Crossness Pumping Station
10th July 1999

This is an 1860's built victorian pumping station for expelling treated sewage into the Thames from it's south bank at Abby Wood, to the east of Greenwich and Woolwich.
The station is in the grounds of the current Crossnes Sewage works but is itself non-operational.
The building , which is architecturally interesting, is in a state of disrepair, many windows are boarded over, or broken, which adds to the feeling of dilapidation and also restricts the amount of light within.
Inside there are carved ornate pillars, wrought iron screens , painted friezes, metal spiral staircases and brass trimmings, and that is without mentioning the engines or pumps themselves.
the Industrial Archaeology society is gradually cleaning, painting and refurbishing the whole interior.
The bright, garish colours being applied are close approximations to original colours, based on analysis of paint fragments rescued from the surfaces, prior to cleaning and sand      blasting.


Pages 28 - 29 of
The Thames Transformed
Jeffery Harrison & Peter Grant
copyright 1976
1st published by Andre Deutsch Ltd


The clean-up programme which brought about the miracle was, to say the least, long overdue. Since the early nineteenth century the need to combat the pollution of the river had become increasingly obvious yet the measures taken were piecemeal and ineffective, or at best improved the situation only temporarily. ft was the commercial interests of the rapidly expanding city which invariably took precedence over the voice of the minority concerned with the unhealthy environment which was being created. ft seemed that London was prepared to accept the state of affairs which existed until conditions became so chronic that they put an end to complacency. So the history of pollution control on the Thames was, until recently, one of cure rather than prevention based on forward planning.
The first crisis point was reached during the 1850's, and conditions became particularly bad during the long hot summer of 1856 which became notorious as 'The Year of the Great Stink'. This state resulted from sewage discharges into the Thames from the newly constructed sewer systems. Instead of being disposed of on the fields around London, as had mainly been the practice before, the effluent was deposited over the foreshore and into the river. The central reaches through London rapidly degenerated into an open sewer. The situation literally forced itself on the government of the day: disinfectant soaked sheets had to be hung at the windows of the Houses of Parliament to counteract the stench. Water intakes, which previously had supplied one third of London's needs, had to be sealed off or moved well above the polluted zone. The thriving Thames fishery was wiped out. Such conditions, and major outbreaks of water-borne disease such as cholera (14,000 people died in the epidemic of 1848/49), emphasized the need for action.
In 1857 a new organization, the Thames Conservancy, came into being vested with powers to prohibit pollution of the river. His jurisdiction, however, did not extend to the control of sewage disposal. It was thought that this facet of the problem was being effectively dealt with by the construction of new intercepting sewers north and south of the river to carry the effluent away from central London to large outfalls at Beckton and Crossness. This work, carried out by the Metropolitan Board of Works under the direction of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was largely completed in 1864. The project, which had cost in excess of £4 million and had at times employed over 6,000 men, was formally opened with much ceremony in April 1863 by HRH the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, before numerous State and Church dignitaries. The sewers, pumping stations and engineering works were constructed in classically ornate Victorian style, and much of the system is still in use, a tribute to the skill of the engineers of the day. Abbey Mills pumping station - still working to this day - is a magnificent example of their work.
In central London the success of the scheme was complete. The state of the river was improved to such an extent that the foul conditions of the 1850's have never returned to this day, and some fish were able to make a welcome, though short-lived, comeback. Down river in the vicinity of the new outfalls, however, all was far from well. At Barking there were numerous complaints about the unsatisfactory state of the river soon after the new outfalls had come into operation. An enquiry into the great loss of life sustained in the sinking of the pleasure boat Princess Alice in 1878 concluded that the deaths had been accelerated by the putrid state of the water off the Beckton outfall where the accident occurred. With the continuing spread of London it was not long before the major outfalls were within the boundaries of the metropolis, and soon they became greatly overloaded by a doubling of London's population to nearly five million between 1840 and 1880. As a result of a Royal Commission set up in 1882, new treatment methods were employed at Beckton and Crossness, involving the settling out of solid matter from the sewage effluent and its disposal at sea. But these actions did little more than put off to a later date the real solution of the problem.
The responsibility for the conservancy of the Thames was eventually transferred to the Port of London Authority on its formation in 1909. Further efforts were made to bring back life to what was rapidly becoming a totally dead river, including the introduction of new plant at Beckton which not only settled out the solid matter, but also treated the remaining fluids to obtain a cleaner discharge into the Thames. Despite such action the overall condition of the waters of the tidal Thames continued its downward trend. In the late 1940's, the situation was once again brought to crisis point by widespread damage to sewers and sewage works ..

