Category Archives: London Infrastructure

Walking the New River – Ware to Cheshunt

I have written about New River Head in a previous post, as well as a number of posts about how water has been key in the development of Clerkenwell and parts of Islington.

New River Head was the point where water delivered by the New River was collected and treated, then sent on through an extensive pipe network to London consumers from the east end to Soho and the west end.

The New River was built in the early 17th century, opening in 1613. A very innovative and complex bit of civil engineering for the time as it transported water from springs near Ware in Hertfordshire all the way to New River Head. Helping to transform London’s water supplies, that had depended on water from the Thames along with small local wells and springs, to a constant, high volume supply of clean water.

What is remarkable is that this 400 year old artificial river is still in use, and for the same purpose. Today, the New River provides around 8%, or 220 million litres a day, of London’s water, so if you live in London, there is a good chance that you have drank or showered in water that has reached you via the New River.

The New River no longer runs to New River Head. It terminates at the east and west reservoirs around Woodberry Wetlands, just south of the Seven Sisters Road.

Starting in 1992, Thames Water created a New River Walk that follows the 28 miles from the source to New River Head. 25 miles follow the river from source to the reservoirs, and a further 3 miles makes up a heritage walk that follows the original route of the New River through to New River Head.

I have long wanted to walk the route from the source of the New River, and a few weekends ago, had the opportunity to spend a weekend walking the New River with a small group from Clerkenwell and Islington Guides and the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, who will be moving into the historic buildings at New River Head.

My post on New River Head and London’s Water Industry covers the history of the New River, so I will not focus on this aspect in this post, however before starting the walk, a quick look at why a former army officer from Bath, Edmund Colthurst, who had served in Ireland, in 1602 proposed a scheme to bring in water from Hertfordshire springs to a site to the north of the city.

The following map is a heat map (from the excellent topographic-map.com) showing the height of the land around the town of Ware. Blue the lowest, through green, red and to the highest land shown as white:

Walking the New River

I have circled the source of the New River. It is here where the New River draws water from the River Lee, and where the Chadwell Springs rise and feed the river. The Chadwell Springs were the original source, with the link to the River Lee added later when more water was required to support London’s growing population.

As can be seen in the map, the source is in a low lying area, there are multiple streams running through the area as well as the River Lee which follows the low lying land to the lower right of the map.

The surrounding land rises, and water collects in the area, providing a significant source for the river.

The Chadwell Spring is the original source of water for the New River. The spring is a large pool of water which is filled with water rising from below ground.

The geology of the area is interesting. Some of the water that rises at the spring comes from the Mimmshall Brook, which, ten miles to the west near Hatfield, drains into a sink hole.

The sink hole forms part of a large underground drainage network called a Karsitic network – an area where the underlying chalk has been dissolved by water forming sink holes and sub-surface drainage networks, which around Hertford and east to the Chadwell Springs covers an area of 32 square kilometers.

The geology of the area means that it was a perfect choice for Edmund Colthurst to propose for the source of the river in 1602.

I refer to the River Lee a number of times in the post. The name can be found with spellings of Lee and Lea. The River Lea is frequently used for the natural river and Lee Navigation for parts of the river where it has been turned into a navigable canal. For simplicity I will use River Lee to refer to any part of the Lee / Lea water system.

Now to start walking the route:

Day 1, Ware to Rye House

The first day’s walk was just under 8 miles in length, which included the walk to get to the source of the New River. The route is well served by the rail network, so starting from Ware station, it was a walk to the source following the dotted red line in the following map (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Walking the New River

The blue circle in the above map marks the location of the Chadwell Spring.

The first day’s walk from the source to Rye House is shown by the red dotted line n the following map:

Walking the New River

After walking from Ware station, along the River Lee, the first sign of the New River comes with New Gauge House on the banks of the River Lee:

Walking the New River

At the side of New Gauge House are two signs, the one on the left is part of the original signage covering the path alongside the river, the sign on the right shows that this is still a working bit of water supply infrastructure, with appropriate safety precautions.

New River Gauge House

Looking west along the River Lee, with New Gauge House on the left, and on the right in the river is the infrastructure that allows water to be drawn off from the Lee into the New River.

River Lee

The following view shows New Gauge House, with the start of the New River coming from the arch below, where water from the River Lee starts its journey south to provide water for the population of London.

New River Gauge House

New Gauge House was built in 1856. The equipment that controls the flow from the Lee is in the ground floor of the building, and accommodation for a Gauge Keeper was in the floor above.

According to the Historic England listing, 22.5 million gallons is taken each day from the Lee into the New River.

Looking south along the start of the walk:

Walking the New River

Looking back along the New River to New Gauge House, slightly hidden by trees, with the higher ground, part of the higher ground that surrounds the area, seen in the background.

Walking the New River

As shown in the heat map at the start of the post, this is a low lying area, with large amounts of water lying across the surface of the land:

Chadwell Spring

Signposting from the creation of the New River Path:

New River Path

A straight stretch of the New River with the A10 road crossing:

Walking the New River

Underneath the A10:

Walking the New River

It is theoretically possible to get to the Chadwell Spring, however the area around the spring is very overgrown and wet, and required a detour from the main path. The Chadwell Spring rises into a circular pool.

This is the view looking in the direction of Chadwell Spring from the walk alongside the New River:

Chadwell Spring

This is the White House Sluice. The building originally contained the equipment to control water levels on the river:

White House Sluice

The most historic building here though is the Marble Gauge photographed below:

Marble Gauge

The Marble Gauge was built in 1770 to control the water taken from a former inlet to the River Lee. Today, the Marble Gauge does not have any function, and water flows through a couple of iron pipes to bypass the structure.

The Marble Gauge was designed by Robert Mylne, the architect and engineer to the New River Company. The structure, along with the railings shown to the left of the above photo are both Grade II listed.

“This Belongs To New River Company” – stone in the undergrowth to the side of the river:

New River Company

When completed in 1613, the Chadwell Spring was the furthest north of the sources feeding the New River. The connection to the River Lee would not come until Parliament approved a 1738 Statute that allowed the company to take up to 102 megalitres a day from the River Lee (a significant additional source compared to the original 10 megalitres a day from the Chadwell and Amwell Springs).

Whilst the River Lee provided a considerable additional supply of water for London, it did not please barge and mill owners who were concerned about the impact that such a loss of water would have on their use of the Lee.

The photo below shows the channel from the Chadwell Spring where it joins the New River:

Chadwell Spring

A significant additional source of water was added to the New River during each of the river’s first three centuries.

During the 17th century, the springs at Chadwell and Amwell provided the water. In the 18th century, water from the River Lee was added, and in the 19th century a number of pumping stations were built along the northernmost stretch of the New River. These pumping stations extracted water from bore holes to add to the river.

The first of these is the Broadmead Pumping Station, built in 1881:

Broadmead Pumping Station

Whilst many of the pumping stations are still in use, Broadmead seems to have been converted to offices, and is currently the offices of a car hire company. The building and adjacent chimney are Grade II listed.

The New River then passes through Ware, just to the south of the station, and continues on parallel to the A1170 London Road:

Chadwell Way Sculpture Trail

In the above photo, there is a concrete wall projecting out into the centre of the river. A small figure can be seen at the end of the wall:

Chadwell Way Sculpture Trail

The figure is part of the Chadwell Way Sculpture Trail, which consists of 31 small bronze sculptures made by a class of 7 and 8 year old children from St John the Baptist Primary School in Great Amwell.

