I am sure that you are by now aware that I have a soft spot for all things Victorian and loony… after all, I spent five years researching a man who invaded Tibet in 1903, ended his days believing in space aliens, and wrote books with catch titles like, ‘Life in the Stars: An Exposition of the View that on some Planets of some Stars exist Beings higher than Ourselves, and on one a World-Leader, the Supreme Embodiment of the Eternal Spirit which animates the Whole.’ (Younghusband:1927).
I also find Victorian architecture and design fascinating… for a people that believed that the world’s largest Empire could be run with little more than a black top-coat and a Bible, they produced some remarkably ornate and beautiful buildings. If austerity and moral high mindedness were the touch stones of their epoch, then absurdity and high gothic ornamentalism were the foundation stones of their architecture. The list is endless but think of the great railway stations in London (St Pancras, and the Gilbert Scott especially), The Natural History Museum, and Keble College Oxford to name but a few.
But these are all buildings designed to impress, and to flatter their visitors and inhabitants. Perhaps my favorite Victorian building is however none of these… it was built for an entirely different purpose. Some might say for a slightly shitty purpose; it is the pumping station at the far east end of the Great Southern Outfall Sewer, in Bexley, London. It is called the Crossness Pumping Station, and it’s a real hidden gem.
Designed by the Metropolitan Board of Works’s Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette and architect Charles Henry Driver it was built between 1859 and 1865, expanded in 1897, and again in 1901. It was so ornate and beautiful that, in what must have been the most bizarre invitation card of the century, it was officially opened HRH the Prince of Wales, attended by Prince Alfred, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, and the Lord Mayor of London.
Yep, they got the Prince of Wales, two further Royal Princes, two Archbishops, and the Lord Mayor to open a sewerage pumping station… now do you get an idea how ornate it is? Following that, in the true Victorian spirit, the “Prince and five hundred guests sat down to an excellent dejeuner, in one of the ancillary sheds, beside the Engine House.” One can only imagine the sheer bonkerness of the whole scene, but Nikolaus Pevsner, never one to shower praise, described as “a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian cathedral of ironwork.”
But the beautiful behemoth had a rather grim purpose; to pump the sewerage from the great drain into a reservoir for basic treatment, before it was released into the Thames as the tide ebbed out towards the sea. Lovely. The four massive coal fired steam engines, the largest rotative beam engines in the world, with 52 ton flywheels and 47 ton beams, lifted 6 tons of sewage per stroke, per engine, up into a 27-million-imperial-gallon reservoir. Basically it moved a lot of shit.
The following description of the building comes from the current website: “The complex was designed in the Romanesque / Norman style, in gault brick, with considerable ornamentation with red brick arches and dog-tooth string courses. The three entrance doorways were decorated with Norman dog-toothed red brick arches, whilst the main entrance, facing the river (now hidden by an extension) was further decorated with the coats-of-arms of the MBW and adjacent counties. There was originally a magnificent chimney, 207 feet high, which has since been demolished.
The capitals of the many columns and mullions on the outside of the building and the supporting corbels to the arched overhanging main cornice, are of different designs, and although some of these are repeated, no two side-by-side, are alike.
The interior of the Engine House was provided with wrought and cast iron work of the most ornate design. The four engines are placed in the corners of the building, the centre of which is occupied by an octagonal structure of iron columns with richly ornamented capitals, supporting iron arched screens and the open octagonal well on the main beam floor. Handrails were of tubular brass highly polished, and the ironwork was painted in natural colours following those of the leaves, branches and fruit represented. The openwork upper iron floors were painted in french grey and vermilion, whilst the shafts of the main columns were in indian red. The elaborately painted panels in the octagon, immediately below the beam floor, incorporated the monogram of the Metropolitan Board of Works, the same device being included in the centre of the cast-iron screens on the working floor.”
Sadly, when the pumping station was decommissioned in the 1950s it was not considered economic to dismantle the engines as the cost of doing so far exceeded any scrap value. The more valuable metal items (made from brass) such as the engine oilers, much pipework and even the handrails from the stairs were removed. The remaining building and engines were left to suffer considerable vandalism and decay. However the good work of the Crossness Engines Trust has lead to many of the buildings, engines, and ornamental features being restored and opened to the public. Sadly, it is not open next until April 2014, but you can find out more information here.