"Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen"
Benjamin Disraeli, British politician and stateman

The East London cathedral that was a Blitz beacon, played an asylum in 'Batman Begins', and is full of sewage...
posted by Richard Green on 20/05/2019

The Abbey Mills pumping station, aka the Cathedral of Sewage. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Walk onto Three Mills Green in Bromley-by-Bow, glance across the grass, and you'll see an ornate building with oriental-looking dome on the top. It might look like a Russian Orthodox church outside of Omsk, or a fine art museum near Novosibirsk, but actually it's a Victorian sewage pumping station in East London. 

The Abbey Mills pumping station takes its name from water mills that belonged to Stratford's Langthorne Abbey - a Cistercian monastery founded in 1134 - but everyone knows it locally as the 'Cathedral of Sewage'.

From the Greenway - a walking/cycling route atop the Northern Outfall Sewer. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's a masterpiece of Victorian public works engin­eering, and was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as part of his grand plan to alleviate pollution in the River Thames. The filthy river caused many outbreaks of typhoid and cholera - one such outbreak caused 10,000 deaths in 1853. It was thought these deaths were caused by a 'miasma', or bad air, and so Londoners continued to drink from their polluted river and wells.

Things came to a head during the Great Stink of July and August 1858, when unusually warm summer and an extremely polluted Thames conspired to cause a stink so bad that the curtains of the Houses of Parliament windows were doused in deodorising chlorine and lime. 

The Cathedral of Sewage beyond Three Mills Green. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It wasn't only raw sewage being dumped into the river, but also water waste from breweries, paper mills, and abattoirs. The wisdom of the day was that as the river flows to the sea then the sewage would end up there too. But London is a tidal river and high tides pushed sewage back upstream and even up outflow pipes. This was an especially difficult problem for parts of the river's south bank from Rotherhithe and Lambeth, that were several feet below sea level and who's sewers stopped discharging into the Thames, and instead at high tide (and several hours around it) suffered horribly from pipes backing up with effluent.  

William Heath's 'Monster Soup' (1828) and the horrors in a drop of Thames water

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1858 M.P.'s were seen scuttling around the Houses of Parliament holding handkerchiefs to their noses, and the library became a no-go area. The brilliant chemist and physicist Michael Faraday - read about his London Lighthouse on My Bathroom Wall - sent a letter to the Times entitled 'Observations on the Filth of the Thames', and become a rallying point for the need for something to be done. 

There had been lesser stinks before, most notably in 1855, but the M.Ps were newly accommodated in their recently rebuilt Palace of Westminster,and their proximity to the fermenting sewage in the Thames proved their wake up call. Despite many member's of Parliament holding their noses at the expense and complexity, the fearful stench lead to swift action - with an act of Parliament was drawn up, debated and passed in just 18 days. 

The pumps raised the waste water 12 metres at the site so that it could continue it's (otherwise) gravity driven flow from north London towards the filter-​​beds at Beckton. The steam-powered engines were replaced by electricity-driven ones in the 50's and the station was in use until 1998, when a new zinc-​​coated station located just south of the 'cathedral' took the up strain. 

Dr Zhivago meets a sewage pumping station in E15. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

A pair of 65m chimneys once flanked the building, but these were demolished during the Second World War as it's said that Luftwaffe pilots were using them as beacons to guide them towards London's East End docks. This is possibly apocryphal though, as the main reason for raising the towers was that since the station had switched over to electricity they were redundant, and it was feared that a bombed chimney could well fall onto and destroy the rest of the station.  

Sketch from the Illustrated London News showing the original ornate chimneys. 

Adding strange credence to the jokey cathedral moniker, is the fact that the pumping station was given so many ecclesiastical echoes. The whole plot is designed in the form of a Greek Cross, often seen in church construction, plus the central dome is octagonal and churchy.  

