Did you see the ‘fatberg‘ on TV recently? Disgusting wasn’t it, but somehow strangely fascinating. And I really felt for the poor chap they sent down in the sewer to hack it out by hand – not a job many of us would relish! An interesting point in the report was that they couldn’t use power jets to get rid of it as they would damage the brickwork. That brickwork in the sewers dates back to Victorian times and an engineer by the name of Joseph Bazalgette.
The rapid growth of Victorian London created a crisis of health and sanitation as the Thames became an open sewer and diseases like cholera took a terrible toll on the population. Bazalgette was charged with creating a system of sewers beneath the streets of London to ensure hygienic disposal of human waste. His scheme was a great success and the network he built is largely still the one in use today.
So, when you’re on the loo do you ever contemplate what actually happens to the stuff you’re about to flush away? The waste is channelled by various tributary or ‘interceptor’ sewers to two main sewers called ‘outfall sewers’, one in north London from Hackney to Beckton, and one in south London from Deptford to Crossness next to Thamesmead, where there are huge treatment plants on both banks of the river. And it’s at Crossness that a magnificent relic of Victorian architecture and engineering can be found – The Crossness Pumping Station.
We went along to a recent open day at what is now a museum. Here, you can follow the story of Bazalgette’s endeavours and the problems he and his team faced, along with displays of sanitary ware and other items through the ages – some of it less pleasant than you may like! The piece de resistance is however, the Beam Engine House which is being painstakingly restored by the Crossness Engines Trust. As you enter the cavernous building you are transported back in time to the Industrial Revolution – four huge beam engines built by James Watt & Co of Birmingham tower above you and you are stunned by the magnificent architecture. You can climb the stairs to the higher level and view the engines more closely and marvel at beauty of the restored parts of the building.
It was a fascinating afternoon and one I would definitely recommend. There are regular open days for visits, please check their website for the latest information. We wish the Crossness Engines Trust all the best in their task of restoration and look forward to seeing the completion of their project.