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 16th-20th 2021) tour, based in Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.

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