The above sculpture is called “Murphy and his Dog”, by James. The leaflet detailing the trail can be found here.

The river soon moves away from the London Road, and we reach the village of Amwell, where the Amwell Spring adds water to the river. To mark the location, there is a small island in the river:

Walking the New River

The monument in the above view has the following inscription:

Amwell Spring

An appropriate inscription to think about whenever we turn on the tap.

Walking past the island, and at the opposite end is another monument, with a Latin inscription facing the path:

Walking the New River

And the following inscription on the other side of the monument:

Robert Mylne

A short distance along the New River is Amwell Marsh Pumping Station, a Grade II listed building, completed in 1883:

Amwell Marsh Pumping Station

The British Geological Survey have the bore hole record for the boreholes under the pumping station. The record dates from 1899 and details two boreholes 5.25 feet diameter at the top, reducing to 4 feet diameter at the bottom of the boreholes, which are 109 feet deep.

The combined boreholes had a total pumping capacity of just over 7 million gallons in 24 hours, and that when pumping stopped, water rises quickly within the boreholes.

A note in the record shows that the water pumped from below ground is part of a much larger underground water system as the record states “Pumping here affects Amwell springs, Amwell Hill Well and Chadwell spring”, so whilst water can be pumped from the boreholes, the total impact on the water system needs to be considered.

Amwell Marsh pumping station is still extracting water. The steam pumping engine has been replaced with electric, and looking into the New River we can see the turbulence created by water being pumped into the river:

Amwell Marsh Pumping Station

A Metropolitan Water Board sign warning that fishing is strictly prohibited, trespassers and persons throwing stones will be prosecuted, and that any person bathing, washing an animal, or otherwise fouling the water is liable to a penalty of five pounds:

Walking the New River

Not sure of the age of the sign. The Metropolitan Water Board was formed in 1903 when it took over the New River Company. The notice is signed by A.B. Pilling, Clerk of the Board. Pilling was authoring books about the new Chingford reservoir in 1913, so the sign must date from the early decades of the 20th century.

A quiet stretch of the New River:

Walking the New River

Rye Common Pumping Station, another Grade II listed building, constructed in 1882.

Rye Common Pumping Station

As with the other 19th century pumping station on the route, it was originally steam powered, but was converted to electricity in 1935. As can be seen from the water gushing from the pipe into the river, Rye Common is still contributing to the New River and London’s water supplies.

The New River, running alongside a housing estate:

Walking the New River

The New River is now approaching Rye House, with the three chimneys of Rye House Power Station in the distance.

Walking the New River

And at Rye House, the first day of walking the New River ended, with the conveniently located Rye House station a very short walk from the river.

Day 2, Rye House to Cheshunt

Day 2 of walking the New River, a stretch that will take us from where we finished yesterday at Rye House, along the route of the New River to Cheshunt – the route highlighted by red dashes in the following map (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Walking the New River

An overcast and grey Saturday was followed by a sunny Sunday. Not long after leaving Rye House, the route reached Essex Road Pumping Station (difficult to photograph, just a very small part of the brick wall is on the right of the following photo), with new building on an old industrial site in the background.

Walking the New River

Two large pipes from Essex Road Pumping Station discharging water into the New River:

Essex Road Pumping Station

Essex Road Pumping Station draws water from a borehole beneath the building. The borehole consists of an upper shaft of depth 54 feet and average diameter of 7 feet, followed by a bore hole which extends to a depth of 403 feet below the surface.

The bore hole record demonstrates that there is a considerable volume of water not that far below ground. In 1920, water would rise to a level 2 feet below the surface, and without pumping, this standing water level does not vary.

The record stated that the bore hole would yield 2,160,000 gallons of water a day.

A short distance after Essex Road Pumping Station is a new road bridge that carries Essex Road over the New River:

Walking the New River

The walkway alongside the New River carries on under the bridge, with some appropriate artwork lining the under side of the bridge:

Walking the New River

After passing through some housing and industry around Rye House, the New River regains its rural setting, with views helped by the sunny weather after the previous day’s rather grey walk:

Walking the New River

It is rather hypnotic watching the flow of the water in the river. Leafs and twigs are carried along at the equivalent of a fast walk. The only turbulence at the occasional sluice and where pumping stations add water to the flow.

To the west of this stretch of the New River are some rather nice houses that make the most of having the New River passing the end of their gardens:

Walking the New River

Before returning to a tree lined river:

Walking the New River

We then come to the 1887, Grade II listed, Broxbourne Pumping Station:

Broxbourne Pumping Station

This is a pumping station that is still in use, extracting water from deep below the surface and adding to the New River. Some turbulance can be seen at the right edge of the photo where water is pouring into the river. There are two other pipes pointing onto the river which must have been used in the past, as this was a pumping station that produced a considerable quantity of water.

The bore hole records for the Broxbourne Pumping Station state that there is a shaft below the building to a depth of 197 feet. It is a large shaft of 14 feet diameter at the top down to 10 feet diamter at the bottom. The bore hole record implies that there are additional bores heading out from the shaft.

The 1909 record states that the standing level of water is only 8 feet below the surface, again indicating how high the water table is along the route of the New River. The 1909 record stated: “Great quantity of water, the temporary pumps being drowned in sinking when 2 to 3 million gallons a day were got out. The yield has been returned as 4,500,000 gallons a day”.

There was a chimney at the pumping station which has been demolished, as along with the other pumping stations along the New River, it was converted from steam to electric. There is though a considerable amount of infrastructure to the side of the building. No idea whether this is still in use, however (if you like that sort of thing, which I do), there are some wonderful green painted tanks to the side. The Historic England listing makes no mention of these, only referring to the building.

Broxbourne Pumping Station

It is not just the pumping stations that are listed along the route of the New River, also one of the train stations. This is the rather wonderful Grade II listed Broxbourne Station, built between 1959 and 1961 by the British Railways Eastern Region Architect’s Department:

Broxbourne Station

Broxbourne Station is next to the New River. In the above photo, the New River embankment is the grass seen at the lower left corner.

Whilst this is the closest station to the New River, stations are not that far away for the majority of the walk, and the rail line is here for the same reason as the New River.

The New River needed to follow a route that was almost flat, with a very shallow drop in height from the springs to New River Head. This would ensure a smooth flow of water without any need for pumps.

The valley created by the River Lee and associated water systems had created a relatively low and flat wide channel of land between higher ground on either side.

This enabled the New River to follow the 100 foot contour (height above sea level) almost from source to destination, and the height of the river dropped by only around 20 feet along the entire route. Given the surveying methods and equipment of the early 17th century, it was a remarkable achievement.

This relatively flat land was also ideal for the rail network, which avoided the need to construct tunnels or large embanked routes for the railway, so the New River and railway ended almost parallel to each other.

The following map from topographic-map.com shows the lower land as the blue in the centre, with Walthamstow towards the bottom of the map and Ware at the top. The New River follows the light blue along the left of the blue of the Lee Valley.

Walking the New River

Continuing along the New River into Broxbourne, and the river runs around the church of St Augustine’s.

Broxbourne St Augustine's Church

As the New River Path gets into more built up areas, there are now sections where it is not possible to walk alongside the river. Fortunately these are for short lengths, and a quick diversion is needed to get back to the river.

