Often splendid examples of the civic pride which the Victorians lavished on their municipal buildings, these disused pumping stations raise questions about preservation while offering exciting opportunities for conversion
Originally published in AR May 1972, this piece was republished online in June 2017 in connection with the publication of a piece on Johansen Skovsted’s pumping stations
Steam power was a product of Georgian England and was first used to operate pumps – an application which was to prove a continued incentive to its development. The massive atmospheric beam engine of Thomas Newcomen appeared in the second decade of the 18th century and both it and its improved successors were ideally suited for driving reciprocating pumps for the draining of mines, land drainage, public water supply, and sewage disposal. After many improvements the beam engine and subsequently the directacting compound and triple-expansion steam engines were increasingly used in pumping installations up to the early part of this century. These large machines had to be protected from the weather, and the beam engine, in particular, led to the building of the distinctively tall engine house, which often achieved a unique integration of the structure and machinery where the engines were ‘house-built’ and relied on the walls for support as well as enclosure.
The disused pumping stations of today are largely a legacy of the Victorian period, reflecting urban growth in the 19th century and the public health problems which this posed. Rapidly growing populations and disastrous epidemics of cholera and other diseases forced local authorities to face the development of water supply and of the treatment and disposal of sewage. This led to considerable civil engineering work and architectural opportunities, involving the construction of reservoirs, pipe-lines, treatment works and pumping stations. These pumping stations, although functional, purpose-built structures, are often splendid examples of the civic pride which the Victorians lavished on their municipal buildings. Typical buildings make elaborate use of multicoloured brickwork, carved stone, decorative cast and wrought iron, glazed tiling, stained glass, oak handrails and brass door furniture. The beam engines were also architectural in character with the sculptural quality of fluted cast iron columns, foliate capitals, panelled plinths and en tablatures which perfectly matched their setting. In addition the buildings are often placed in well-kept gardens which are a source of continuing pride.
‘These pumping stations, although functional, purpose-built structures, are often splendid examples of the civic pride which the Victorians lavished on their municipal buildings’
With the growth of electric power distribution in this century many pumping stations had steam plant removed, to be replaced by the ubiquitous vertical-spindle electrically driven pump. Others remain in steam, although many have been closed during the last 20 years. There are two main reasons for this, the first of which is the question of boiler insurance while the second, related to it, is the desire to rationalise the network of small municipal undertakings. Another problem is the labour-intensive nature of steam plant and the increasing difficulty of finding men with the necessary skills and experience for its maintenance. Faced with expenditure on the boilers the authorities often decide to electrify, although there may be years of life left in the engines. At this stage an alternative exists; either to put electric pumps in the existing building and remove the steam engines (for scrap or preservation), or to build a new pumping station on another site. In the first case we are often left with a building of architectural interest, but, with its modern plant continuing as a working station: the question of a new use for the building obviously does not arise. In the second case the steam plant is merely shut down, and both the machinery and its building become redundant; if there is no pressure for site redevelopment they could remain in position for many years. Once the steam is shut off, however, the buildings become cold and damp and machinery, which was lovingly cared for during a lifetime of service, rapidly deteriorates. It is a melancholy experience to revisit a pumping station and find a cold, dark building with broken windows, and the only sound that of disturbed pigeons above the rusting machinery.
How to preserve
What should be done with these buildings? Are they worth preserving? Should the tax-payer’s money be spent on them? These and other questions are often asked in connection with disused pumping stations with widely differing answers in particular cases. In recent years there has been a growing interest in industrial archaeology and, in order to find out what does remain in the field, a nation-wide survey was inaugurated with information steadily accumulating in the National Record of Industrial Monuments at Bath University. There is, however, no national preservation policy at the moment, and what is done is largely left to local initiative and enthusiasm. Nevertheless at the end of last year the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries published its report The Preservation of Technological Material (HMSO 1971 , 36 1/2p) and this is being considered by the Government. Among its main recommendations is one suggesting an annual grant-in-aid of £200 000. Another says of the in-situ preservation of industrial monuments that ‘while continuing to be the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the Environment, it should be the subject of considerably increased expenditure by this Department, both in grants and on staff’. This is an encouraging report and, if implemented, could help in the preservation and creative re-use of industrial buildings and machinery, although it makes clear the need for local preservation trusts and appeal committees to continue their work in order to match money received from central grant fundsif these are forthcoming.