More historical information on hygiene and the provision of water, using two extracts from
A Century of Science
F. Sherwood Taylor

The Century of Science pages 64 - 69    THE  WAR AGAINST DIRT

.. and between these streets lay miles of what cannot now be paralleled in the worst quarters of the worst city in England.

Let us take our stand in Holborn near the entrance of Gray's Inn. There is no great thoroughfare running direct from east to west. West of Lincoln's Inn Fields, Holborn disappears in a maze of mean sinuous lanes, and only at Oxford Circus do we emerge into a fine wood-paved street and, to use the favourite word of the period, a respectable quarter. New Oxford Street, Kingsway, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, Aldwych, and the Law Courts, were not yet in existence: from Lincoln's Inn Fields almost to Regent Street stretched a vast slum whose southern limit was the Strand. The condition of the other London slum-areas such as Bethnal Green, Bermondsey, and Lambeth, was perhaps a little fouler than that of this great mass, but it is of this that we can form the clearest picture. Around St. Giles's Church (near the intersection of the present New oxford Street and Charing Cross Road), was the centre, the quintessence of London's horror - the famous Rookery of St. Giles. In Tudor times it was a district on the outskirts of London, where thieves and outcasts clustered outside the jurisdiction either of the City or of Westminster; and it retained its character as a criminal resort till 1849 when at last it was pulled down.

A dense mass of houses, some ancient, some newer, but all dilapidated, covered the whole area. Narrow tortuous lanes stole among them, and from these opened hundreds of dark and filthy courts. Most of these had once contained a fair-sized open yard, but within the court itself new houses had been built, backing upon the others. Thus the court contracted to a dark and narrow passage lined with tumble down houses, none of which had any through ventilation. Some of the houses were three or four storied tenements, but others were cottages often of only two rooms with a crazy ladder for a stairway. The Old Curiosity Shop in Portsmouth Street off Lincoln's Inn Fields is perhaps the only survival of these buildings. Quaint enough it looks to-day, but such houses crammed together to form a filthy worm-eatenmass of stone and wood and plaster were a less pleasant sight. Every room -not excluding the cellars-- contained a family: some contained two or three. At this time not one workman in six had more than a single room for himself; his wife, and his children; while the destitute and criminal classes were crowded into even closer space. Windows were tiny; many had been bricked up to avoid the iniquitous window tax. Half the panes were broken; but the gaps were stuffed with straw, or rags, or paper, and could have admitted no fresh air, had there been any to admit. Doors were falling from their hinges; plaster was scaling from the walls. Unemployment and low wages had made about a tenth of the population into paupers, who gravitated to such districts as these - the last resorts of the criminal and destitute. Such was the poverty of the inhabitants that within the rookery itself shops were rare; for only a few rag-merchants and gin-sellers could gain a living from the staring population.

The surrounding districts of Holbon and Seven Dials stood higher in the scale, while the southern and eastern slums of Lambeth, Bermondsey, and Bethnal Green were inhabited for the most part by labourers who were in work; but of all alike could be told the same story of dilapidation, overcrowding and filth. The conditions in a town such as Manchester were in some respects worse. Most of the old London houses had once been decent dwellings, but the newly built hovels of the mushroom towns of lancashire were hardly adequate to exclude the weather. The walls were half-brick thick, the floors might be of earth; and of sanitation, in houses old or new, there was none.