The following photo shows one such section where the river runs through private gardens, A 1926 road bridge crosses the river.

Walking the New River

In the following photo, the Mylne Viaduct (part of which is the low wall to the left) carries the New River over the Turnford Brook which runs below the New River, left to right.

Walking the New River

The New River has been straightened in places from the original early 17th century route. I have not yet had the time to compare the route today with the original, however I suspect the view in the above photo is of one of the later, straightened sections.

The river is carried on a high earth embankment, which may have been too difficult for the original entirely manual construction method, but easier with later mechanical earth moving.

The New River then passes under the A10. The walkway has a slight diversion through a pedestrian tunnel under the road.

Walking the New River

The New River then returns to a rather rural environment, with a large bush growing over half the river. Not sure how much maintenance of the New River is needed today, or is carried out by Thames Water to keep the course of the river open.

Walking the New River

Although the New River passes through a number of built areas on the way to Cheshunt, it continues with a rather rural appearance with trees lining the banks. Small foot bridges ensure crossing points as the river winds through communities.

Walking the New River

Sluice to manage water levels on the outskirts of Cheshunt:

Walking the New River

Passing alongside a new housing estate:

Walking the New River

The creation of the New River Path dates back to the early 1990s, and the path continues to be well sign posted with only a few places where some careful reference to the map is needed. This may well change as we get into the built areas of north London.

New River Path

At the end of Day 2 – an autumn scene in Cheshunt:

Walking the New River

From here it was a walk into Cheshunt to return home. The end of a brilliant weekend walking the New River.

Each day was just under 8 miles (which included getting to and from each day’s starting and end point). The early stages of the walk around Ware were wet and muddy in places, after Ware the path was mainly dry and easy to walk.

My thanks to those also on the walk for making it such an enjoyable weekend. We have a second weekend booked in a few weeks time, with an aim of walking from Cheshunt to where the New River currently terminates at the East and West Reservoirs, just south of the Seven Sisters Road.

The next stage will include the symbolic crossing of the M25, where rather surprisingly the New River crosses over, rather than under the M25.

alondoninheritance.com

Swanscombe Peninsula and the London Resort – Part 2

This post continues my walk exploring the Swanscombe Peninsula. The previous post covered the section marked in red in the following map, and this post covers the route in blue, alongside Botany Marsh.

Botany Marsh

The eastern and southern sides of the Swanscombe Peninsula are more industrialised than the western side, and the noise from these sites is starting to be heard above the breeze blowing through the thick fields of grasses and reeds.

The footpath follows the eastern edge of an area known as Botany Marsh, and the wet nature of the land is very obvious, despite September having slightly less rainfall than the average for the month.

Botany Marsh

Electricity pole in the marsh:

Botany Marsh

In the following photo we can see all the infrastructure needed to carry high voltage electricity across the River Thames. On the left is the pylon on the north bank of the Thames in Thurrock, with slightly to the right, the pylon on the peninsula. These two pylons carry the cables across the Thames. In the middle is the tower catching the descending cables and from this tower cables run off across north Kent.

Botany Marsh

View to the south west across Botany Marsh. More water and the chalk cliffs which are the boundary to the south western edge of the peninsula.

Botany Marsh

The Swanscombe Peninsula has long been the site for large industrial companies that needed access to the river for transport of raw materials, and space for large processing plants. One of these companies in operation today is the Cemex Northfleet Wharf and Concrete Plant:

Cemex

The concrete plant has a wharf on the eastern edge of the peninsula where the raw materials for the manufacturer of concrete, aggregates, asphalt and mortar are landed.

Looking in the opposite direction and the peninsula is still wild and wet. Fortunately I did not need to take this footpath.

Botany Marsh

The western side of the peninsula is more open, however walking along the eastern edge of Botany Marsh, and there are some lovely stretches of footpath, with banks and tall bushes on either side. It feels like walking in the depths of the countryside rather than a site with industry, a Greenhithe housing estate and the Thames all a short distance away.

Botany Marsh

However evidence of industry along the edge is not far away, and the noise of lorries running to and from the plant now compete with the breeze through the grasses.

Cemex

This adds to the wonderful contradictions of the peninsula. look one way to see industry, look the other to see the most wonderful landscapes, with Botany Marsh really living up to its name:

Botany Marsh

The road that provides access to the industrial areas also provides access to the peninsula, with some limited parking for cars. At one of these entrances is an information panel which tells how the peninsula is managed, and the wildlife that can be seen on Botany Marsh:

Botany Marsh

Botany Marsh is subject to land management to maintain the biodiversity of the place. Without management, the land would revert to scrub and woodland. Ditches were cleared and the footpath I have been walking along during this part of the walk was created.

The information panel also explains where much of the water comes from. A system to collect water from 20,000 square metres was installed which increased the water flow into the marshes by up to 10,000 cubic metres a year. The water is run through an oil interceptor to ensure the marsh is not polluted

The rear of the panel provides information on the species of animals that can be found across the marsh, many of which have seen a severe decline in numbers over the last couple of decades. Three of the six reptiles native to Britain are found on Botany Marsh (grass snake, slow worm and vivaparous lizard).

Botany Marsh

Campaigning to save the peninsula from development has included the need to designate the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The uniqueness of the place, diversity of animal species, the rarity of such a variety of habitats all support an SSSI designation.

In March 2021, an existing SSSI to the south (Bakers Hole – a back filled quarry that was the site of many finds of Stone Age occupation), was extended to include most of the Swanscombe Peninsula.

Consultation on the recommendation to extend the SSSI took place between March and July and a recommendation to the Board of Natural England will be made based on the results. The Board then have until the 10th of December 2021 to either confirm or withdraw the recommendation.

The London Resort are looking at ways that this recommendation can be withdrawn or accommodated within their plans, so the outcome for both the London Resort and the Swanscombe Peninsula is not yet clear.

Map and details of the proposed SSSI are on display at all the main entrances to the peninsula:

As well as the Cemex site, another industrial company on the eastern side of the peninsula is Britannia Refined Metals, a company owned by the multinational Glencore. The company specialises in lead, zinc and tin production.

Britannia Lead

Given the current shortage of HGV drivers, and the poor facilities provided for them, the above photo provides an example. To the right of the photo was a long layby off the road for lorry parking. The blue box behind the site safety sign appeared to be their only toilet facilities.

Britannia Refined Metals was originally formed around 1930 as the Britannia Lead Co. Ltd, and their original brick building is still onsite with the name above what was probably the original main entrance to the site.

Britannia Lead

After having a looking at the industrial side of the peninsula, I walked back to Botany Marsh to continue south along the footpath.

Botany Marsh

Old building on the northern edge of the southern industrial area gradually being overgrown:

Botany Marsh

Although there are some large industrial sites along the eastern side of the peninsula, they are not that visible, apart from the very tall chimney of the Cemex works. More reeds, grasses and water of Botany Marsh.

Botany Marsh

The path I was following south, then turned towards the west, to loop back inland. I suspect it ended up at the flooded footpath shown earlier in the post, so after a lengthy detour, I turned back to access the road at the site of the Britannia factory.

