The reason some of London’s sewer and utility buildings are built like palaces

When you think of London’s most notable buildings, sewers aren’t the first things that come to mind. But one look at the pumping stations at Abbey Mills or Crossness with their grand arched arches and ornate painted ironwork, and you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they were Gothic palaces.

Many utilitarian works, whether still in use or having been reassigned to other uses, are not housed in huge concrete caissons, but often in spectacular buildings that are very pleasant to look at. But what was the point of spending so much money to make these structures look so pretty when they literally house poo inside?

The lavish interior of Abbey Mills

The still-working Abbey Mills Pumping Station in Newham, also known as the ‘Sewage Cathedral’, is ornate by any standard and some of the features can be seen in one of the Queen’s many palaces .

Built in 1868, the incredible building is one of the key elements of a Victorian sewage system that saved the city from wallowing in its own filth and likely saved thousands of lives.

In the 19th century, despite Britain’s great wealth, cities like London were totally unsuited to the huge populations that inhabited them. Cesspools that stored sewage from huddled populations often overflowed to the River Thames, the city’s main source of drinking water.

The ornate gates leading to Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery were commonplace, and after the “great stench” of 1858 it was decided something had to be done. They turned to Enfield-born engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

The system he envisioned was split in two, north and south of the river. The aim was to bring all of London’s sewage to the east of the city, store it in vast reservoirs before discharging it into the river at high tide.

Although gravity did much of the work in moving the capital’s sewage to the east, a little help was needed in places. This is where the Abbey Mills pumping station came in, pumping waste from two lower level sewers to the main north outflow sewer which ran to Beckton.

It may seem overkill to have such an ornate building that just pumps out sewage, but it served a practical purpose. Most of the infrastructure is underground. Bazalgette had little to show his wealthy investors where their fortunes had been spent.

The extravagant building at Abbey Mills and the similar one at Crossness in Erith could be on display.

The Victorians were lovers of grand construction, especially when it came to public works, so it’s no surprise that much of what they built has survived.

The impressive Thames Water site building on Lea Bridge Road

For example, the Engineers Office at the Thames Water site on Lea Bridge Road. With impressive timbers and hanging tiles, the building wouldn’t look bad on a country estate.

It was built in this previously dark corner of town in 1890 with its very future up for grabs. A local campaign hopes to turn the larger site into a public park with a swimming area as well.

Londoners have a great love for their industrial heritage, which has led to the repurposing of many beloved buildings. The large gasworks that dominate the canal near Kings Cross now contain apartments selling for £1m each and a similar development is planned for the former gasometers at Bethnal Green.

Bethnal Green Gasworks
One of the oldest gasometers is the second oldest in the world, according to Historic England

How the Victorians had enough money to build such beautiful structures is a story for another day, including empire and cheap labor. But in any case, it is thanks to them that we have some of the most beautiful treatment plants in the world.

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Marjorie N. McClure