This is a rather delayed account of an expedition to the outer fringes of Thamesmead (what was once Erith Marshes) last October. It’s the location of the Southern Outfall where the accumulated sewage of South London was discharged into the Thames. In 1865 the Crossness Engines were installed to pump the faecal matter from the holding reservoir into the waters of the river in the final stage of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s scheme to supply Londoners with unpolluted drinking water and relocate the stench of the city to a place of safety underneath the streets in a network of sewers.
In the great British tradition of rescuing the past from oblivion, the volunteers of the Crossness Engines Trust have done a brilliant job of restoring one of the four steam powered beam engines to working order and every few months the public are admitted to see this engineering marvel at work. When it was built the Victorian civic pride in engineering achievements was expressed via the extraordinary assemblage of decorative, multi-coloured wrought-ironwork. The desire to impress encompassed the most basic and unglamorous projects.
The true splendour of this place is to be found in the Engine House containing 4 beam engines, one of which has been restored to working order. The Engine House interior is a marvel of theatrical presentation. Entrance is via a central cast iron Octagon supported by maroon painted columns with stencilled arches. Above there are balustrades, richly embellished with lozenges of writhing plant forms, acanthus leaves, cast iron flower heads, floral stencilling and the ornamental crest of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Immense care has been taken throughout to ensure that the stonework, brickwork and paint finishes are as close as possible to the original condition to comply with its Grade I listed status. An upper level gives access to the main beams. The three unrestored beam engines have been out of action since 1956 although plans exist to rebuild one of them. The metal floor was perforated to allow excess heat from the engines below to rise up to the ventilation shafts. Opening days in 2014 can be seen by following this link.