At long last, London has been blessed with a proper museum exhibition dedicated to the Great Stink of 1858, a foul yet history-changing event involving a heat wave and the “hideous stench of human excrement."
And the venue for said museum exhibition couldn’t be more apropos: Crossness Pumping Station, the same ornate — and at the time of its completion, exceptionally state-of-the-art — pumping station erected to rid London of its noxious stink by carrying untreated sewage away from the city before unloading it into the River Thames, which, at the time, was the main source of the city’s drinking water.
Witty Anglican cleric Sydney Smith summed up London's 19th drinking water situation best when he wrote: “He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men, women and children on the face of the globe."
During the summer of 1858, in a city already coping with a string of typhoid and cholera epidemics originating from wildly unsanitary drinking water, the stench emanating from the Thames — a nose hair-singeing miasma believed by many to be the source of the rash of deadly bacterial diseases — forced even the highest ranking governmental officials to soak their parliamentary curtains in lime chloride to mask the smell.
Published by Punch magazine in July 1958, "The Silent Highwayman" serves as commentary on the rank state of the River Thames, which doubled as open sewer and drinking water source. (Illustration: Public Domain)
In addition to combatting powerful odor with powerful odor, Parliament's larger efforts to squash the Great Stink — an odoriferous call to action, if there ever was one — were mercifully swift.
Within just a few years, the Thames’ unfortunate status as an open sewer was lifted with the unveiling of a complex modern sewerage system overseen by Joseph Bazalgette, visionary chief civil engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works.
Groundbreaking at the time, the massive late 19th century public works project diverted the city's wastewater downriver to the Thames Estuary, well out of smelling range of Londonerst, via an expansive network of underground sewers of different sizes and lengths. Built from 318 million bricks and 880,000 cubic yards of concrete, Balzalgette’s Victorian sewer system is still very much in use today albeit with numerous 20th and 21st century upgrades and additions.
Pictured here in 2009, the gault brick exterior of Crossness Station's main engine house has also been restored as part of an expansive overhaul kicked off by volunteers in the mid-1980s. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Power of the pump
While simple gravity aided immensely in the fancy new sewage system, so did a small handful of magnificent pump houses — pump palaces, in reality — built to give gravity an assist where needed. Keep in mind that the main concern of Bazalgette wasn’t to treat raw sewage but to get it away from the city center in the quickest and most efficient manner possible before releasing it into the Thames.
Perhaps the most stunning of these structures was the Crossness Pumping Station, a Romanesque structure often referred to as the Cathedral on the Marsh (or the Cathedral of Sewage) due to its eye-popping interior cast ironwork and other flamboyant ornamental flourishes, which would look more at home in a grand museum or train station and not gracing a structure custom-built to pump poop out to sea.
As the Guardian explains, the ornate detailing and architectural extravagance of Crossness Pumping Station was very much deliberate. Balzalgette was proud of his newfangled sewer works and wanted it to be seen and admired by “visitors from across the U.K. and Europe” with Crossness serving as a sort of crown jewel of the system: “They came to marvel at his solution to the appalling problems caused by untreated sewage and contaminated water supplies in a rapidly expanding city …”
Completed in 1865 as a marvel of Victorian engineering, the Crossness Pumping Station was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales, in a lavish event attended by two archbishops and members of London's upper-crust. (Illustration: Public Domain)
Opened on April 4, 1865, during a lavish ceremony attended by British royalty and a who’s who of London society, the Balzagette-designed facility housed a quartet of mighty steam engines — "Victoria," "Prince Consort," "Albert Edward" and "Alexandra" — that pumped the city’s sewage into a 27 million gallon reservoir where it sat (yes, covered) until high tide at which point it was released into the Thames and carried out to sea. While this approach only exacerbated pollution levels downstream, it certainly proved effective in curing London of the unholy stink that plagued the city for a greater part of the 19th century.
Aided by significant improvements and tweaks over the years including additional pumps and diesel engines, the original four steam engines, believed to the largest rotative beam engines in the world, remained in operation until 1956 when they were decommissioned and the Crossness Pumping Station was shuttered with the arrival of a new sewage treatment (at long last!) plant built along the Thames.
And so, much like many other historic buildings that played vital roles in the growth of modern cities, the Crossness Pumping Station was forgotten and fell into a state of disrepair. While the vandalism-ravaged structure was still standing — and even granted protection as a Grade I listed building alongside the likes of the Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey in 1970 — it was, for all intents and purposes, lost.
A Victorian beauty, reborn
In 1987, the volunteer-run Crossness Engines Trust took on the herculean task of restoring the landmark engine house and its four rust-damaged steam engines. Nearly 20 years later, that task has been completed with the recent grand public reopening of the Crossness Pumping Station — sure to be the most unique museum in a city chock-full of unique museums (I'm looking at you, London Sewing Machine Museum).
While the original Crossness Pumping Station is a testament to Victorian ingenuity, the new Crossness Pumping Station, made possible by over £2.7 million (roughly $3.5 million) in grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other entities, is a testament to volunteerism.
Writes the Guardian:
The restoration happened thanks to thousands of hours of unpaid work by volunteers united in a passion for the heroic Victorian engineering and architecture. Their include retired railway workers and electricians, engineers, teachers, an artist, a trade union negotiator and a university historian, Peter Catterall, who came on an open day because of his interest in social and political history, and found himself conscripted.
The two main draws of the world’s prettiest pumping station are obviously the restored 1865 steam engines and the engine house’s multi-hued ironwork, which also has been restored to its 19th century glory. The new museum also houses a café, landscaped gardens and, as mentioned, an exhibit on the Great Stink of 1858 along with other sanitation-related historical tidbits.
On designated “public steaming days,” one of the four engines, the Prince Consort, is switched on for the public. The only original engine that's been rehabbed back into operation, the Prince Consort was restarted during a 2003 ceremony by Charles, Prince of Wales. It was Charles' great-great grandfather, Edward VII, who officially opened the pumping station 138 years prior.
Currently, the museum’s operating hours are on the scant side although the trust hopes to expand the number of days it opens its doors to the public while also expanding the appeal of an institution dedicated to sharing the history of modern sewage in London.
Despite the fact that guided tours come complete with tea and cookies, an afternoon spent learning about 19th century methods of diverting feculent water can understandably be a tough sell, particularly since Crossness is located on the fringes of southeast London in the heavily suburban borough of Bexley. In other words, it’s a bit of a hike.
What's more, the pumping station is adjacent to not only the Thames Water-owned Crossness Nature Reserve but to the modern Crossness Sewage Works, one of the largest sewage treatment plants in Europe. So yes, depending on which way the wind is blowing, you'll likely be confronted with a pungent whiff.
Still, for an unexpectedly gorgeous glimpse of how London saved itself from the most malodorous period in its history, a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Sewage is worth the trek.