It's unsurprising that the Gothic exteriors and interiors of the original pumping station have appeared in many TV shows and films. It was the 'Arkham Asylum' in the 2005 film Batman Begins and appeared in Franklyn (2008), and in the A-ha 2006 video of Cosy Prisons, and in Coldplay's 2009 Lovers in Japan. And it's due to make an appearance in the upcoming 'After Frankenstein' film, currently in pre-production.

From sewage pump to Frankenstein's castle. Photo 'After Frankenstein'

Joseph Bazalgette was elected as Chief Engineer to London's metropolitan board of works from its founding in 1856. And he was certainly the right man for the job. His bold solution was to construct miles of new sewers, and using pumping stations to get the sewage from west London to Beckton and Crossness in east London, so it could be flushed into the Thames at the ebb tide twice daily, and float away from the city and into the sea.

The best views of the station are from the adjacent Greenway - which is also a remnant of Bazalgette's plans. It's the Northern Outfall Sewer that he built to transport waste water from North London over the the East End. And although you might not think it, when you are strolling along either the Albert or Victoria Embankments in central London, you are actually walking over another legacy of Bazalgette's solution to the Great Stink. He built these new river banks to get rid of the tidal mud and to run conceal new sewage pipes built inside them.

A 1920s view of Victoria Embankment. Photo Leonard Bentley

Bazalgette’s ingenious system has served London well for 150 years, but in that time the city's population has more than quadrupled and the network of sewage pipes and tunnels is under strain. So a 25 kilometre long Super Sewer is under construction that will run from West London's Acton storm tanks to Abbey Mills, where it will connect to the Lee Tunnel and emerge at the Beckton Treatment Works. 

Incidentally, sewers don't smell as rank as you may think - as 98% of the material running through the sewers (including run-off rainwater) is liquid. So compost-like is a more accurate description. The men who work in the sewers are still known by their Victorian name of 'flushers'. And most of London's fibreoptic cables for broadband and telecoms have been laid inside the sewers, with the actual cables being too large for the rat population to chew through. 

It's surprising enough to realise there is such a stunning building that is just a large sewage pump, but in fact there are others. Most interesting to visitors is the so called 'Cistern Chapel'; the pumping station built on the south bank of the Thames at Crossness. The spectacularly ornate and colourful interiors have been renovated, and the building is now a museum. See www.crossness.org.uk

The Crossness pumping station, now a museum. Photo Flickr/ Steve James

One more thing...the nearest train station is Abbey Road on the DLR, which opened in 2011, just before the 2012 Olympics came to what is now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Many unsuspecting tourists find their way to the station in the mistaken belief that it's where the Beatles were snapped for their album cover marching over the pedestrian crossing outside the Abbey Road recording studios. The good people at London's DLR have put a humorous poster on the platform to explain the mistake and direct people to Abbey Road on the Jubilee Line. 

The cathedral of sewage with the Greenwich Prime Meridian laser behind. Photo Gordon Joy/Flickr


The Abbey Road DLR (Docklands Light Railway) station is a five minute walk from the Abbey Mills pumping station, which is best viewed from the raised Greenway path - actually the mound conceals the large sewage pipes bringing outflow from North London. Alternatively, Stratford is on the Central and Jubilee tube lines, from where the station is about a 25 minute walk, or one stop to the Abbey Road DLR. 


Thames Water have offered guided tours of the building, or Open House London sees 700 buildings opened to the public over a weekend in September. The building is popular, so it's essential to book well in advance. 

Minnie Landsbury, Angela Lansbury, and the Bow suffragettes
posted by Richard Green on 27/01/2018

The Minnie Landsbury Memorial clock on the side of Electric House, 65 Bow Road. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I'd walked past the Minnie Lansbury Memorial clock (1) hundreds of times without noticing it, until on a recent stroll the sun caught its green and gold, and I looked up. Absent-mindedly, I wondered if it was connected to Angela Lansbury the actor, but I read the plaque below it and looked online, and discovered that Minnie Lansbury was effectively killed by the state in 1921, and that Bow was an unlikely centre of the suffragette's 'Votes for Women' movement.

