The Crossness sewage pumping station is a stunning masterpiece of Victorian engineering with ornamental ironwork worthy of a cathedral. Located on the bank of the Thames it was the final piece to major engineering works that eliminated the cause of Great Stink of 1858 and at the same time eradicated deadly diseases from London.
The population of London increased significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries. As the population increased so did every kind of waste, it was just left to accumulate and vast quantities ended up in the River Thames, which essentially became an open sewer. Between 1831 and 1853 there were three deadly outbreaks of cholera in London, causing over 30,000 deaths.
It was during a very hot summer in 1858 when the city experienced the full impact of the stench from the polluted Thames. The smell was so appalling that the MPs considered abandoning the premises altogether. They were only able to carry on their work by hanging deodorising chemical-soaked sacking over the windows. A bill was rapidly passed in the Commons to fund a massive project to design and build a sewage system to cope with London’s waste. Sir Joseph Bazalgette, then the highly reputed chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works in London, was commissioned to oversee the project.
Despite its rather unglamorous purpose, this municipal building was a shrine to civic engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s cutting-edge design, with its distinctive dog-toothed brickwork exterior and an all bells-and-whistles Romanesque interior with four giant steam-powered beam engines – the real attraction for many of the admiring engineer visitors from across the UK and Europe – and a blaze of polished brass, dazzlingly painted cast-iron columns, spiral staircases and ornamented screens. This truly astonishing building was nicknamed “the cathedral on the marsh” for its architectural beauty.
Opened in 1865, the Crossness Pumping Station and Bazalgette’s underground London sewage system were cherished by the Victorians for its revolutionary engineering. The seven-year effort not only solved a critical sewage problem, it also contributed massively to the appalling problems caused by untreated sewage and contaminated water supplies in London. Almost magically, cholera disappeared in London after the pumping stations came into operation and it was belatedly realised that the root cause for the disease was contaminated drinking water.
Although much of the Bazalgette sewer system still functions today, Crossness closed in the 1950s and fell into disrepair. Thankfully, after considerable effort, enthusiastic volunteers have now restored the building to its former glory, along with two of the four engines. The ‘Womens’ Engineering Society’ was founded in 1919 to protect the jobs that women had gained during WWI and to continue promoting the place of women in engineering. In recognition of the valuable contributions made by women engineers to our nation through over 100 years, during war and peace, my image shows a female engineer repairing (or polishing) a speed governor, a device used to measure and regulate the speed of the mighty Crossness engines.