Following this road south took me through an industrial estate, very similar to those that have traditionally lined the River Thames, but I did not expect to find a number of London buses:

Routemaster

This is the site of London Bus and Truck Ltd – “For All Your Bus, Coach & Commercial Vehicle Requirements” and specialists in Routemaster buses which explains the small fleet of buses in their parking area:

Routemaster

A bit of protection for pedestrians from the many HGV’s passing along the road:

Swanscombe peninsula

At the end of the road running through the industrial estate, it meets the A226, or Galley Hill Road, and I followed this busy road to head for Swanscombe station. The road runs across the bridge seen in the distance in some of the photos in today’s posts. The height of the road provides a good view across the Swanscombe Peninsula, and also shows where HS1 enters the tunnel under the peninsula to cross underneath the River Thames:

HS1

HS1 is the high speed railway running for 108km between Paris and St Pancras Station. Regular services started on the route on the 14th November 2007. The entrance on the Swanscombe Peninsula is the start of a one and a half mile tunnel under the Thames.

There are industrial sites lining the southern end of the peninsula, on either side of HS1. These industrial sites are also included in the land required by the London Resort. As development has extended east along the Thames from central London, many of these industrial estates have been closed and built over with housing. They are though a much needed part of economic infrastructure.

HS1

The view from the bridge shows what appears to be grass and bushes over the northern part of the peninsula. It is not really possible to appreciate the natural diversity of the place from this viewpoint and a walk through the site is needed.

The London Resort describe one of the benefits of their proposals as the regeneration of what is largely a brownfield site. This is true, the peninsula has been the location of both industry, the infrastructure needed to support these industries and connect them to the river, along with the dumping of waste from these industries. However just describing Swanscombe Peninsula as a brownfield site does not fully appreciate the site today. A site which has been considerably reclaimed by nature, is home to many endangered species and also retains that sense of isolation that was so prevalent across much of the land along the river to the east of London.

I also like the industrial sites that are found on the east side of the peninsula. They are there because of the river, the river that has transported so many raw materials and finished products across the centuries.

The road bridge taking Galley Hill Road over HS1. This was the exception when there was no traffic. During my walk along the road there was an almost continuous line of cars and lorries.

HS1

The River Thames is always in the background around the peninsula, with shipping moored at, and travelling past Tilbury visible:

River Thames

From the bridge we can view the chalk cliffs that line part of the south western edge of the peninsula:

Swanscombe Skull

There are a number of chalk pits on the peninsula, and the wider Swanscombe area is one of Europe’s most important Paleolithic sites (500,000 BC to 125,000 BC). Finds in the area include hand axes, and what became known as the Swanscombe Skull, which was excavated in Barnfield Pit, a short distance south of the peninsula (part of the extended SSSI). The area also includes evidence from some of the temperate periods between periods of glaciation, or ice ages.

The skull was discovered in 1935 by Alvan T. Marston, one of the many archaeologists who had been working in Swanscombe. He described the discovery as follows:

“For nearly half a century, archaeologists have known the high terrace gravels at Swanscombe, Kent, and in that time have found hundreds of thousands of the early Stone Age hand axes belonging to the Chelles-Acheulean stage, but the constant hope that skeletal remains of the makers of those implements might be found did not become fact until June 1935, when I discovered a human occipital bone 24ft below the surface in the middle gravels of the Barnfield Pit. Nine months later a second bone of the same skull was found, the left parietal, in the same seam of gravel and at the same depth below the surface. The two bones were 8 yards apart, many tons of sand and gravel having to be excavated and examined to bring the second bone to light, and this work is still going on.

Swanscombe is not homo sapiens. It is, as its geological horizon shows, a pre-Neanderthal hominid.”

The Swanscombe Skull © Natural History Museum:

Swanscombe Skull

And with that diversion, I reached Swanscombe station, ready for the train back to Waterloo East:

Swanscombe Station

This is the first time I have been to Swanscombe Peninsula. No doubt the weather helped with first impressions, however it was a fascinating walk through such an interesting area.

This is a place that is incredibly unique. Fresh water marsh to the south and salt water marsh to the north has created different environments, with a wide variety of animal species populating the peninsula.

The peninsula is also very quite, I walked through on a Friday, so it is possibly busier at the weekend, however I saw five people at most, only one close up – a jogger on the eastern side of the peninsula.

Jobs are really important and are needed in north Kent, and it is always a difficult argument, however the planned resort / theme park does seem to be in the wrong place.

It does not occupy the whole of the peninsula, however it would have a dramatic impact on the remaining land. Construction work, drainage, impact on the water table, noise and light would all have an impact on the surrounding environment and animals. Many of these animals are threatened, with, for example, Swanscombe Peninsula being one of only two known places where the jumping spider Attulus distinguendus can be found.

The development would also disrupt the movement of animals between the peninsula and the wider environment.

The board of Natural England have until the 10th of December 2021 to make a decision on the SSSI extension to the peninsula. It will be interesting to see their decision and the impact this may have on plans for the London Resort and the future of Swanscombe Peninsula.

If you get a chance to visit, a walk through Swanscombe Peninsula is a really good day out.

More information on the London Resort (which includes their planning application), the Swanscombe Marshes, and those campaigning against the development can be found at the following links:

The London Resort site is here.

The Save Swanscombe Marshes site is here

And their map with their recommended walking route is here

The Kent Wildlife Trust page on the London Resort development is here.

The Bug Life page on the Swanscombe Marshes is here.

The RSPB page on the marshes is here.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs page with the SSSI documentation is here.

The Natural England page on Swanscombe is here.

A PDF of Natural England’s supporting documentation for the SSSI, including maps, can be found here.

alondoninheritance.com

Swanscombe Peninsula and the London Resort – Part 1

Before heading to the Swanscombe Peninsula, if you would like to explore the Southbank or the Barbican, there are still a few tickets left for my final walks for the year. I have also added a limited number of tickets as many walks have already sold out. Click here for details.

If you have been reading the blog for a while, you will probably be aware of my interest in the River Thames. Not just the part through the city, but the whole of the river, out to the estuary. The Thames is the reason why London is located where it is, and has been the route for the trade that made the city so successful.

Just over a week ago, on probably the last, hot and sunny day of a late summer, I went to the Swanscombe Peninsula. A place that is currently threatened with some significant development.

The Swanscombe Peninsula is a large area of land, pushing out into the river, well to the east of the city. According to the Kent Past website, the name comes from the Old English “camp” meaning a “field, an enclosed piece of land”, along with the Danish name of Swaine, so Swanscombe could have originated as describing “Swaine’s enclosure’’.

The area of the peninsula is 205 Hectares, or 506 Acres. In the following map, I have circled Swanscombe Peninsula in red (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors)..

Swanscombe Peninsula

The western part of the peninsula has long been seen as a development opportunity, and in the Strategic Planning Guidance for the River Thames (1997), the area was identified as a “riverside opportunity for an urban village”. Current plans are for a very different use as a considerable part of the Swanscombe Peninsula is currently planned to be developed as the London Resort, described on the project’s website as a “world-class, sustainable, next generation entertainment resort known as the ‘London Resort’, on the banks of the River Thames”.

The London Resort will also be the “first European development of its kind to be built from scratch since the opening of Disneyland Paris in 1992”.

Development of the London Resort will bring considerable investment into the area and many, much needed jobs.

The London Resort has been planned for many years, in 2008 it was designated as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, however there have been a number of delays, and major supporters of the project have withdrawn and also rejoined over the years.

Plans for development now seem to be making progress, and the London Resort’s website claims a start date of 2022, with the first part of the resort opening in 2024, and the site being complete by 2029.