It turns out that there were fracas, marches and arrests all around its streets, and that windows were smashed by women outside my barbers, mounted police charged a protest at nearby Tomlins Grove (2), and Minnie is a relative of the Angela Lansbury, who helped pay for the clock's restoration.

Minnie Lansbury receiving glad-handing encouragement on her way to arrested in 1921

Drive east along the A11 and Bow is the area just before the desperately ugly Bow Flyover, which is pretty much on the site of the original bow-shaped bridge that gave the area its name. But thanks to slum clearance in the 1930s, the Blitz a decade later, and then the community-cleaving four-lane A12 'motoway' built in the 60s, and many an historic site - and even whole streets - have disappeared.

I've lived in the locale for over a decade now, but just of late I've realised that all is not lost.

Just beyond the memorial clock and still on Bow Road is Bromley Public Hall (3), an Italianate grey-stone building where the suffragettes were banned after their increasingy disruptive protests - and where Sylvia Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) once hid behind in a stable before being spirited away in a large sack on a cart.

Their campaign of civil disobediance saw women (and some male supporters) roughed up and arrested. Their actions included repeatedly ringing the doorbell of No. 10 Downing Street, attacking golf club greens, setting fire to churches, and on the 1st of March 1912, 150 women produced hammers from their handbags for a synchronised window smash in London's West End. Some 124 of them were arrested. They also shut the National Gallery for two weeks, after Mary Richardson slashed Velazquez's famous Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver.

Angela Lansbury in the 1971 film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and at an award ceremony in 2017

The plan was not to threaten human life, but some of the arson was risky, and planting two bombs at the home of the Chanceller of the Exchequer - David Lloyd George - especially so. Most infamous of all the actions was when Emily Davidson threw herself in front of the King's horse in the 1913 Epsom Derby. Her death, and the shocking pictures of it gave the cause a martyr that galvanised opinion.

It wasn't all destruction though - the area was littered with suffragette efforts to improve the lives of ordinary women. At 198 Bow Road (4), now a post war block of flats, Sylvia Pankhurst opened the first East London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union, which then relocated to 321 Roman Road, where they ran a market stall and produced the Women's Dreadnaught newspaper. The Roman Road street market Tuesday-Thursday, and on Saturdays, is still going strong.

One street north of the Roman Road is the Old Ford Road. The suffragettes bought the Gunmaker's Arms at number 438 (5). Sadly no longer there, they renamed it the Mother's Arms, set up a nursery, baby clinic and Montessori school. Sylvia Pankhurst lived at number 400 (6) for more than 10 years (now demolished), and close by at number 45 Norman Grove (7), which is now a residence, was a toy factory and nursery.

Bromley High Street C1960s, and today. C. Selby & Son had its windows smashed by the Suffragettes

I should of course have wondered if Minnie Lansbury was related to George Lansbury; the former local MP, Labour leader (1932-1935) and votes for women supporter. He lived on the Bow Road at number 39 (8), long since demolished, but where there is a smell memorial to him. He was Minnie's father-in-law and Angela's grandfather, because Minnie married his son Edgar. George Lansbury was by far the most well known male supporter of women's suffrage, and according to AJP Tatlor, 'the most loveable figure in British politics'.

Crimes committed locally saw the suffragettes detained in Bow police station at 111 Bow Road (9), built in 1903 and closed in 2013. From here they were taken to serve their sentences in Holloway Prison. The state was brutal in intimidating, manhandling, and force-feeding the women, many of whom were arrested repeatedly and refused food in protest at not being given political prisoner status.

The current C Selby & Son (116 Bow Road), and Bromley Public Hall next door. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Minnie Lansbury came from a Polish Jewish family who fled Russian-backed anti semitic pogroms, and was born in Stepney in East London. She began teaching at a primary school in 1911, joined the trade union movement, and supported the priciple of equal pay for women. She was arrested in 1921, along with 29 other Poplar councillers, for not passing on rate rises as decreed by parliament, and sent to Holloway prison for six weeks. The conditions were terrible and led to Minnie getting a bad cold, and then pneumonia, from which she died of six weeks after her release at the age of just 32.

