The East London cathedral that was a Blitz beacon, played an asylum in 'Batman Begins', and is full of sewage...
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.