If I have understood the planning documents correctly, the core of the London Resort is shown outlined in red in the following map:

Swanscombe Peninsula

The red rectangle covers pier developments as numbers of people travelling to the resort are expected to come via the river, and land on the opposite side of the river in Tilbury is being being included in this scheme.

Whilst the map shows the core of the resort, there will be considerable additional surrounding development, bath in support of the resort, and as the large number of visitors and supporting businesses draw in additional development.

The Swanscombe Peninsula is not a pristine, natural environment. It has long been surrounded by the type of dirty industrial complexes that were to be found to the east of London. Paper Milling, Cement Production and Lead Refining were some of the industries that could be found here, and their impact extended over the peninsula, for example rail tracks extending to river piers.

The site has also been used for waste disposal, gas works, a sewage works, and in recent decades provides the infrastructure for a high-voltage electricity crossing of the river, and where the HS1 railway linking St Pancras with the Channel Tunnel dives under the Thames.

The following extract from a mid 1950s Ordnance Survey map shows the peninsula, with industry covering the southern boundary. Note also the split between the Broadness Salt Marsh and Swanscombe Marshes where a drain was constructed to recover the southern parts of the peninsula (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’.

Swanscombe Peninsula

To visit the site, I took the train from Waterloo East to Greenhithe. I planned to follow the recommended route on the Save Swanscombe Marshes website, which can be found here.

Starting at Greenhithe Station, an almost circular walk would take me to Swanscombe Station to catch the train back to Waterloo East. I ended up walking almost six miles, by taking some detours and also on the eastern side of the peninsula, I carried on along a footpath rather than turn onto the road, the footpath almost took me back around the peninsula.

There is so much to be found in the area. I got distracted in Greenhithe, found where the Cutty Sark was moored, saw some wonderful electrical infrastructure, and was just stunned by the beauty of the place, and whilst much could be described as a brownfield site, it shows how nature can recover and reestablish.

I have split today’s post about the Swanscombe Peninsula into two separate posts. One at the usual time this morning, and a second post later this evening. I will also include a number of links for further information at the end of the second post.

So, for the first post, I am starting at Greenhithe Station (blue circle to left) and covering the route marked by the blue line.

Swanscombe Peninsula

To reach the western end of the peninsula, I walked through Greenhithe to get close to the river. Greenhithe is a historic, small town, where the streets alongside the river reflect the towns early relationship with the river.

The name has similarities to Queenhithe in the City, with “hithe” meaning a wharf or landing place. It seems that Green just refers to the town as being a green landing place.

There were wharves, ships were built and maintained, goods and people transferred between ships and land.

In Greenhithe High Street is the Sir John Franklin pub, named after the commander of the expedition that sailed from Greenhithe on the 19th of May 1845, in the Erebus and Terror, to try and find a north west passage across the top of Canada, between the Atlantic and Pacific. Greenhithe was the last place that the crew would set foot in England. After a final sighting on the 26th July 1845, the two ships and their crew, including Sir John Franklin, were not seen again.

Sir John Franklin

A newspaper report on the 20th May 1845 describes their departure along the Thames;

“The Erebus, Captain Sir John Franklin, and the Terror, Captain Crozier, left Woolwich on Monday, towed by the African and Myrtle steamers, for Greenhithe. The Terror having previously tried her screw-propeller, on this occasion resolved on trying it again, and made such excellent progress, that she cast off her towing steamer and proceeded down the river without any additional assistance whatever. The crews of the Erebus and Terror were paid in advance today and tomorrow (Saturday) sail for their destination, accompanied by the Monkey and Rattler steam-vessels, ordered to tow them to the Orkney islands. The Baretto Junior transport with live stores and various descriptions of preserved meats and other articles, most liberally supplied for the use of the officers and men of the discovery vessels, will be sent at the same time, and accompany them to the borders of the ice. The compasses of the vessels have been adjusted by Captain Johnson, and the most perfect arrangements made for the peculiar service in which the vessels of the Artic expedition are to be engaged.”

I have written more about the expedition, and the search for the crew in a post on the The Bellot Memorial at Greenwich.

At the back of the Sir John Franklin pub is one of the old wharfs, now a rectangular inlet, with new housing on one side and an old, decaying boat below.

Greenhithe

As well as the name of the pub, Greenhithe High Street retains other links with the previous life of the town (assuming the sign is genuine, and not a modern creation).

Greenhithe

There are some wonderful old houses in the High Street, and it is a lovely place to walk on a sunny, September day, however in the 18th century, this would not be a very safe place to be when the press gangs were roaming as this report from a number of newspapers on the 24th May 1740 indicates: “On Tuesday there was a smart Pres on the River below Bridge, that from the little Town of Greenhithe they have taken no less than 17 Men for the King’s Service”.

Greenhithe

Before the High Street takes a sharp right to turn in-land, there is another pub, this is the Pier Hotel:

Greenhithe

In the first half of the 19th century there was an attempt to turn Greenhithe into a tourist destination, perhaps trying to attract the boats passing on the river that were starting to take Londoners out of the city for a day trip to Southend or Margate.

This included the construction of a short pier, shown in the following drawing by Henry Cole, dated 1836:

Greenhithe Pier

To get back to the river, and continue on to the peninsula, I walked past the Pier Hotel, and took a quick look down to the river, where there is a rather hidden red telephone box, before taking a cut through to the river walk.

Greenhithe

From where there is a superb view of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, part of the M25 Dartford crossing:

Queen Elizabeth II bridge

And looking in the opposite direction, I could see my destination, the peninsula curving out into the river, with the electricity pylon a clear landmark of where I was heading.

Swanscombe Peninsula

This stretch of the river has a walkway with superb views across the river. In the following photo I am looking back towards Greenhithe. This stretch of the river has had a considerable amount of building over the last few decades, with a large housing estate on the left, facing onto the river:

Thames Walkway

View in the opposite direction, towards my destination:

Thames Walkway

Part of the land on which the housing in the above two photos was built, originally formed part of the Ingress Estate, an ancient manor that once belonged to the Priory of Dartford.

in 1833, an Elizabethan style house was built on the site and named Ingress Abbey, allegedly using stones from London Bridge which had been demolished in 1831. The house was surrounded by land, including land sloping down to the river. When researching the site, I found the following photo from the Britain from Above archive:

Cutty Sark

The photo is dated 1939. Ingress Abbey can be seen looking down to the river, where two ships are moored. The larger ship is HMS Worcester which at the time operated as the Thames Nautical Training College. The smaller ship is the Cutty Sark which at the time was also part of the training college, operating as an auxiliary cadet training ship. The Cutty Sark would continue in this role, before being moved to Greenwich.

Walking further towards Swanscombe Peninsula, and the walkway changes, now with a high concrete wall protecting the housing from the river.

Thames Walkway

Not sure what these rails in the base of the walkway are, possibly left over from the site’s industrial activity:

Thames Walkway

As well as the land of Ingress Abbey, the housing in the second above photo was built on a large industrial site, the Empire Paper Mills. I have highlighted the paper mills within the red oval in the following extract from the 1966 Ordnance Survey map:

Swanscombe Peninsula

The paper mills included a large jetty projecting into the Thames. This was used to receive raw materials from cargo ships, that were then transported to the mill for processing. Completed products were then sent via the rail network, and a rail line can just be seen leaving the lower left of the mills, heading to the mainline at Greenhithe.