Her memorial clock is a stone's throw from one of the suffragettes many stone-throwing incidents. Just around the corner on the drab spur of Bromley High Street (10) is where Sylvia Pankhurst spiced up her protest speech by hurling a brick through the windows of C. Selby & Son Funeral Directors (11). It's still a going concern and is now around the corner at 116 Bow Road.

Votes for women march passing the Bow Bus Garage (still in use) on Fairfield Road

The clock was erected in the 1930s and restored in 2008, with donations from far and wide, including from the Dame Angela Lansbury, who described Minnie as 'a heroine and inspiration'.

February 6th 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act that broke the dam and gave the vote to some women over 30, though full women's suffrage wasn't achieved until 1928. So the vote is won and the slums of the East End are gone, but now I'm a little enlightened about the bravery and industry of the areas suffragettes, the Minnie Lansbury Memorial clock always catches my eye.



Bow Road tube and DLR stations are just a short walk from all of the sites mentioned. Many busses ply the busy Bow Road from Central London or Stratford, and the number eight bus usefully runs from Tottenham Court Road (via Liverpool Street Station) to the Roman Road. See TFL for details.

35 For some super context on the suffragette struggle, the Museum of London is running a 'Votes for Women Centenary' exhibition until 6th January 2019. For events at the UK parliament, see www.parliament.uk/vote100. Also there is a Women of the World Festival at the South Bank Centre from March 7-11 2018. And if you ever happen to be in Manchester - birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst, be sure to visit the excellent People's History Museum.

After working in South Africa, Gandhi left India just once, for a three-month stay in Bromley-by-Bow...
posted by Richard Green on 10/08/2017

Gandhi being mobbed by cheering supporters in Canning Town, 1931

Of all the boroughs in all the world, Gandhi chose to stay in Bromley-by-Bow for 12 weeks when he visited for the London Conference in 1931. Long before the area to the north hosted to the 2012 Olympic Games, and before the Kray twins opened their infamous 'Double R Club at 145 Bow Road, the bane of the British Raj would rise early onto his west-facing roof terrace and stroll along the canal.

The outside of Kingsley Hall as it is today. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The round table talks in London were convened to discuss constitutional reforms in what was then British India, but Gandhi missed the first talks as he'd been imprisoned by the Raj authorities, owing to the Civil Disobedience that he fostered. However, in March 1931 Viceroy Irwin met Gandhi and agreed that he could take part in the second Round Table Conference if he halted the civil disobedience, to be held in London from 7 September to 1 December 1931. To ease the way the British freed 19,000 Congress members from prison and returned confiscated property.

Despite his fame and status as the Indian National Congress party leader he chose not to stay in the posh West End hotel offered to him by the British government. Instead - and displaying deft political antenna - he chose to stay among London's poorest people, in Bromley-by-Bow, and took up an invitation from Muriel Lister to stay at Kingsley Hall. He said that was 'doing the real round table work, getting to know the people of England'. 

Muriel Lister cheerily explains where Gandhi will stay during his time in London

While the press was dismissive, Pathe patronising, and Churchill downright rude, locals took Gandhi to their hearts and kids soon fell into calling him ' Uncle Gandhi'. In this rough and poor industrial area in the heart of the East End, his slight frame in sandals and wearing only a lion cloth, became a familiar figure, as he took time to mix with locals and took an early morning constitutional along the nearby canal. 

Kingsley Hall is on tiny Powis Road in Bromley-by-Bow and was founded in 1915 by Muriel Lester (she was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) and her sister Doris. These pacifist and feminist sisters converted a small chapel into a community bulwark against grinding poverty with the help of their shipping magnate father Henry and their brother Kingsley's inheritance. They helped the local poor and gave shelter to the suffragettes (the east London H.Q. of her Women's Social and Political Union was nearby on the Bow Road), and helped to feed and water the 1936 Jarrow Marchers.

