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Located at the northern tip of the Erith marshes, Crossness is now an outpost of Thamesmead but this was an isolated spot when Victorian engineers chose it as the site for one of their famously grand public engineering projects. Sewage pollution had become a serious health hazard in London by the early nineteenth century and the ‘great stink’ of 1858 finally persuaded parliament to act. Joseph Bazalgette and his colleagues devised and built a network of sewers that carried the city’s wastewater to two huge pumping and filtration stations on either side of the Thames, east of the metropolitan conurbation. At Crossness four massive engines pumped effluent into a reservoir that held 25 million gallons. Opened by Prince Albert in 1865, the building was designed in ornate Romanesque style in gault brick, ornamented inside with painted ironwork. The old engines were decommissioned at the end of the 1950s and Thames Water now uses modern technology elsewhere on the site. As with all wastewater plants there are problems with bad odours and hundreds of sprays have been mounted around the works to squirt perfume into the air on hot days. The Victorian machinery had meanwhile fallen victim to rust and vandalism until the establishment of the Crossness Engine Trust in 1985. The team of volunteers has progressively restored the old machinery and began to show the results to the public in 2001, with an accompanying exhibition on the history of sanitation, housed in the only grade I listed industrial building in south-east London. The surrounding marshland is a 50-acre wetland nature reserve and Thames Water has made use of redundant concrete pilings to create an artificial cliff with nesting ledges for birds and a bat cave behind. In November 2008 Crossness was awarded £1.5 million in lottery funding, to assist in the restoration of the beam engine house and boiler room, which had both been on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register. Further works will include a café, car park, access road, education room and archive, bringing the total cost for the project to nearly £4m. Meanwhile, Thames Water is expanding its modern sewage treatment works at Crossness.

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Hard-hatted visitors inspect the Prince Consort engine on Open House weekend, 2005

Postcode area: Erith, DA18

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

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