Battersea Power Station, Pimlico Gardens, The Tyburn And Vauxhall Bridge

Battersea Power Station is one of London’s most well known industrial landmarks. The first phase of the power station was completed in 1933 and the station finally stopped generating electricity in 1983.

Since then, the majority of the building has been left a shell, preserved due to being a grade 2 listed building and the subject of various schemes for rebuilding and regeneration of the area.

My father took the following photo of the power station from the north bank of the Thames, in the very early 1950’s when three-quarters of the building was complete.

Battersea 2

When the photo was taken, the power station only had three chimneys. Power stations are frequently built using a modular approach so that the site can start generating electricity as soon as possible and capacity added when there is sufficient demand and an economic justification. This approach was used in the 1930’s and continues to this day.

Battersea “A”, the first phase of the power station consisted of the right hand side of the building as seen from the north bank. Construction of this part of the building started in 1929 and the station was operational soon after the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott brick exterior work was finished in 1933.

Battersea “B”, the left side of the building commenced in 1944 with the fourth chimney completed in 1955 when the power station reached the configuration that was to last until closure.

There have been many failed scheme to reconstruct the building since closure, however work finally started last year, so before there was too much change, last summer I took a walk along the north bank of the Thames to take some photos from the same position as my father’s original.

Battersea 1

There is about 62 years between the two photos and although the power station is now only a shell of the original, the overall impression of the site is of very little change in the intervening years. The first crane has arrived on site and the very early stages of work has commenced on the building.  The site will soon change dramatically.

The gas holder in the background in both the original and later photos is nearly 300 feet high and 180 feet across and could hold seven million cubic feet of gas.

I recently found another photo my father took, probably on the same day. This was at the very end of a strip of negatives and has some damage to the edge which caused a problem with scanning but I finally managed to scan the following:

Battersea 12

This photo was taken from the north end of Chelsea Bridge and very clearly shows the three chimneys, with a crane at the far corner, probably engaged in the construction of the remaining part of Battersea “B”.

This year, I took the following from the same position as my father’s original photo, which also shows how work has rapidly increased since the summer of last year.

Battersea 11

Following publication of this post, I received the following from Adrian Prockter who runs the “knowyourlondon” blog:

“Only three chimneys were required because there were only three boilers underneath. The fourth chimney was added purely for decoration and, probably more importantly, to provide an even weight distribution for the building. Because it is built on clay, a symmetrical shape will provide an even pressure across the foundations”

Which answers why in all the photos I have seen of Battersea in operation, I have not seen one with smoke from the fourth chimney.

Battersea power Station is now a major construction site. One of the first major changes being the removal of the chimney on the corner of the building to the right of the photo. The level of corrosion and cracking on the original chimneys was such that they were considered unsafe without major work. Apparently the only way to deal with this was to dismantle the original chimneys and then rebuild to the same designs. Unfortunately when the building is complete they will not be the original chimneys, but at least the overall appearance of the building with a chimney at each corner will be the same.

Battersea Power Station was photographed from the air by Aerofilms during the period the building evolved from the initial configuration with two chimneys through to the final four chimneys. The following photo was taken in 1946 and clearly shows the three chimneys in operation with a space in the lower quarter where the final generating unit and chimney would soon be added to complete the building.

EAW001432

This Aerofilms image taken in 1952 shows the main building nearing completion with only the fourth chimney to be added. My father’s photo’s would have been taken at around the same time.

EAW048057

I have no idea whether there is any truth in this, but one of the stories my father told me as a child was that when construction of the building was on-going during the 1930s and tensions with Germany were on the rise, there were rumours in London that the chimneys were actually very large guns. The fact that the chimneys point straight up so would not have been very effective as guns does not seen to have been considered. No idea whether this is true, but a nice story.

The following photo is of the cranes on the edge of the river that were used to unload coal from barges on the river to conveyor belts that moved the coal to storage areas ready to be burnt.

