown men grew teary-eyed.
The power of live steam is emotional as well as physical. It makes the earth move.
Crossness Pumping Station features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Temples of Sanitation. For details, please click here.