Crossness, Bexley

Now an outpost of Thamesmead, this was an isolated spot when Victorian engineers chose it as the site for one of their famously grand public engin­eering projects

Hard-hatted visitors inspect the Prince Consort engine at Crossness

Hard-​​hatted visitors inspect the Prince Consort engine on Open House weekend, 2005

Sewage pollution had become a serious health hazard in London by the early 19th century and the ‘great stink’ of 1858 finally persuaded parliament to act. Joseph Bazalgette and his colleagues devised and built a network of sewers that carried the city’s waste water to two huge pumping and filtration stations on either side of the Thames, east of the metro­politan conurbation.

At the northern tip of the Erith marshes, the four massive engines of Crossness pumped effluent into a reservoir that held 25 million gallons. Opened by Prince Albert in 1865, the building was designed in ornate Romanesque style in gault brick, ornamented inside with painted ironwork.

The old engines were decom­mis­sioned at the end of the 1950s and the machinery fell victim to rust and vandalism. Its deteri­oration continued until the estab­lishment of the Crossness Engines Trust in 1985.

A team of volunteers progressively restored the old machinery and began to show the results to the public in 2001, with an accom­panying exhibition on the history of sanitation, housed in the only grade I-​​listed industrial building in south-​​east London.

Funding from a number of sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, has recently enabled the Crossness Trust to embark on a programme of further improvements that will include structural repairs, enhanced visitor facilities and a new access road. During these works the site is closed to the public except on occasional Sundays. The project should be completed sometime in 2013. See the trust’s website for the latest information on forth­coming ‘public steaming days’.

Thames Water now uses modern technology elsewhere on the site, which it continues to expand. As with all waste water plants there are problems with bad odours and hundreds of sprays have been mounted around the works to squirt perfume into the air on hot days.

The surrounding marshland is a 50-​​acre wetland nature reserve and Thames Water has made use of redundant concrete pilings to create an artificial cliff with nesting ledges for birds and a bat cave behind.

Postcode area: Erith, DA18
Website: Crossness Engines Trust

 

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