As well as above ground storage, the power station also had a sunken storage area adjacent to the river. This was almost 200 yards long and was able to store 75,000 tons of coal.

The cranes ran on rails and could move along the river edge to the location of the waiting barge. The current cranes are from the 1950s, replacing the original cranes from the 1930s. These cranes are also grade 2 listed and will be retained.

Battersea 3

As well as the external appearance, Battersea Power Station had a number of other very unique features.

The power station had a gas-washing plant. This was able to remove more than 90 per cent of the sulphur in the smoke emitted during operation. The plumes of smoke were white rather than the very dark smoke from other earlier power stations. A very key benefit given the problems that London was experiencing at the time with air pollution.

Another unique feature of the power station improved the living conditions of people on the north bank of the river. The Churchill Gardens housing estate is opposite the power station and is heated by the power station. The Pimlico District Heating Undertaking implemented a system whereby exhaust steam from two turbines in the power station was used to heat water to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It was then pumped under the river to a storage system on the north bank where it heated water in the residential supply before being circulated back to the power station. For the time, a very unique combined heat and power system.

The weather when I took my first Battersea photo last summer was excellent so a walk back along the north bank of the river into central London was a very easy decision. There are a number of interesting locations along the short stretch to Vauxhall Bridge.

The first is the lovely Pimlico Gardens between the Grosvenor Road and the river.

Battersea 6

At one end of the gardens is a statue to William Huskisson, a member for parliament but unfortunately also one of the first to be killed in a railway accident.

From “The Face of London” by Harold Clunn:

“Huskisson was killed by a locomotive at the ceremonial opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830. The procession of trains had left Liverpool, and at Parkside, the engines stopped for water. Contrary to instructions, the travellers left the carriages and stood upon the permanent way. Huskisson wanted to speak to the Duke of Wellington, and at that moment several engines were seen approaching along the rails between which he was standing. Everybody else made for the carriages, but Huskisson, who was slightly lame, fell back on the rails in front of the locomotive Dart, which ran over his leg; he was carried to hospital, where he died the same evening.”

After such a terrible end, Huskisson now quietly watches over Pimlico Gardens:

Battersea 7

Pimlico’s river front was not always so calm. From “The Trip down the Thames by the Victoria Steamboat Association’s Steamers, 1893”:

“Pimlico, once noted for its public gardens. Among them was ‘Jenny’s Whim’ a summer resort of the lower classes, where duck hunting, bull-baiting and al fresco dancing were the order of the day”

A short distance on, the River Tyburn reaches the Thames as recorded by the following plaque on the Thames Path which records the route of the river:

Battersea 13

If we walk on a short distance and walk along Vauxhall Bridge, and providing the tide is low, the Tyburn outflow tunnel is very visible:

Battersea 8

From Vauxhall Bridge we can also look back at the sweep of the river and the power station. This will look very different in a few years time. The south bank of the river from the end of Vauxhall Bridge to Battersea Power Station is currently under a frenzy of building with the new American Embassy and a large number of flats / apartment buildings all of which are probably outside the financial reach of the majority of Londoners.

Battersea 9

The first Vauxhall Bridge was built in 1811-16. The current bridge was opened in 1906 and the most interesting features of the bridge are not visible when crossing over the river. The following photo shows the eastern side of the bridge. Above each of the granite piers is a colossal bronze statue, four on each side of the bridge. The statues were by Alfred Drury and F.W. Pomeroy and are of draped women representing the Arts and Sciences. They were added to the bridge in 1907.

Battersea 10

On the eastern, downstream side of the bridge are Drury’s statues representing Science, Fine Arts, Local Government and Education:

east side statues

On the western, upstream side of the bridge are Pomeroy’s statues representing Agriculture, Architecture, Engineering and Pottery:

west side statues

Each statue weighs roughly two tons and as can be seen from the above photos are very detailed. It is a shame that these probably go unnoticed by the majority of people travelling across and around Vauxhall Bridge.

