Hydraulic power in London

 

[Source: Andy Emmerson]

 

WHAT'S LEFT TO SEE
Not a lot is the simple answer. The Grade II*-listed Wapping Hydraulic Power Station on Wapping Wall has been transformed into a successful cultural amenity that has attracted international interest and has been compared favourably with the nearby Tate Modern. It was opened in October 2000 and belongs to the Women’s Playhouse Trust. It was built by the London Hydraulic Power Company in 1892 to supply hydraulic power for lifts and industrial uses and finally closed in 1976. When first built, the pumping station was steam driven. Two electric turbine pumps were added in 1923 and the whole station was modernised and converted to electricity in the 1950s. When the power station finally closed it was said to be the last of its kind in the world. The London Docklands Development Corporation was unable to find a suitable use that retained the original pumping equipment until the building’s purchase in 1998 by the Women’s Playhouse Trust. It now houses a restaurant, bar and exhibition space, enriching this formerly overlooked part of London.

Typical accumulator tower for storing hydraulic power. This one is close to the Royal Mint where the LTS railway line from Fenchurch Street crosses Mansell Street. The faded lettering on the side of the tower proclaims 'London Midland & Scottish Railway City Goods Station and Bonded Stores'. Photo taken in April 1975.

Can you spot the characteristic accumulator tower in the background? This is Wilson Street warehouse, seen from Finsbury Avenue. Photo taken in April 1976.

Over the years GLIAS, the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society, has done a grand job recording hydraulic installations. A search of their website will bring up useful data.

Two installations that survived into the 1970s were lifts. At Union Bank Chambers, 61 Carey Street, WC2, the main passenger lift operated on a hydraulic ram, with electric press-button control. With passengers aboard the lift car traveled at normal speed but when called from rest, the ram propelled the car at a truly unnerving rate of knots. The Grosvenor Hotel, adjoining Victoria station, had a service lift of a very antique character. It still used rope control (you pulled up or down on the rope to start the lift and held it to stop). It operated at two speeds, depending on your pull. There was no self-levelling at each floor but auto-stop trips at the top and bottom of the shaft prevented over-run. Electrical interlocks had been retro-fitted to the lift car's doors. After the LHP Company went out of business, the system was converted to oil, using an electrically driven compressor. Whether these two installations survive is unclear.

REAL HISTORY
Mr Charles Keeble writes:

The reason that I am writing to you is that at one time when I lived in London, I worked for LHP at 80 Grosvenor Road, Pimlico, where one of the pumping stations stood at the rear of the workshops. The workshops were on two floors; the machine shop was in the basement to road level, which turned the rams and cylinders, and the top shop we used for the building of lift cars.

I started working there in 1961 till 1968 and I was 17 years old at that time. I started as a turner improver and progressed to fabricator welder.

I worked on the Tower Subway at Tower Hill, where I fitted a new chequer plate floor. I did not know at that time the history of the subway until I got on to your website.

I also was on mains call out and when we had a leak, nine times out of ten it would blow up the road. Then I would get all my cutting gear ready to go out to cut out the section of pipe. Sometimes they would put steel plates over the hole to keep the traffic moving, while I was underneath cutting out the pipe.

Front view of the LHP Company's premises in Grosvenor Road, Pimlico in the mid-1960s.

The premises at 80 Grosvenor Road went under the name of HYPOWER. When I left in 1968, we were making hydraulic rams for the main shield for the Victoria Line for the section between Brixton to Victoria. which was started in Bessborough Gardens on the north side of Vauxhall Bridge. Where a 100ft hole was dug to go under the river to Brixton and Victoria, it now remains as a vent.

ESSENTIAL READING

  • Jarvis, Adrian: Hydraulic Machines. Shire Publications, 1985. Low-cost photo album with very good text.
  • Pugh, B.: The Hydraulic Age. Mechanical Engineering Publications, 1980. Historical survey.
  • McNeil, Ian: Hydraulic Power. Longman, 1972. Volume in the highly respected Longman Industrial Archaeological Series.
  • There is also a paper by Ralph Turvey, 'London Lifts and Hydraulic Power' in Newcomen Society Transactions, Vol 65, 1993-94, 147-164, which is in part a history of the LHPCo, and includes a comprehensive bibliography.
  • The Science Museum Library also has a map of LHPC pumping stations and mains, published by the Company in c1950, and there is an article by Tim Smith, 'Hydraulic power in the Port of London', published in Industrial Archaeology Review, Vol 14, no. 1, Autumn 1991, 64-88.
    Thanks to John Liffen of the Science Museum for assistance with this list.

FURTHER RESOURCES ON THE WWW

 

[Source: Andy Emmerson]

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Last updated: 04 01 2011
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