The following photo from Britain from Above shows the scale of the paper mills in 1927. The Swanscombe Peninsula can be seen in the background:

Swanscombe Peninsula

The paper mills continued into the early 1990s, but were struggling to operate and make money. They finally closed in 1992, and in the decades that followed the site was cleared and is now occupied by housing.

The following photo, also from 1927, is looking west, with the paper mills, the grounds of Ingress Abbey and at the top right of the photo, the town of Greenhithe:

Swanscombe Peninsula

In the above photo, part of Swanscombe Peninsula can be seen in the lower left half of the photo. Part of the space is occupied by Cricket and Sports grounds, showing how there has long been a degree of human influence on the peninsula.

Also in the above photo, there is a triangular inlet from the river where the paper mills meets the peninsula. This inlet is still there today, and is where the river walkway ends with steps up to Swanscombe Peninsula.

Swanscombe Peninsula

Walking up the steps, and I was finally on Swanscombe Peninsula:

Swanscombe Peninsula

A raised bank protects this part of the western side of the peninsula from the river. One of the old piers from the area’s industrial past juts out into the river:

Swanscombe Peninsula

Along this stretch there are two raised banks, with a low lying ditch between:

Swanscombe Peninsula

Windswept bushes line the river:

Swanscombe Peninsula

A good view of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. It is only from viewpoints such as this that you can appreciate the length of the central section and the two slender towers that provide support.

Queen Elizabeth II bridge

Below the bridge, to the lower right can be seen the red and white of the Stoneness Lighthouse, a working lighthouse on a piece of land jutting out into the river. This model of the lighthouse will soon be replaced. The Port of London Authority have issued a Notice to Mariners that from the 29th September, work will begin to replace the lighthouse, and that it will be out of operation until the 9th of October.

Inter-tidal mud and grasses:

River Thames

The above photo highlights how important an area with low lying marsh is along the river, and will be in the future with expected rises in the level of the Thames on the eastern side of the Thames Barrier where water levels will rise, as the barrier protects the city.

Looking inland, and this part of the peninsula is covered with dense, tall grasses and reeds:

Industrial Archeaology

There are two, rusting towers visible in the above photo. To the south of the peninsula was a large cement works, and the towers were part of an aerial cableway that stretched from a wharf and pier on the river to the cement works and was used to transport materials between ships in the Thames and the factory. The cable operated alongside a railway between wharf and factory.

I have highlighted the route of the cableway which is marked on the following extract from the 1966 Ordnance Survey map:

Industrial Archeaology

Closer view of one of the towers, showing one of the cables that once ran along the route carrying materials to and from the cement factory:

Industrial Archeaology

As well as the factory to the south of the peninsula, and the transport system across the peninsula, the production of cement was also responsible for the legal dumping of cement kiln dust, which has raised the height of the land in some western parts of the peninsula.

Looking to the right of the above view, and there is a dense area of grass growth up to a distant tree and bush line:

Swanscombe Peninsula

Along the inland base of the second bank is a road which runs up to the location of the old wharf and pier:

Swanscombe Peninsula

An open barrier still stands as the land around is reclaimed by nature:

Swanscombe Peninsula

Track leading to the location of the old wharf and pier:

River Thames

Which unfortunately appears to have a double row of fencing restricting access:

River Thames

Getting closer to the electricity pylon:

Swanscombe Peninsula

There are a number of tracks which make it clear that parts of the peninsula are private land and that these tracks are not public footpaths:

Swanscombe Peninsula

Exploring tracks on a warm September day:

Swanscombe Peninsula

In the following photo, I am looking inland. There are a number of large areas of water, and in the distance on the left is the bridge that carries the A226, London Road, and on the right, the white chalk cliffs can be seen, highlighting that the site has been subject to extensive chalk quarrying:

Swanscombe Peninsula

Strange to come across some Network Rail infrastructure in a small, fenced compound. The reason for this will be come clear in the second post on Swanscombe Peninsula.

Network Rail

Although much of this part of the peninsula is covered with dense grasses, reeds and low bushes and trees, these can be deceiving as the area is also very wet, with water appearing in clear pools which emerge from the grass:

Swanscombe Peninsula

As well as walking, the peninsula is a place to just stop and enjoy what is a very special place. There is plenty of insect life both within and away from the water. My insect identification skills are almost non-existent, however I hope I am right in claiming the following photo is of a dragonfly, one of many that were around me in the above photo.

Dragonfly

The main landmark on the peninsula is the electricity pylon:

Electricity Pylon

The pylon is one of a pair that support cables spanning the Thames. The other pylon is on the north bank of the river, and they carry several 400,000 Volt (400kV) electricity circuits, transporting power across the country.

They were built in 1965, and are 623 feet (190 metres) in height, apparently the tallest in the country. The height was needed to ensure sufficient clearance for the cables above the River Thames so the river is clear for shipping. Not just the height of the ship, but also to provide enough distance between cable and ship, so the high voltages carried by the cables would not arc between cable and ship.

The cables running over the Thames, connect to the grid network north of the Thames that transports electricity into London. From Swanscombe, the cables run towards east Kent where there were former coal fired power stations, which have been replaced by gas, as well as undersea interconnector cables to the Netherlands and Belgium which land on the Isle of Grain and near Richborough in Kent.

The height of the tower, along with the two platforms on the tower has resulted in the tower being popular with base jumpers – people who jump with a parachute from a high structure. In March 2006, one base jumper died at Swanscombe when it appears his parachute failed to open.

That is a sport I could not imagine ever attempting, however I really do like these structures.

Following photo shows the platform at the very top of the 623 feet tower, along with some of the insulators that carry the cables. These are of some length as they need to separate the 400kV running through the cables from the metal of the tower.

Electricity Pylon

The cables from the top of the tower then run down to a smaller tower that separates and routes them off to more traditional electrical pylons.

Electricity Pylon

A sideways view of the above tower shows a work of industrial art:

Electricity Pylon

I have now reached the end of the blue line in my map of the route through the Swanscombe Peninsula. The post covering part two of my walk through this very special place, the industry on the eastern edge, HS1, the wildlife of the peninsula, the status of a Site of Special Scientific Interest along with links to further sources of information will be sent out this evening.

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The Death of the London Telephone Box

Before exploring the London Telephone Box, an update on the walk exploring Islington’s place in the history of London’s water supply and some of the original buildings at New River Head, that I wrote about in a post a couple of week’s ago. I will be guiding on some of these walks and whilst most of walks have now sold out, the only walk that has tickets remaining is on Friday 10th September (PM). They can be booked here.

I cannot remember the last time I used a telephone box, or when I last saw anyone else using one. The mobile phone has effectively killed off the need to find a telephone box, yet they are still to be found across the city.

I have a number of photographic themes when walking London’s streets and for the last couple of years, London’s telephone boxes has been added to my theme list. So long a key part of the city’s street infrastructure, I wonder for how long they will survive.

The majority do not work, many have had their phone equipment removed, and many are not in a state that you would wish to stand in and make a call, even if they did work.

Some have found new uses. The most common being advertising as they are often in prime street locations, with full length advertising covering their windows.

The original red telephone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, a design he entered into a Post Office competition in 1924. The model K2 telephone box was the result, which first appeared on the streets of London in 1926. He would then update the design to the K6 which first appeared in 1934 and is the traditional red telephone box we see across the streets of the city.