This Blue Plaque was unveiled in 1954 to commemorate Gandhi's stay at Kingsley Hall. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The stone laying ceremony for the current hall was attended by Sibil Thorndike (who Bernard Shaw wrote Joan especially for) and John Galsworthy (author of the Forsyte Saga) and it was opened in 1928.

Lylie Valentine became a worker in the nursery and in her pamphlet: Two Sisters and the Cockney Kids, tells of Gandhi’s 12-week East End sujorn. "....besides doing his work with the Government, he spent a lot of time with us. He visited the Nursery School and all the children called him Uncle Gandhi. At six o'clock each morning, after his prayers, he took his walk along the canal, talking to workmen on the way.... There was something about him that always lives with the people."

Gandhi posing with local children and Labour Party leader George Landsbury inside Kingsley Hall, 1931

It's nice to think of Gandhi wandering along the local canal. If he strolled five minutes east from Kingsley Hall he'd have come to the mill complex, or if northeast he'd have passed more factories in the area that's now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The Lea Navigation, as the local canal is known, is a river that's been much altered by the need for waterborne transport during the Industrial Revolution and meets the River Thames at Trinity Buoy Wharf - read about it on My Bathroom Wall.

Sadly the hall had fallen into disrepair by the time its modern day savour appeared on the scene. This was in 1980 when Sir Richard Attenburgh was scouting for authentic locations to use in his epic film, Gandhi, and thanks to his support the hall was renovated and re-opened in 1985.

Kingsley Hall in 2017 preparing for a Bengali wedding, and in 1931 with Gandhi and local pearly luminaries

The hall was later used by the Philadelphia Association, which was formed in 1965 by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D.Laing and colleagues. This controversial group believed in metanoia (self-healing) and though they eschewed most medication, they did occasional use small doses of LSD as therapy. The 2017 film 'Mad to be normal' follows Laing and his patients during their time based at Kingsley Hall. 

These days Kingsley Hall is used as a wedding venue, and many community groups meet there. There is also a simple cafe that opens on Tuesdays.

Back in 1931 unrest continued to grip India during the conference, which wasn't helped by the then Labour government fell two weeks before the start of the meetings. The conference achieved little and Gandhi and other Congress leaders were arrested on their return to India. 

Alas the tree that Gandhi is seen here planting was destroyed during the Blitz

One more thing....If Gandhi felt pekish for a 'Ruby Murray' - Cockney rhyming slang for a curry - he didn't have far to go. In fact Britain's love affair with Indian cuisine began long before Gandhi's visit, and long before his fist stay in the city as a student in 1888 even.

It's thought that the first time curry appeared on the menu was at the Norris Street Coffee House on London's Haymarket in 1773, which even then offered to “at the shortest notice (send) ready dressed curry and rice, also India pilaws, to any part of the town.” And then the first place owned and run by an Indian was the Hindoostane Coffee House, set up by Sake Dean Mahomed in 1810 on Marylebone's George Street, which according to the original Epicure's Almanack of 1815 - London's first restaurant guide - was decorated with 'Chinese pictures and other Asiatic embellishments, representing views in India, oriental sports, and groups of natives decorated the walls'.

The oldest surviving Indian restaurant is Veeraswamy (99-101 Regent Street, London). It was founded by a retired Indian Army officer called Edward Palmer in 1926, himself the grandson of an English general and an Indian princess. He'd been promoting Indian food since 1896 and was called in as an advisor by the Indian government to the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park, and was a hit with British visitors serving 500 curries a day. The Regent Street restaurant was and is high end, and in 1936 published recipe's in its Indian Cookery for Use in All Countries.  It now has been given a Michelin Star in its 2017 guide.

