Last autumn I visiting Abbey Mills Pumping Station, the beautiful Victorian building next to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. A building with a surprisingly prosaic purpose – pumping London’s sewage.
The pumping station was completed in 1868, built by London’s famous 19th century civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, Edmund Cooper and architect Charles Driver (who also built the handsome hotel at the head of Southend on Sea’s pier – now a Park Inn).
Constructed to similar specifications as its sister station down at Crossness next to the Thamesmead estate in south London, Abbey Mills originally used massive beam engines – 8 in all – to pump sewage around the system. Today the quiet of this vast cathedral-like space is only very occasionally interrupted – sometimes the electric motors installed in the 20th century are called in to use as backups for the sparkling modern facility next door.
As you can see it’s a remarkable piece of architecture – easily as impressive as St Pancras station and almost as spectacular as the Palace of Westminster. There’s ornate cast iron and delicate brick work at every turn, and the building has a breathtaking central space which stretches up to an octagonal lantern 70 or 80 feet overhead. It even boasts huge brass-bound doors.
Looking at current architectural practices it’s amazing to think that the Victorians thought it worthwhile to spend so much effort on a building with such an ordinary role – given the featureless boxes that are shooting up all over London these days I really think we’ve lost something in the intervening 150 years since this was built…
Elsewhere on the Abbey Mills site there are other buildings of the same era, some of which still serve as offices and storage facilities – such as the charming cottage near the entrance – while others have been allowed to fall into disrepair. You’ll note a strange pyramid like structure next to the abandoned outbuilding in the second photo – this is actually the base of one of the huge chimneys that used to loom over the pumping station. Some of the tallest examples in London, sadly these were removed in 1941 because the authorities felt that there was a real risk that they might be bombed and obliterate the pumping station below as they fell.
Here are a few more photographs of the interior, showing some of the brickwork and carved stone as well as one of the electric motors which bears more than a passing resemblance to a Dalek don’t you think?
Given that it is still part of an operational site, authorised public visits to the original Abbey Mills Pumping Station are sadly extremely rare. It is possible however – I popped along during Open House London in 2014 and it may be a participating building once again this year. If you’re interested in looking around this remarkable place I suggest bookmarking the Open House London site and keeping an eye on the listings for the London Borough of Newham just in case.