The first requirements of sanitation are water for washing and cleaning, and sewers to remove dirty water and excreta The traditional sanitary system of country cottages had been a well or a stream water supply and a ditch for drainage. In 1840 the standard for the town dwellings of the poor was just about the same. In some parts of London there was no water supply it all, and the inhabitants bought what they needed at a halfpenny a pail. There were, however, eight London Water Companies, which supplied water of very varied quality. Most of it was unfiltered Thames water, in several cases pumped from a site opposite the opening of one of the sixty-four sewers which polluted that river. At this date some six hundred thousand people in London had no water supply to their houses. The companies erected a single standpipe in each court often inhabited by over a hundred persons. This standpipe had no tap, and water issued from it only when the turn cock admitted water to the street main, which was for half an hour or an hour a day; sometimes on alternate days and never on Sundays. An old woman would watch for the water, and, when it began to run, would call the inhabitants. who rushed out with - and filled the wooden butts or butter tubs which they kept in their houses. There were fights for precedence in the rougher courts. Needless to say the sick or feeble, and those whose business had taken them out of their homes, could obtain no water, and were forced to beg, buy, or steal it. And what water it was! A tumbler of it might contain twenty living creatures large enough to the eye to see as well as a host of microscopic organisms. Stored in open butts in foul unventilated rooms, such water soon became ill-odoured, which was perhaps a good thing, for it forced the Londoners to drink beer, which is sterilised by its mode of manufacture, instead of the diluted sewage which emerged from the stand-pipe. The same water was used first for washing children, then for washing clothes, and lastly for the floors. Only then could the filthy liquor be thrown out to swell the black and stinking stream which flowed along the gutter in the centre of the passage. In Bermondsey there was an incredible island where the houses were built on piles and the only water available was that dipped from the foul tidal ditches into which the household filth was cast. Large areas of London used shallow wells, which were apt to be grossly contaminated by seepage from cesspools, and by the carrion liquor which oozed from the crammed and ghastly burial grounds that infected the city's air. The shortage of water is indicated by the act that the total daily supply to the metropolis was about seven gallons per head, the greater part of which was used in the houses of the wealthy, in flushing sewers, and in the numerous breweries, tanneries, and factories. Small wonder that the houses of the poor were filthy. Many were, in fact, uncleanable; for the rotted wooden or earth floors passed insensibly into the dirt which covered them.

Personal cleanliness was of course almost impossible in such houses. Even in the middle classes it must have been uncommon, for the hot water system was unknown and fixed baths a rarity. These were, of course; unknown in working class houses. Public baths were erected from 1846 on, but attained no popularity until the nineties. Thus in the whole year 1850 the total number of public baths taken by the London populace was half a million - an average of one bath in five years for each person. The working classes were unable to bath; and many of them found it unnecessary to wash. Sweeps washed three times a year, and many of the poorer classes did not wash at all. Thus in gaining information for a parliamentary report a Lancashire collier was asked:

"How often do the drawers (those employed in drawing coals) wash their bodies?- None of the drawers ever wash their bodies. I never wash my body; I let my shirt rub the dirt off; my shirt will show that. I wash my neck and ears, and face, of course." "Do you think it usual for the young women (engaged in the colliery) to do the same as you do?-  I do not think it is usual for the lasses to wash their bodies; my sisters never wash themselves, and seeing is believing; they wash their faces, necks and ears."

"when a collier is in fall dress, he has white stockings and very tall shirt necks, very stiffly starched, and ruffles? -That is very sure, sir: but they never wash their bodies underneath; I know that; and their legs and bodies are as black as your hat."

The disposal of sewage was perhaps even more primitive than the water supply. In 1840 a fair number of middle class houses had water closets, but these were unknown to the working classes. In a few of the worst courts there was no sanitary provision of any kind, and every description of rubbish and ordure was thrown out into the court from which it was periodically removed by means of carts. Generally speaking however, there was one privy-midden to each court. This privymidden was a seat over a brick receptacle or pit into which house-hold ashes and rubbish were also thrown. The contents were removed at night by contractors. This duty was, however, commonly neglected, especially as in many towns the Service had to be paid for, and the privy often overflowed in a black and sullen stream down the yard or into a neighbouring ditch. The privy was often open to view and might be the sole sanitary recourse of as many as a hundred persons.

The conditions in middle class houses were superficially much better, but were actually productive of much ill-health. Water closets were very pleasant amenities, but their adoption meant that many gallons of water had daily to be carried off from the houses. Where there were no sewers - that is to say, in most of the streets - cesspools had to be made. In town houses without gardens the only place for them was under the basement floor. If they were in a porous soil their contents soaked away and fouled the numerous wells: if they were in impervious clay their contents had to be pumped out. At this period, Gracechurch Street in the city of London was inhabited by well off citizens. Every night they pumped up their sewage into the street, along which it flowed to the Thames, the ultimate repository of most of London's refuse and also the source of most of its drinking water.