The sources I used to research this post are:

  • Arthur Mee’s London (A complete record of London as it was before the bombing) published in 1960
  • The Face of London by Harold Clunn 1970 reprint
  • Lure and Lore of London’s River by A.G. Linney

alondoninheritance.com

16 thoughts on “Battersea Power Station, Pimlico Gardens, The Tyburn And Vauxhall Bridge

  1. HJ

    This post had so many pieces of information that I didn’t know: that power stations are built in a modular fashion depending on demand, that smoke was washed, and that the heat was made use of. I knew about William Huskisson’s death, but I hadn’t realised that there was a statue of him. (What is he wearing under his toga? Boots?)

    And somehow I had never realised that there are statues on Vauxhall Bridge! My excuse is that I was almost always driving when I went anywhere near it, and the traffic systems around either end of the bridge require full concentration on the road.

    I love mention of London’s lost rivers, too.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      The statue of William Huskisson is very classical. Not sure he looked like that in real life. Some artistic interpretation used I suspect!

      Reply
  2. Jan

    Hi David, another great article, well done, and very close to my heart. My Maternal Grandfather was an electrician and based at Battersea for a while. Somewhere I have a photo of him standing on one of the old metal mesh balconies inside. He had a very close shave on one occasion, nearly sustaining a very large surge of electricity through him, only avoided by wearing some fortuitous footwear. He also had a hand in some of the iconic adverts at Piccadilly Circus such as the Wrigleys, Bovril and Coca Cola signs. When I see pictures of the old Battersea (4 chimneys stage) it always makes me think of my Grandfather. It’s a good thing that the developments will keep the ‘flavour’ of the old Station, but unfortunate that a lot won’t be original. Although I admire some of the newer buildings that have sprung up, such as The Gherkin (but not so much The Walkie Talkie or The Cheesegrater) I’m glad I’m old enough to have memories of the old riverside views before all the developments had taken place. I think a lot of character has been lost over the last 30 or 40 years. But I suppose people will be saying the same thing in another 50 years about todays skyline. It’s the memories and feelings you grow up with isn’t it!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks Jan. I agree with your comments about the last 30 and 40 years and newer buildings. I do find that much new development lacks any character and could as well be from any city. Many recent developments are also too big and not on a scale appropriate with their surroundings. Interesting about your Grandfather. Battersea was considered very advanced so it must have been a great place to work.

      Reply
  3. Ros

    Agree about the pleasure gained from all the information you transmit. I always learn! Thanks for this and all your other carefully researched posts.

    Reply
  4. Ray

    A really interesting post. The strip of land that stretches from Vauxhall Bridge to Queenstown Road is undergoing some profound changes at the moment with the new American Embassy and a huge development project aimed at the Far East Financial Market. It probably bodes ill for the people who live on the nearby council estates.
    One small point. The coal would have been delivered to the power station not by barges but rather by what were known as “flatirons” , purpose built colliers that brought coal from the North East and by means of lowered funnels and masts, very little superstructure and a wheelhouse that folded down, could navigate under the bridges to deliver to the upriver power stations and gas works. The flatirons where a common sight on the river when I started in the late 50s early 60s and continued to trade into the 70s. I think that Fulham was the furthest up that the flaties could get and above that the coal was carried by barge even as far as Kingston Power Station.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Ray, thanks for pointing that out about the “flatirons”. That makes sense as to get up to Battersea they would have needed to pass under a number of bridges once past Tower Bridge. I assume it was also a matter of using the tides so that they could pass under the bridges at lower water to give the maximum clearance. Agree about the strip of land, there is a large amount of building between Vauxhall Bridge and Battersea and I suspect that the majority will be way out the price range of the majority of Londoners.

      Reply
  5. Pimlico Pete

    There was space at the power station pier for two colliers. If a third arrived it would tie up to the buoys off the Pimlico side of the river, sometimes overnight. It was fun to get a close up view of the boats this way, and to wonder how the crew amused themselves while waiting to move over to the Nine Elms side.

