As with another recent industrial heritage project on gas works, I was drawn by the interplay of light, in this case both natural and artificial, with the metalwork and grease of the the massive engines. The magnificence of these engines and the beauty of their design and detail are a remarkable record of the importance given to the role of technology in improving lives in Victorian times – there is nothing mundane or utilitarian about them.
At Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester which, so far, forms the majority of this portfolio, the four massive beam engines built by Gimson and Company were originally built in 1891 for the purpose of pumping sewage, were used until 1964 when electric pumps started to take over their duties and it finally closed soon after as a pumping station. The collection of four working beam engines ‘in-situ’ make this a rather unique museum. Similarly, the Brede Pumping Station in East Sussex records the story of water supply for the town of Hastings and surrounding area from the steam days of 1904.
These buildings were not built as public buildings and for decades few saw the design and detail that went into their construction. In particular, Pappelwick Pumping Station, near Nottingham, has a wonderful symmetry to its design, a symmetry that repeats over the three levels of the engine house and even into the more utilitarian boiler house with its six symmetrically arranged coal boilers. Walking around the engine rooms at these pumping station gives a real sense of both the scale of the engines and the generations of workers who looked after them – a battered oil can or set of tools left lying as if they had just left for a tea break.