There have been many modifications, and significant redesigns, the majority of these coming after the Post Office / British Telecom was privatised in the 1980s.

The technology in the phone box has changed over the years. I can just remember the manual method of paying for a call when you had to Press Button A to put coins into the phone to make a call, then if the call was not answered, Press Button B to return the coins.

Having the right change for a phone call was always a problem, and hearing the dreaded pips when the money was running out and you had no more change was a challenge for calls of more than a few minutes.

There are some 2,390 telephone boxes which have been listed by Historic England. The majority are Grade II, but some Grade II*. Historic England have a spreadsheet available for download here, which details the location of all listed telephone boxes.

I have to admit to finding telephone boxes rather scary. I know exactly why. As a young teenager I watched the short 1972 Spanish horror film La Cabina, or the telephone box on TV. It is why whenever I used a telephone box I would always keep my foot in the door, to keep it slightly open. The film is on Reddit, here.

So, still never letting a door shut me in a phone box, here are a selection of photos of London telephone boxes, starting with Charterhouse Square:

Telephone Box

Grade II listed (the larger K6 models) telephone boxes at Smithfield Market:

Smithfield Market

One of the modern versions of the telephone box, also showing how so many of these are now used for advertising. This one is in Aldersgate Street:

Aldersgate Street

Advertising is a potentially profitable business for the reuse of telephone boxes. They are in locations where they are easy to be seen, and where there is a high footfall, so they originally could be found when you wanted to make a call. These original reasons for locating a phone box also apply to sites where advertising works best, and as advertised on the phone box in the photo below, at the junction of London Wall and Moorgate, there is a company (Redphonebox Advertising) that specialises in this new use.

Telephone Box

Perhaps the most photographed telephone box in London is this one in Great George Street / Parliament Square:

Parliament Square

Before Covid, there would frequently be queues of tourists waiting to get their photo taken in a London red phone box with the Elizabeth Tower, or more probably Big Ben to those taking photos, in the background.

With the lack of tourists this phone box is now much quieter, and looking inside, even in such a prominent position, the telephone does not work, with the front panel being pulled away from the rear.

Telephone Box

The following telephone boxes in Parliament Street are also a frequent destination for those wanting a photo with a phone box.

Parliament Street

The following phone box is by the side of Grosvenor Road:

Telephone Box

Internally, whilst the phone still has power, and the display reads BT Payphones, there is no chance of talking to anyone with the vandalised handset:

Telephone Box

This view of the telephone box shows changing street furniture. The old, unused telephone box alongside a TfL cycle dock:

Telephone Box

The above telephone box was made by Walter Macfarlane & Co, at their Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. It seems the company took on the manufacture of phone boxes in the late 1940s after their traditional markets started to disappear. The foundry closed, and the site demolished in 1967, however the company has left their mark on multiple telephone boxes across London:

Telephone Box

Outside Pimlico Station:

Pimlico Station

Duncannon Street, looking towards Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery:

Telephone Box

St Martins Lane, opposite the Duke of York’s theatre:

Telephone Box

Great Newport Street:

Telephone Box

The large blue plaque in the above photo records that the artist Joshua Reynolds lived there between 1753 and 1761.

Charing Cross Road, looking up towards the junction with Shaftsbury Avenue:

Charing Cross Road

The telephone box in the following photo is in St Giles High Street with the church of St Giles in the Fields in the background. The door was left open, and at the time, it was not a phone box you would want to make a call from, even if it was working.

St Giles high Street

Shaftesbury Avenue:

Telephone Box

Bloomsbury Street, opposite the Bloomsbury Street Hotel:

Telephone Box

As with many telephone boxes across London, despite being in Bloomsbury Street, the phone box is used as a litter bin. The telephone equipment has been removed.

Telephone Box

Outside the British Museum:

British Museum

Telephone boxes have been converted to other uses. In Russell Square, two have been converted to a take away coffee shop:

Italian Tiranisu and Coffee Shop

Known as the Italian Tiramisu and Coffee Shop:

Russell Square Gardens

Walking further around Russell Square Gardens and there are another three, which according to the Historic England spreadsheet are Grade II listed:

Russell Square Gardens

At the entrance to Regent Square Gardens on Regent Square:

Regent Square

Looking inside the Regent Square Garden’s telephone box:

Regent Square

At the junction of Euston Road and North Gower Street:

Euston Road

Upper Street, Islington:

Upper Street

Across the road from the above phone box is the following:

Islington

Waterloo Place, looking up towards Piccadilly Circus:

Waterloo Place

The Strand, close to Charing Cross Station:

Charing Cross Station

Opposite Charing Cross Station are these four telephone boxes:

Charing Cross station

They are usually more obvious, however the black hoardings to their right are slightly obscuring them.

Hard to imagine seeing a row of four, empty telephone boxes, however they were sited together in an area of frequent use. In a high footfall area, between the Strand, Charing Cross Station, Trafalgar Square and the theatres of the West End, they would have attracted a considerable number of users.

When I commuted into and out of London during the 1980s, train distruption would always lead to long queues at the phone boxes as the only means of communicating with those at home, or who you were to meet, that you would be late.

Later conversions of telephone boxes have tried to keep them relevant, however Internet access on a mobile phone renders WiFi from a phone box a failed model for their continued use.

Telephone Box

These two telephone boxes are Grade II listed, so even if there are no customers who have an urgent need to make a telephone call from in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, they will probably be here long into the future:

St Paul's cathedral

In the triangle of land where St Martin’s le Grand meets Cheapside:

Telephone Box

Telephone boxes advertising the time when cards as well as coins could be used to pay for a call:

Telephone Box

Euston Road:

Euston Road

Outside St Pancras Station, with the sex work adverts that were once common across central London telephone boxes:

St Pancras

I titled this post the Death of the London Telephone Box, however that is not quite true. Many of them are listed so presumably will be around for years to come, and they are valuable assets as an advertising platform, however what they will not be used for is their original purpose of making telephone calls.

What is clear is that many are not maintained or cleaned. I have found very few that actually work. Many have had their equipment removed, others have been vandalised and many of the remainder are just dead.

I suspect the majority of people under the age of thirty have never used a telephone box, and find the concept of a fixed, wired phone rather antiquated.

They are a left over from a time when the only way to make a call when out on the streets was from a telephone box. When you needed to call for a lift home late at night, meet with friends, change an appointment, check on a place to meet, or just simply calling someone for a chat, the red telephone box was an essential part of street infrastructure.

One of my other photographic themes is information panels, intended to show the passerby what can be seen in the area. I walked by this one a couple of weeks ago, close to the Bank junction:

Bank junction

The plaque was unveiled by the Queen in October 2002, and shows the City’s skyline as it was, just 19 years ago,

Thr highlighted buildings include the London Stock Exchange, Tower 42 (the old NatWest Tower), 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) and the Lloyds of London building.

it is a strange location as none of these buildings can be seen from the location of the plaque. I cannot remember if it has been moved from a different location. The “You Are Here” label on the map implies it is in its original location.

Bank junction

Walking further into the Bank junction and only Tower 42 remains visible, although now partly obscured.

Bank junction

London’s streets will continuously change, as technologies change as do the buildings lining the streets.

As with the transition from telephone boxes to mobile phones, there seems to be another transition gradually underway with the introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods, closure of many city streets to vehicles, cycle lanes etc.

It will be interesting to see how this impacts the city’s recovery from the pandemic, Does it enhance the city, or restrict its viability as a place to work.