No small addition to the filth was given by the slaughter-houses. Once a week thirty thousand sheep and oxen, which may be pictured as a procession four abreast, head to tail, and six miles long, were herded through London's streets to Smithfield, where they were sold. They were slaughtered in butchers shops all over the town. Many of the slaughter-houses were under-ground, inches deep in carrion, and without any drainage. Nobody cared, and only now and then, when decomposing blood flowed down the gutters, was any comment made.

A lurid light is thrown on to hygiene of the time by the official evidence on the condition of the town grave-yards. Their full horror cannot be set down here. So crammed were they with corpses that when the graves were dug the ground steamed like a dung hill, and the gases often overcame the grave-diggers. The level of these burial grounds had risen many feet and, when graves were dug, recognisable parts of bodies were thrown out, and had to be covered from the sight of mourners. Vault burial was very common. In Clement's lane - between the present Portugal Street and the Law Courts, near where King's College Hospital used to stand was Enon Chapel. The upper part was opened for public worship in 1823. Below it and separated only by a boarded floor; was a place of burial, and in this space, sixty feet by twenty nine in area and six feet deep, were buried 11,000 persons in seventeen years. Quicklime was used in quantity:

the coffins were in part at least disposed of as firewood for the minister's house. Small wonder that each Sunday members of the congregation were carried out fainting. Yet the evidence of witnesses shows that the horror felt by those who saw such things centred more on the desecration of the bodies than on the effects that might be felt by the living.

The town dwelling poor lived in conditions not only of unavoidable filth, but also of intense overcrowding. From the forties to the nineties it was not uncommon to find houses, the population of which averaged sir persons per room, including cellars. It was only the elite of the working classes who could house their families in more than a single room. Innumerable rooms were occupied by more than one family, and in some cases no less than four families occupied a room six feet square. The "rooms" were sometimes unworthy of that name. A medical officer may be allowed to describe conditions, which were perhaps a trifle worse than those in London.

I have seen a cellar dwelling in one of the most densely populated districts of Leeds in which there were dwelling seven persons, with one corner fenced off and a pig in it; a ridge of clay being placed round the fence to prevent the wet from the pigsty running all over the floor, and to this cellar there was no drainage.

Century of Science Pages 83 - 88 THE PROVISION OP WATER

The water pipes of a town have been compared to the arteries of the body, the sewers to its veins. The town can use as much water as its sewers will take away; so adequate sewerage at once made it easy to use water in quantity. The development of water supplies runs roughly to that of sewerage. The primitive system of supply was from wells, rivers, and streams and such supplies are satisfactory as long as they are kept free from human excreta. In large towns they were exceedingly dangerous, for town wells usually received polluted surface water and seepage from cesspools, while rivers and streams which entered the town dear and sparkling soon assumed the character of black and stinking sewers.

London's water was originally derived from shallow wells and the Thames. Neither of these sources can ever have been satisfactory, and the growth of the population contributed continually to the pollution of both. The New River Company at the beginning of the seventeenth century provided the first house supply; its water, brought from springs at Amwell in Herts, was of good quality. It was distributed through pipes made of hollow elm trunks, the rate of leakage from which was so great that the water could be supplied only at low pressure, and could not be carried up to a cistern. Other water companies soon came into being, and by the year 1840 eight of these were in operation, most of which supplied Thames water. Some companies let the grosser impurities settle out in reservoirs; others employed sand filters which must have been quite effective; others supplied unmodified Thames water, polluted by the sixty four sewers whose burden was carried up and down on the daily tide. As the iron industry expanded, it became able to produce iron mains cheaply, and these came into use between 1810 and 1820. At first no provision for expansion and contraction was made and the mains continually broke, and leaked hardly less extensively than the wooden trunks. later, however, expansion joints of a kind were devised, and water could then be supplied under pressure to cisterns in the upper parts of houses. This enabled such houses as had cisterns to enjoy a continuous internal Supply and so made feasible the installation of water-closets. The quantity of water available was still so small, the leak from the mains so considerable, and the poor so unused to handling a sanitary convenience as simple as a water tap, that it was quite impossible to give a continuous main supply. In nearly all streets the mains were turned on for only half an hour a day, during which time the cisterns of the houses were fined up and those who had no cisterns filled their waterbeds from the standpipes. Most of these cisterns were very large slate tanks often open to the contamination of dust and vermin, and they commonly contained a thick layer of sediment, deposited from the turbid water. The increased water supply of the eighteen forties probably did little to improve London's health. Some of its inhabitants became appreciably cleaner, but a supply of poison in the form of Thames water was brought to their homes. They could now have water-closets; but these created the need to dispose of many gallons of dilute sewage instead of a few pints Of concentrated excreta. A great many houses could not be connected to a sewer, and, as we have seen, London became increasingly honeycombed with large cesspools.