It is even possible that the tradition of drinking lager with a curry is related to Prince Axel of Denmark's visit to the Veeraswamy-connected Indian restaurant at the British Empire Exhibition on 2 May 1924. He enjoyed his meal enough to later visited the Regent Street restaurant, when he was supposed to have brought a barrel of his native Carlsberg with him. He sent a barrel of Carlsberg to the restaurant for years thereafter, which proved popular enough for the restaurant to start importing Carlsberg itself, and when its waiters moved on to other Indian restaurants, they started serving Carlsberg as well.


Kingsley Hall is five minutes walk from Bromley-by-Bow tube station on the District and Hammersmith & City Lines. Also see the Gandhi Foundation, and the House Mill

A stroll along East London's Lee Navigation; for history, hipsterdom, and London's only lighthouse...
posted by Richard Green on 09/04/2017

London's only lighthouse - formerly for training lighhouse keepers, and HQ for Faraday. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The River Lee is the easternmost major tributary of the London's River Thames. It flows from the Chiltern Hills down through east London to where it joins the River Thames opposite from the O2 Arena - the vast canvas structure formerly known as the Millennium Dome.

The Lee is little known by visitors to London, and frankly most Londonder's are fuzzy on it too, but a walk along its banks is a brilliant way to discover a uniquely historic and rejuvenated part of the capital. And never fear - as this is no dry history walk, as there are cosy cafes, hipster bars, pop-up restaurants, and a flourishing sports and arts scene to dicover along its banks.

A metal tree growing out of a taxi is one of many pieces of public art at Trinity Buoy Wharf. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Let's start at a once forlorn industrial area at the Lee's mouth - the fascinating Trinity Buoy Wharf. It was opened in 1863 and was where the buoys used to assist shipping navigate the River Thames were maintained and stored. Now the wharf a thriving arts quarter, with buildings used by English National Opera, the Royal Drawing School, The Faraday School and the university of East London.

The wharf area is cut off on three sides by water, and the main road leading to it doesn't look at all promising, but the start is marked by a taxi pierced by a tree, after which the sprouting of graffiti art and installations let you know you are heading in the right direction.

Ten minutes later and you'll find yourself walking amongst a jumble of heritage buildings, with an office block made from jauntily arranges shipping containers set back from the water, several vintage lighthouse ships, and an actual lighthouse.

Perhaps London's smallest museum - the Faraday Effect is an evocation of the spirit of Faraday. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Next door is a shed-sized art installation called the Faraday Effect, dedicated to Michael Faraday. This whirlwind of a man discovered electromagnetic induction, which is the principle behind the electric transformer and generator. He was the scientific advisor to Trinity House and conducted his experiments in the roof adjacent to the test lighthouse here for nigh on thirty years.

On the other side of the Lighthouse is Fat Boy's Diner, where you can get reasonably priced American fare served in a red and silver period trailer. There are burgers, hot dogs, wraps salads and milkshakes and milkshakes - the original 6oz burger with fries is £7.50. The other eatery at the wharf is the Bow Creek Cafe, which has created a cosy collection of wooden furniture with a small outside space too. It serves home made snacks and sandwiches, but unfortunately, like the American diner too, it hasn't an alcohol licence.

Half way up the lighthouse is the unexpected surprise of a large wood-beamed room to the side, containing a carefully placed array of Tibetan singing bowls that together form a soundscape and installation called the Longplayer. The project provides a soothing backdrop to your visit to the lighthouse and is envisaged to play for a thousand years. It began playing at midnight on the millennial New Year's Eve in 1999, so you've plenty of time to see and hear it for yourself.

Carry on up the modest staircase for outstanding views of the Thames and across to the Greenwich Peninsula - dominated by the white dome and latticed yellow spikes of the O2 Arena.

View from the lighhouse across the Thames to the O2 Arena. Photo My Bathroom Wall


Trinity Buoy Wharf is on the north bank of the River Thames in East London, a 15-minute walk from Canning Town tube station. Exit the tube station and walk over the red footbridge to London City Island - walk through the development and follow the signs. See Trinity Buoy Wharf and Visit Lee Valley

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