Hydraulic power in London


[Source: Andy Emmerson]

As a subject hydraulic power might not seem to have much connection with subterranea - until you realise that the high pressure mains ran below ground. This is an 'entry level' guide to the subject, with links to a number of other websites.

The secret of the utility of the hydraulic mains lies in the fact that water is virtually incompressible, and is therefore an ideal agent for transmitting power from one place to another. In London, water power was transmitted through a vast network of hydraulic mains to thousands of hotels, shops, offices, mansion blocks, hotels, docks and factories. Hydraulic power played an important part in the operations of lifts and cranes, but there were many other purposes for which the great pressure of the water was and still is used in industry.

Water power in London was controlled by the London Hydraulic Power Company, incorporated by Acts of Parliament between 1871 and 1903. Until it closed in 1977, the company supplied water at a pressure of 700 lb. per sq. in., day and night, all the year round, through some 150 (180 before the war) miles of cast-iron and steel hydraulic mains laid under the streets of London. This great labyrinth of power lines was not built in weeks or months, and the gradual spread of the silent tubes went on for more than half a century. The number of gallons of water pumped each week through the company's mains in 1893 was 6,500,000; water pumped through the mains in 1933 averaged 32,000,000 gallons weekly. The mains were carried across the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Southwark Bridge. They cross under the river through Rotherhithe Tunnel and the Tower Subway beneath the Pool of London.

Before the LHP Company reached its zenith many dock and railway undertakings in London generated their own hydraulic power, using steam pumping engines and conspicuous 'accumulator' towers for storing this energy. A few such towers can still be seen, such as one close to the north end of Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge itself was operated by hydraulic power and the huge steam engines can still be seen in its engine room, now a museum.

Once the London Hydraulic Power Company's mains spread out, covering much of London, and provided reliable service most users abandoned their own generators. Since the demise of the LHP Company the wheel has turned full circle, forcing users to install their own plant or convert to electric motors.

Applications for the enormous power of the hydraulic ram were manifold; it was used for cranes and lifts and could also be applied in presses for forging, stamping or flanging. At one time hundreds of such presses were in use throughout warehouses for baling cloth and paper, and for compressing scrap metal and other materials to facilitate transport.


The Wharves and Warehouses Steam Power and Hydraulic Pressure Company was formed in 1871 to operate in London's Docklands. In 1884 this became the London Hydraulic Power Company, providing hydraulic power over a wide area for the operation of lifts, cranes, presses and similar equipment. Central pumping plants supplied high pressure water to a pipe network, which was extended progressively up to the outbreak of war in 1939. For many years, up to the general adoption of small electric motors, hydraulic power was the simplest and most reliable means of operating a wide range of plant and machinery: at its peak, the Company was pumping more than 1.6 billion gallons of water annually at 700lb per square inch, supplying more than 8,000 machines. Wartime bomb damage, and the departure of many manufacturing firms from Central London, led to a decline in the Company's activities postwar and despite a programme of electrification, pumping ceased in 1977. Control of the Company was acquired in 1981 by a group led by Rothschilds, which recognised the importance of the pipe network for the coming generation of communications systems. The network of 150 miles of pipes, ducts and conduits was sold in 1985 to Mercury Communications Ltd, now owned by Cable & Wireless Ltd, and since that time many miles of optical fibre cable have been laid in this network.

Replacing LHP Co. hydraulic mains in Piccadilly around 1930. The original cast-iron pipes with oval flange spigot and faucet joints are being removed and replaced with new steel pipes using Victaulic joints. Mercury Communications press photo.

Most of the pipes run just below the streets, although an important linking main ran through the old Tower Subway beneath the Thames (just west of Tower Bridge). Hydraulic power raised the curtain at the Royal Opera House, rotated the turntable at the Coliseum, raised lifts at the Bank of England (and thousands of other offices and flats) and opened dock gates on the Thames. In its heyday the company's hundreds of workers pushed out up to 30 million gallons a week at 850 pounds per square inch from its six pumping stations. Then everyone from hotels, gasworks and rail depots to the Tate Gallery, Tower Bridge and West End theatres used the system wherever lifting power was needed.

Soon before the redundant piece of Victorian high technology was bought by a business consortium for £1.2 million, the company's managing director, Albert Heron, who had been working for the company since 1935, was in command of just half a dozen staff, who carried out maintenance on the pipes, ranging in diameter from 2 inches to l0 inches. He told a reporter: "'The cast-iron pipes are in excellent condition. The six-inch pipes are one inch thick"

The system covers an area from Kensington in the west to the East End docklands. Five pumping stations at Wapping, Bankside, Pimlico, City Road and East India Dock were closed, the sixth at Rotherhithe acting as the LHP Co. headquarters.

"All the machinery went for scrap, no one took any notice when we advertised it for sale," said Mr. Heron. "Now a lot of industrial archeologists are crying crocodile tears." The system's death knell was sounded in the 1950s when the Port of London Authority and the Gas Board turned to other methods and the big rail depots moved from central London. "Now it's like waiting for a rebirth," said Mr. Heron. "I'm looking forward to business bucking up again." [Adapted from The Free Weekender, 25th September 1981]

Engine room of the LHP Co. Grosvenor Road pumping station in Pimlico. The photo was taken in 1910, when the station was almost complete. The triple expansion steam engines drive high-pressure pumps. Mercury Communications press photo.


For further information about hydraulic power in London click here

[Source: Andy Emmerson]

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Last updated: 16 06 2015
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