Victorian London - Buildings, Monuments and Museums - Abbey Mills Pumping Station   [built 1865-68]

Northern Outfall. - The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, one of the curiosities of modern civilisation, lies on the London, Tilbury, and Southend Railway, between the Bromley - by- Bow and the Plaistow stations. The former of these is the nearer to town, and, according to some authorities, the nearer also to the pumping station itself. But the road from Plaistow is the easier found, and the station there has the advantage of being in communication with the North London Railway, and also of being one at which all trains on the London, Tilbury, and Southend line stop, including even the Mar gate express, via Thames Haven, which runs only during the summer months. In most respects the London Main Drainage System, elaborate as it is, must yield the palm to that of ancient Rome. But the pumping station is a work not only carried out in thoroughly - indeed, in rather strikingly-modern fashion, but is itself an altogether modern idea. To drive a tunnel for the city Styx under any number of miles of road was to the Roman engineer as simple and familiar a feat as to provide for the sparkling fountains of the distant Alban hills the arch-supported path along whose easy gradient they might send their airy way to feed, if it to pleased his Conscript Fathers, the fountains of the Capitol. But the steam pump was as far from his calculations as the syphon; and had even the Conscript fathers themselves decided in full session on the necessity of lilting the city Styx bodily some twenty feet or so above its natural level, they would for once have had to register an unratified decree. To the engineer of the present century the one problem is as solubly practical as the other. Were the Tiber or the Thames in question instead of the Styx, it would be simply a question of so much more shafting and so many more "h.p.,'" and under ordinary circumstances he might safely be reckoned upon not to estimate for sixpennyworth more of either than should suffice to raise to precisely the required height, with precisely the "margin" required for the safety of the process, precisely the maximum number of gallons of which, under fullest favour of Aquarius, Tiber or Thames could boast. The circumstances under which the Abbey Mills Pumping Works were constructed were not altogether ordinary, and the severe simplicity by which they would otherwise have been characterised has been departed from to some extent. But they are none the less characteristic, and in one respect at all events all the more worth a visit.
    Under the auspices of the Metro politan Board of Works, and with the pretty well unlimited resources of the metropolis to fall back upon, the engineers of the Main Drainage Works had no occasion to consult economy at the expense of aesthe tics; and, as a consequence, the Abbey Mills Pumping Station assumes the aspect, not merely of a monument of engineering skill, but almost of a work of art. The natural features of the landscape at Bromley-by-Bow are not alto gether of a picturesque description. The road from Plaistow station is about as flat and featureless as a road can conscientiously contrive to be, and is rendered none the lovelier by the presence of the ubiquitous builder, who is already busily employed in covering with the usual dismal rows of pale yellow brick houses the marshy flats, which at the time the pumping station was first planned must still have preserved at least a lingering reminiscence of duck and snipe. It is quite a startling contrast when, after threading the narrow and winching path which, between gaswork, flour-mill, and floorcloth history, seems perpetually approaching the end of all things, time opening of a rough wooden gate, in a rougher wooden palisade, admits the visitor to a sweeping slope of wide and well- kept lawn, ornamented with brilliant borders in the most approved style of carpet gardening, and crowned within a handsome Moorish- looking pile, much more suggestive of a German Kursaal in the palmy days of the trente-et-quarante than of anything so essentially un romantic as a steam pump for the hoisting of sewage. The manager's house, a handsome detached building somewhat similar in style to the pumping-house itself, stands on the left-hand side about halfway between it and the entrance gate, and contains also the office at which application must be made for permission to view the works. His permission is readily granted, and the visitor is then at liberty to wander at pleasure over the works, under such convoy as he may be able to negotiate for himself among the stokers or others employed there. The first portion of the building into which he finds his way is the boiler-house, in the basement. This is divided into two apartments, connected by a narrow and rather low-pitched passage way, and each containing eight large boilers of an aggregate power of 800 horses. Opposite to these is a row of coal -bunkers, capable of containing, without trimming, about 1,000 tons of coal, and furnished with an elaborate system of tramways, over which the fuel is conveyed in small trucks to the various furnaces. These bunkers or cellars cover, as may be supposed, a considerable space of ground, the flagged top of which forms a large yard about an acre in extent, furnished with four diverging pairs of metals, over which run the trucks in which the coal is conveyed from the wharf, and pierced every here and there with square apertures for shooting their contents into the bunkers below, after the manner of the grim old Campo Santo Vecchio in Naples. Only one set of these boilers is in use at a time. The three months during which they can be kept at work night and day without cleaning just sufficing for the performance of that operation upon the eight boilers of the companion set. The pumps, with the engines by which they are worked, are on a somewhat higher level, and the apartment in which they stand is perhaps one of tine most curious ever devoted to such a purpose. T he eight pumps with their engines are arranged in four pairs, each pair forming a right angle, the four sets being placed at equal distances facing each other like the four projecting corners of a square " Oxford" frame. T he building is thus made to assume a markedly cruciform appearance, the lofty shafts of the eng ines forming the pillars on which the central cupola appears to rest, and the whole presenting a quaintly ecclesiastical appearance as of a church a little too long in the chancel and a little too short in the nave, which the general character of the architecture and of the rich and tasteful polychrome ornamentation effectiv ely helps to carry out. It is not lessened by the ornamental iron galleries carried round the upper portion of the shafts to afford access for "packing" and other kindred purposes, and irresistibly suggestive of the pulpit. T he only discrepancies w hich it must be confessed rather disturb the eye, and give a nightmarish air of inconsistency to the entire scene, are the perpetual motion of the seeming pillars, which work gravely up and down in a manner not altogether consistent with their apparent vocation as supporters of the roof, and the presence in the centre of nave and chancel of two huge mahogany- cased funnels, in reality enclosing the shafts from the furnaces, but precisely resembling the lower masts of some huge ship, as seen in her saloon.
    Leaving the pumping house by the door of what, ecclesiastically speaking, would be the north transept, we cross the garden to a smaller building, on entering which the faint pale stench which is the peculiar characteristic of the heavily-watered sewage of a modern town gre ets the visitor somewhat vigorously all the more so, indeed, from its sudden contrast with the mignonette of which he has been enjoying the full fragrance up to the very moment of opening the door. This building rejoices in the unsavoury name of the Filth House, and is the only spot throughout the works where the grisly flood with which it is their special province to deal is permitted to come in contact with either eye or nose. Here the sewage, which so far has been allowed to stream along its ever-winding subterranean course free from let or hinderance of any kind, is subjected to the straining process, without which the sewage, without which the various foreign bodies it carries with it would speedily choke the pumps through which it has now to pass. Corks of every sort and size form the staple of these incommodities, some three or four millions being a very moderate estimate of the numbers annually collected from the "cages" of the Filth House. But their savoury trophies are not by any means confined to innocent flotsam of this description, and amid the mass of rags, rats, and rubbish of various kinds, and in various conditions of decay, brought to light every three hours, as one set of cages is raised from the seething black flood and another lowered in its place, will every now and then be found a grislier jetsam still, on which Her Majesty's Coroner must be called to sit, with a verdict perchance of "Wilful Murder."
    No such sitting process is applied to the contents of the two other intercepting sewers which from this point run side by side with it into the great reservoir where the whole mass of sewage is discharged at high-water into the river.

source: Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881