    A factory-type siren used to sound at 8am, 12 noon, 1pm and 4.30pm (I hope I have got those times right). I always assumed this was for workers in the power station. But it could have been coming from, for example, the Farmiloe paint factory next door.

    Good to know that the chimney smoke had been washed. When the wind was in the wrong direction, combined with rain to drive to smoke down to ground level, the smell suggested further washing would have benefitted those living nearby.

    The London Metropolitan Archive has a photo set from 1870 showing both sides of the river at that point. On the site of the power station was the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, originally taking a local feed from the Thames (with all that implies) and pumping it to customers as far away as Brixton. The photos show the standpipes, steam generator building and pump building. After 1855 the water had by law to come from much further upstream, but the filtration beds and pumps continued to operate at Nine Elms. The power station was constructed where the filtration beds once stood.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Pimlico Pete, thanks, that is really interesting. I did not know that the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company was originally on the site of the power station. I can imagine that would not be an ideal location, with the rising tide bringing in water from the industrial areas further downstream. I will look out for the photo set at the LMA.

      Reply
      1. Pimlico Pete

        I looked up the catalogue number for the LMA set:

        SC/GL/PHO/B/W2/GRO/M0058098CL

        It’s a pity these photos from 1870 aren’t online. With the current commercial and social interest in Battersea Power Station they deserve wider viewing.

        On the Pimlico side of the river the photos show the Thames Bank Distillery of Octavius Smith. It was really quite an industrial area in the 19th century with timber wharves, a white lead (oil-based paint) manufacturer, Bramah’s steel works and assorted small docks constructed as inlets.

        The OS map for 1895 shows a mix of industrial and terraced residential developments in Pimlico, and on the Nine Elms side we see the site which became the power station. If I’m permitted to post a link to the map hosted by the National Library of Scotland, here it is:

        http://maps.nls.uk/view/101202192

        Happy map reading!

        When searching other older maps of the area watch out for a mis-labelling of Thames Bank Distillery. It is shown incorrectly as Millbank Distillery on several such maps. That one was actually further downstream near Lambeth Bridge.

        Reply
        1. admin Post author

          Thanks for the catalogue number at the LMA. I will take a look next time I am there. The OS map is really good. The future site of the power station where the filtering beds are shown is clear. I suspect that as one of the few sites with a single parcel of land this was the only choice, with the rest of the land adjacent to the river occupied by many different buildings, landowners etc. You are right about the industrialisation of the Pimlico side of the river. I think that was the same for much of the river as it provided an ideal transport method, supply of water and waste disposal.

          Reply
  6. Pimlico Pete

    A minor memory of Pimlico Gardens: in 1968, the Sunday afternoon TV show “Nice Time” with Kenny Everett and others publicised an after-the-show fun event taking place in the gardens. I turned up with no idea what to expect. Sure enough a team appeared and organised assorted garden party type activities with modest prizes. The events weren’t recorded, it was detached from the TV programme itself.

    I wish I could remember more about that but I do recall being disappointed that “Ev” himself wasn’t there.

    I’m really not sure why an (apparently) Granada TV show would organise social stuff in London. Maybe versions of the programme in other ITV regions held parallel events. Oh, and we’re also told elsewhere that the show’s producer was John Birt.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Agree that seems a strange location for a Granada programme and not a very obvious location in London. Most times I have been to Pimlico Gardens they are very quiet. Understand the disapointment that “Ev” was not there. That must have been soon after his pirate radio days in the North Sea.

      Reply
  7. Paul C

    If you look across The Thames from Battersea Park near the Chelsea Bridge end you will also see the exit point of the River Westbourne on the northern embankment.

    A new book is out on Battersea Powerstation called Up In Smoke by Peter Watts telling the sorry tale of BPS and its eventual destiny to become Apple HQ and affordable housing.

    Reply

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