In the eighteen forties the idea of drinking undiluted Thames water became more repugnant, because the stench of the river became worse as London grew larger; and the water companies we gradually compelled to take water from higher up the river. Even then the consumers had the benefit of the sewage of such towns as oxford, Henley, Reading and Maidenhead, but this was a comparatively mild pollution. These improvements affected chiefly the better class districts. In 1850 there were some 80,000 houses and some 640,000 persons in London with no water supply whatever. These had to depend on shallow wells or on rain-water collected in butts, or the single stand-pipe erected in a court of houses. Yet the London working man was relatively fortunate in having, as a rule, some source of water fairly near at hand. Dwellers in country cottages commonly lacked either a piped supply or a well, and were forced to take most of their water from the nearest ditch. Where it is made difficult to obtain water, one may be sure that water will not be used. Here is an example dating from 1844:-

A man had to fetch water from one of the public pumps in Bath, the distance from his house being about a quarter of a mile.

"it is as valuable;" he said, "as strong beer. We can't use it for cooking, or anything of that sort, but only for drinking and tea."

"Then where do you get water for cooking and washing?"

"why, from the river. But it is muddy, and often smells bad, because all the filth is carried there."

"Do you then prefer to cook your victuals in water which is muddy and stinks to walking a quarter of a mile to fetch it from the pump?""We can't help ourselves, you know. We could not go all that way for it"

The witness continued:-

There are many gentlemen's houses in the same district in which the water is not fit for cooking; and I know that much privation and inconvenience is undergone to avoid the expense of water carriage. I hare often wondered to see the shifts which have been endured rather than be at the cost of an extra pail of water, of which the price was three half-pence. With the poor, far less obstacles are an absolute barrier, because no privation is felt by them so little as that of cleanliness. The propensity to dirtiness is so strong, the steps so few and easy, that nothing but the utmost facilities for water can act as a counterpoise; and such is the lore of uncleanliness, when once contracted that no habit, not even drunkenness. is so difficult to eradicate.

The inadequate supply to the poor may have been deplored, but the fact was that water was an article of commerce and the landlord would not lay it on unless he saw a return coming back in rent. Had water, like sewerage, been in the hands of the Government or a Metropolitan board, we may conjecture that London might have had an adequate and continuous supply as early as she had adequate sewerage, that is to say, about 1870

The pollution of the water was not regarded very seriously in the fifties. The London guide-books warned the stranger against the cistern water, and advised him to send to one of the well known springs or pumps (which were in fact very far from safe). Actually there were not many drinkers of water. It is stated that in 1836 seventy-six gallons of beer were brewed for every man, woman and child in the metropolis daily allowance of more than a pint and a half The comparable figures for London to-day are difficult to obtain, but for the whole country the consumption of beer per head is almost exactly a quarter of the above. Between 1852 and 1854 cholera was again prevalent in London. In the latter year occurred an important event in sanitary history, the first scientific demonstration of a connection between cholera and water supply. Before the year 1854 the medical profession believed that "impure water" was an undesirable beverage, but could not prove any certain connection between its use and any particular disease. They had indeed suspected a connection between cholera and water supplies, but it was not even an accepted hypothesis till this year, when Dr. John Snow published evidence which to us, to-day, seems to prove it to the hilt. His theory of the cause of cholera was the one we accept to-day, namely, that it is acquired by swallowing something (usually drinking water) contaminated by the excreta of a cholera patient. In 1854 there occurred in Broad Street, Golden Square, an epidemic of cholera which led to 500 deaths in the space of ten days. Snow proved that all who died in this outbreak were users of the water from the Broad Street pump. One old lady of Hampstead, convinced of the excellence of in water, sent daily to Broad Street for a supply --- and fell a victim to the epidemic. Snow reinforced his arguments by showing that more than half of the 563 people who died of cholera in the month ending August 5th, 1853, were consumers of the unfiltered Thames supplied by the Southwark and Vauxhall company and most of the rest were shipping folk who drew their water from the river. These acts might seem conclusive, yet it is most interesting to note that a another medical work (Reynold's System of Medicine, 1866) -twelve years later still regarded the connection between cholera and water as uncertain largely on the ground that "impure water alone will not cause cholera." Naturally the water companies resisted any change which might increase their expenses and the towns above London continued to pour unfiltered sewerage into the Thames. In 1866 another cholera epidemic alarmed the country, and only after this were the towns above London made to deal with their sewerage in some fashion, other than discharging it unfiltered into the Thames.