Green Lanes Pumping Hall, London
The Green Lanes pumping hall in Hackney (architect, Chadwell Mylne) was built in 1854 as a castle to disguise its industrial function on what was then a semi-rural site overlooking a private lake (now reservoirs). It is now threatened with demolition by its present owners, the Metropolitan Water Board. Ever since the beam engines were removed in 1942 (to be replaced by electric pumps in another building), the exceptionally solid structure has been kept in good repair and the interior heated. Nicholas Ray and David Prichard, until recently students at the School of Environmental Studies (University College, London), in their outline plans shown below, have suggested community use with facilities for meetings, sports and drama. Others who have expressed an interest in the building are the Greater London Arts Association and the local comprehensive school, Woodberry Down, which is short of play space. Meanwhile, listing by the DOE would help, for Hackney can’t afford to loose such a grand folly.
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Wharf Road Pumping Station, London
The building in Wharf Road, London, is one of the few successful conversions of a pumping station, though regrettably Marico who are responsible have only been granted a short lease because the area is scheduled for redevelopment. For a mere £1500, spent on industrial gas heaters, power points, emulsion paint, fibreglass sheer fabric to cover the enormous windows and a plain haircord carpet, they get 2500 sq ft of space and an exhilarating environment in which to design, make and display their furniture.
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Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester
Abbey pumping station at Leicester-a sewage lift station–is being converted into a new museum of technology for the East Midlands. Red brick buildings of 1891 on a 7-acre riverside site form the nucleus. Four Leicester-built beam engines are preserved in the engine house, 6, and one of the Lancashire boilers remains in the otherwise empty boiler house which is being converted into a road transport gallery opening this year. In an adjacent asbestos-clad shed a restored collection of road vehicles, awaits transfer to the new gallery.
In the grounds there is a steady growing collection including a locomotive, stationary steam engines, a railway bridge, and other items awaiting restoration. The perspective shows the phase building programme which will extend over a period of 15 years. The first phase, which will cost £70,000, includes the conversion of the existing buildings, the preservation of the beam engines, the building of an entmnce hall, reception areas and three new galleries. The City of Leicester has promised £35 000 providing the rest is raised by donations and grants. The city has indicated that it will underwrite the running costs once the museum has been established. In the meantime it has provided a small qualified staff under Brian Walters, curator of technology, who hopes to have the first special exhibition open this month. This scheme, one of the most advanced at the moment, is expected to become a living museum with the beam engines eventually understeam and facilities for apprentice education and technical research.
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Ryhope Pumping Station, Sunderland
Ryhope pumping station just south of Sunderland on the east coast. The tall beam engine house contains two engines built in the 1860’s which worked until the station closed in July 1967. A great deal of work has been done on the site, which is administered by a trust and run by a keen group of volunteers helped by the Sunderland and South Shields Water Co. The project was one of the first to receive assistance from the English Tourist Board, and facilities at the site include ample car parking, a cafe, a souvenir shop, lavatories, and a museum showing the history of pumping and water supply. The station is open from April to September every weekend, from 10 am to 6 pm.
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Children’s Playground, Haringey
The Borough of Haringey, under its parks chief superintendent A. Egan and landscape architect Mary Mitchell, has transformed a 6 1/2 -acre sewage works into a children’s playground. Bold ground modelling and generous planting screen the concrete bays from the recreation ground to the south, and the playground itself from the adjacent railway lines and industrial estates. The fine beam engine, which belongs to the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority, is being restored to form the nucleus of a future museum. The cost of landscape works and hard surfacing was £26000, and minor repairs to the building amounted to £1500. The scheme was financed by Government loans, part of which will rank for Grant Aid under Section 9 of the Local Government Act 1966, ‘Reclamation of Derelict Land’.
Lead Image: The Green Lanes pumping hall in Hackney by architect Chadwell Mylne, built in 1854