Heritage and Landscape

The Architecture of Steam

The Architecture of Steam: Waterworks and the Victorian Sanitary Crisis by James Douet weaves for the first time architectural and social history with industrial and engineering progress to show how waterworks pulled nineteenth-century towns back from the Sanitary Crisis that menaced civilized urban life. To celebrate this new Historic England publication, the author has put together a selection of buildings featured in the book chronicling the history of waterworks in England.

This new publication from Liverpool University Press and Historic England looks beyond architectural styles and fashions to explain the choices made by the men who designed stream-powered pumping stations for water and sewage. Interestingly, these were only occasionally architects. Victorian water engineers were apprenticed to older men, often their own fathers, picking up the knowledge that they needed as they went along – surveying, hydraulic engineering, soil mechanics, steam engine operation, project management and construction, as well as, evidently, architectural styling.  

They worked within one overwhelmingly tangible constraint, the size and operation of the steam engine and its boilers, and one much more psychological one, the growing sense of a sanitary crisis in the towns and cities being transformed, from the end of the eighteenth century by the dramatic processes of industrialisation. Until the 1860s, steam engines had to be constrained and supported by their engine house. Later engines were independent, and freed from any structural role waterworks displayed increasingly civic rather than industrial characteristics as their role in saving urban communities from the Victorian Sanitary Crisis became explicit in their architecture.

The first dedicated designs for steam waterworks pumped from a tributary of the River Thames in East London, and was erected between 1817 and 1826. The three austere but elegant Georgian engine houses were influenced by the great warehouses of the London docks where their designer had trained. When complete, Old Ford formed possibly the largest concentration of steam power in the country.

Old Ford waterworks (demolished). Courtesy of Thames Water

As steam-powered water supply was adopted in other towns, engineers tried out different formats for the engines and architectural solutions for the waterworks. At Kew Bridge in West London, where the Grand Junction water company moved in search of cleaner water from the Thames further upstream, all four engines were enclosed in a single building but one which looked reassuringly domestic, as if it were a parsonage. The beam engine, built in 1838, is still running on live steam in what is today the London Museum of Water and Steam.

Kew Bridge pumping station, with the 1848 addition behind. Courtesy of the Historic England Archive

The influence of Edinburgh and the Scottish Enlightenment shines out of the innovative Perth waterworks, built in 1832. Engine house, cistern, and even the chimney fitted the academic designer’s Grecian concept. The beam engines were a new compact format, held within a frame of iron columns, while the remarkable water tank, from a Dundee foundry, has been claimed as the earliest cast-iron architectural façade in the world.

Perth pumping station. Courtesy of Undiscovered Scotland

By the 1850s, the then-fashionable Italianate style began to be accepted as the idiomatic architecture for waterworks, in time recognisable all over the world. It made its appearance in 1848 at Kew Bridge beside the first engine house. The difference is scale as well as style, showing how beam engines were growing bigger as well as more powerful. Twenty-first-century water pumping stations continue to deploy these same architectural elements – though usually stripped back – as signs to indicate that they are providing clean and wholesome water.

Everton pumping station in Liverpool (1857), the engine houses, cistern and campanile chimney in the fashionable Italianate style. Creative Commons

Steam engines were first used as part of a sewage drainage scheme in 1860. Four massive pumping stations formed the essential elements in the Main Drainage plan to intercept Londoners’ waste before it reached the Thames and lift it so it could drain under gravity beyond the metropolis and out to sea. For the first time, an architect was commissioned to build a pumping station, the two biggest being the work of a railway station designer called Charles Driver and his experience is evident in the lively and colourful pumping stations at Crossness, south of the river, and Abbey Mills on the north side. The the two chimneys which were both demolished during the Second World War were at either end of the range of boilers, while each of the wings of the cross-shaped engine house with the tall lantern contained two massive beam engines, making eight in all.

Abbey Mills sewage pumping station. Courtesy of the Historic England Archive

The association between water supply as a lever for civic improvements and the architecture of the pumping station is particularly explicit in Birmingham. The city adopted a ‘civic gospel’ of municipal interventions to improve the conditions of the populace which supported remarkable waterworks along with public schools, libraries, baths and town hall. The two Gothic engine houses beside the railway line out of Birmingham were designed by architects closely implicated with the civic gospel, Martin and Chamberlain.

The two engine houses at Whitacre (1871-84). Courtesy of the Historic England Archive

The final period during which waterworks were used as a public statement of health, sanitation and well-being opened with the last phase in the development of reciprocating steam engines. Vertical triple expansion engines used the steam three times at successively lower pressures, the cylinders mounted in a frame and coupled directly to pumps below the floor. Freed from any structural role, engine houses became yet more expressive and varied.

The East London Water Company employed a local architect to develop a company style, which was a late version of Queen Anne or Old English, as at Ponder’s End and several other waterworks along the Lee Valley. 

Ponder’s End, London (1898). Courtesy of Thames Water

With the invention at the beginning of the twentieth century of more compact diesel engines and then submersible electric pumps, the steam waterworks entered its last decades. Some of the most magnificent pumping stations were built by London’s Metropolitan Water Board following the municipalisation of the private London companies in 1903. A good example is the George V pumping station, which bears a close resemblance to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s orangery in Kensington Palace.

George V (1913). Courtesy of the Historic England Archive

Steam waterworks were obsolete by the 1930s, and the last finished operation in the 1950s. Steam engines were cut up and scrapped, and many fine buildings ended up in a pile of rubble. This included Elkesley in Lincolnshire, which was regrettably demolished before the possibilities for a second life could be considered.

Elkesley opened in 1911 and was demolished in 1979. Courtesy of the Historic England Archive

Most of the surviving historic pumping stations were listed by English Heritage in the 1990s, and many have been recycled to take advantage of their attractiveness and interesting spaces: Ponders End as a pub, Perth an art gallery, Everton in progress of being converted to an event space. Many more are on still-active sites, Victorian wells and boreholes continuing to provide water even though the waterworks at the surface are no longer operational. A number are open as heritage attractions and can be visited by the public including The London Museum of Water and Steam, Papplewick Pumping Station in Nottinghamshire, and The Waterworks Museum in Hereford.

The Architecture of Steam chronicles the rise and eclipse of this unique British building, and celebrates how Victorian water engineers stepped up to the impact of industrialisation.

Find out more about James Douet’s new publication and other books published in partnership with Historic England on the Liverpool University Press website.


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