It would seem that after 1870 the quality of the London water supply was good, though the distribution of it to the poorer quarters was still very imperfect. In 1871 the Metropolis Water Act provided that the water supply should be everywhere continuous; but this was a pious aspiration, and, in fact, it was only in 1899 that the whole county of London received a continuous supply. In 1885 a single tap was often the sole supply for a whole tenement house. The use of water was, however, steadily increasing, for instead of the seven gallons a head of 1844 thirty one were supplied in 1893: to-day the figure is nearly forty gallons. It may be said that the turn of the century marked the date when all London had the possibility of being reasonably clean if it wished. One of the most conspicuous changes in the English crowd has followed from the increase in the water supply. The labourer is clean and shaven instead of grimy and bristling, and he no longer announces his status by his odour.

One may wonder why London's sewerage was properly established by 1870, while its water supply had to wait till 1899. The answer is that sewerage was a public service, and water was an article of commerce in the hands of companies. The companies were out to sell water not to supply it, and so it was only with difficulty that they were forced to supply it to the poor districts.

London was behind hand in this respect, for many great towns established a public municipal water supply between 1870 and 1875 London's remained in private hands until 1905, when the Metropolitan Water Board acquired the companies' holding for the enormous --- some have said exorbitant price of £47,000,000.

The best measure of the effect of these sanitary reforms is the London death rate. The figure stood fairly steady at round about 24 per 1,000 for the years 1847-1871, which date marks the completion of a reasonably good sewerage and water system. In 1873 the figure was 22.5, and in the last decade of the century it was 19.2 -a change representing a saving of the lives of nearly twenty thousand Londoners every year. This change was due mainly to improved sewerage and water: the further fall from 19 in 1900 to 11.8 in I939 is to be attributed partly to these same causes and partly to a gigantic improvement in housing conditions and medical services. The figure of 11.8 is by no means the best possible, as is shown by the fact that in some parts of London e.g. Finsbury and Chelsea, the death rates are near 13, while in others such as Hampstead or Wandsworth, they are not much above 10, while some large towns, such as Wolverhampton, also have death rates in the neighbour hood of 10 per thousand.


While Southwood Smith, Chadwick, Simon, and others were trying to make England see and abhor its dirt, and were becoming heartily disliked for their pains, a similar movement was going on within the medical profession itself At this time those who had to do with the sick were satisfied with no more, and often very much less - than the common household standard of cleanliness. There was no scientific justification for supposing a connection between disease and dirt, and it is not surprising that only a small minority of the profession attributed the plagues of hospital practice to uncleanliness.

Until the eighteen seventies any person with an open wound was at less likely to recover in hospital than out of it A surgical operation, a war wound, a street accident, the injury of tissues which must often occur in childbirth, all were apt to lead to the same fate. The patient would seem well for a time, then would come a shivering fit, then high fever; and after hours or days, death from what may broadly be called "blood poisoning." The condition is described in the works of the time as pyaemia, or in its wont forms as hospital gangrene. Sometimes a surgical or lying in ward would remain fairly free of these troubles for months together, but then would be suddenly invaded by them; their prevalence is indicated by the fact that Lister himself, before he adopted the antiseptic method, had 43 per cent. of deaths in amputation mesa This figure included good and bad periods: when there was an epidemic of hospital gangrene the mortality .