As one rattles across the Thames in to Victoria station an elegant building appears on the Chelsea Embankment on one’s left. It’s a building on three storeys (including a lovely copper mansard roof), the walls punctuated with huge windows facing across the river, and with what seems to be a campanile just behind it.
Who could possibly have commissioned a Venetian palazzo for London? And who might live in a house like this?
But – and you knew this already of course – it isn’t any sort of residence but a Victorian sleight of architectural hand, an industrial building disguised and beautified (see also Stoke Newington’s ‘castle’). This is the Western Pumping Station, part of Bazalgette’s sewer system and designed to pump, er, waste through the pipes that run parallel to the river along to the treatment works at Abbey Mills. (The sewers were designed to use gravity, but the gradient along the river is not enough to sustain the flow. The Western Pumping Station ‘lifts’ the waste 18’ (about 5m) to increase the slope through the centre of town.)
It is still operational, although these days with diesel engines rather than the steam pumps that were originally used (these diesels are themselves now vintage, as they were installed in 1936).
Built in 1875 it cost (according to the 1878 ‘Old and New London’) ‘about’ £183,000. The ‘campanile’ was the chimney for the coal-powered boilers, but is now simply for ventilation. This is 272’ (83m) tall, and has an internal cantilevered stone staircase meaning that one could climb to the top and look over the river at Battersea Power Station, or across the grounds of Wren’s Chelsea Hospital, or back to Victoria and Belgravia. One can but dream.