In future, will the car in a city be seen the same as a telephone box today, an essential in the past, irrelevant in the future?

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Churchill Gardens and Battersea Power Station

If you travel along Grosvenor Road, the road that runs along the Thames embankment in Pimlico, opposite Battersea Power Station, you may catch a glimpse of a tall, round tower between the blocks of flats that form the Churchill Gardens estate.

It looks rather out of place. An industrial construction within an area dedicated for residential housing. It is now 70 years old, and is the remains of an innovative solution to make use of waste heat from Battersea Power Station to warm the homes of those living on the opposite bank.

Churchill Gardens

The tower is the most visible part of a highly complex system, that took hot water from Battersea Power Station, pumped it under the Thames through specially constructed pipes, stored water in the tower, then distributed it across both the Churchill Gardens and Dolphin Square estates for heating and hot water.

The system is described in considerable detail in a book published in 1951 for the Festival of Britain by the Association of Consulting Engineers. A large book that celebrates the work of civil engineering and construction across a wide range of projects.

The introductory paragraph to the section on the Churchill Gardens project provides an excellent description:

“In the ancient City of Westminster, almost within the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, so severely damaged by German bombers in 1942, great blocks of new flats are rising to meet the needs of London’s teeming millions, thousands of whom are still living in bomb-shattered houses built a century ago.

It is perhaps indicative of Britain’s will to survive and to surmount her economic troubles, that this great new housing estate, together with, it is expected an existing group of flats – probably the largest in Europe – is to have complete space heating and water heating by means of a district heating plan, thus banishing the dust and drudgery of the open coal fire, and the nuisance caused by the delivery and removal of fuel and ash for each block of flats. This plant is unique in two respects: it’s the first public heat supply in London, and it is also London’s first district heating plant wherein the heat is the byproduct of electricity generation. By this means the thermal efficiency of electric generating stations may be raised from its present figure of 25 per cent, to a figure approaching 75 per cent, for stations generating both electricity and heat.”

The section in the book is titled “District Heating Scheme, Pimlico Housing Estate and Dolphin Square”, as at the time the book was put together, the estate had not yet been given the name of Churchill Gardens.

The book includes diagrams and photos of the project.

In the following diagram, we can see Battersea Power Station at lower left, pipes leading under the river to the Churchill Gardens estate which is bounded by Lupus Street, Claverton Street, Grosvenor Road, and Westmoreland Terrace on the western boundary (now an extension of Lupus Street).

Churchill Gardens District Heating System

In the lower centre of the estate is the tower, labelled as the “Hot Water Accumulator”. Dolphin Square, which also received hot water from the scheme is to the right.

The pipes under the Thames were installed in a pre-existing Metropolitan Water Board tunnel, and they consisted of 12 inch bore pipes for feeding water from Battersea and pipes for the return of water. They were insulated by being covered in 2 inches of compressed cork.

The water sent from Battersea Power Station was up to a maximum of 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius) and was stored in the tower, or to use its correct name, the “Hot Water Accumulator” before being distributed across the estate.

Hot water was fed directly to radiators for heating and to a calorifier for hot tap water (a calorifier is basically a coil of pipe inside a tank of water allowing heat to be transferred between the two, so water from the mains supply was delivered at the tap, rather than water from the power station).

The purpose of the tower was to store a sufficient supply of hot water to balance demand, for example when there was higher demand than could be provided immediately through the pipes under the river.

Water temperature was regulated by the injection of the cooler return water to the hot water as by the time water had been used to heat the estate and it was being pumped back to Battersea, it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit cooler then originally sent.

The following diagram shows the supply chain from power station to flats:

District Heating System

The hot water accumulator tower, along with the rest of the heating system was constructed at the same time as the rest of the Churchill Gardens estate:

Churchill Gardens

The system had a number of safeguards built in as the Ministry of Health required assurance that the system would prevent the release of water at 200 degrees onto anyone who was working on the system. This included measures such as automatic stop valves which would operate when a fall in pressure was detected.

The outer surface of the tower consists of a steel framework with translucent glass panels.

Within the tower was the accumulator vessel which was 126 feet in height, and 29 feet in diameter. Constructed of mild steel plates and with a 3 inch layer of cork to provide insulation.

Hot Water Accumulator Tower

The project would save a considerable amount of coal, with the text in the book calculating a total of 10,000 tons of coal saved each year by taking the waste hot water from Battersea Power Station.

The amount of heat supplied to the individual flats across the estate was not measured, and a standard charge was applied to all residents for the service. For other buildings, the charge was based on the surface area of the installed radiators.

The hot water accumulator tower, and the first blocks of flats on the estate on the day of the official opening in 1951:

Hot Water Accumulator Tower

The following map shows the area today, with the Churchill Gardens estate within the red box, Dolphin Square with the blue box, and the hot water accumulator tower marked by the orange circle. Battersea Power Station is across the river marked by the light blue box (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Churchill Gardens

I went for a walk through the Churchill Gardens estate to find the accumulator tower and to take a look at the estate. Starting at the eastern side of the estate, I walked through the road that runs through the centre of the estate – Churchill Garden Road.

This is the view looking into the estate from Claverton Street:

Churchill Gardens

Map of the estate at the entrance from Claverton Street:

Churchill Gardens

Along with an early speed limit sign:

Churchill Gardens

The A.G. Dawtry. Town Clerk mentioned on the speed limit sign was Sir Alan Dawtry, who was town clerk, then chief executive of Westminster City Council from 1956 to 1977. He lived for 61 years in the nearby Dolphin Square complex and was instrumental in saving the building when in the 1960s the company that owned Dolphin Square was going through financial problems, and there was a risk that the buildings would be sold off and converted to a hotel.

The above sign probably dates from the later part of the 1950s, as the estate was being completed.

Pre-war, the area occupied by the Churchill Gardens estate had consisted of industrial buildings and terrace houses. Bomb damage during the war, and the slum conditions of the housing meant that the area was ideal for redevelopment.

The 1943 County of London plan had proposed the development of large, well planned estates, and at the end of the war, Westminster City Council launched a competition for the design of a new estate.

The competition was won by Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, who were also responsible for the design of the Skylon for the Festival of Britain, the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster and the Museum of London building at London Wall.

The winning design by Powell and Moya included buildings with a variety of heights, consisting of eleven storey blocks to three and four storey houses and maisonettes. This was intended to break up any monotony across the estate, and to attract a broad cross section of residents.

Gardens and playgrounds would be provided between the buildings, and to address the urgent need for post war housing, the estate was designed to accommodate a high density of 200 people per acre, which was the maximum allowed at the time.

The first part of the estate that we reach from Claverton Street was the last finished. Built in the early 1960s, this part of the estate makes more use of glass than the rest of the estate:

Churchill Gardens

One of these 1960 to 1962 blocks crosses Churchill Garden Road, almost creating the impression of a gateway to the rest of the estate:

Churchill Gardens

Looking along Churchill Garden Road, we can see the main blocks of flats:

Churchill Gardens

The road curves as it runs through the estate, so the main blocks of flats do not form a continuous wall along the road. They are also aligned north – south so as to maximise the amount of day light that would fall on their main east – west facing windows.

The blocks that were built during the first phase of construction, from 1946 up to 1951 have large, glazed stairways protruding from the sides of the blocks. Later blocks would have galleries running along the length of the blocks.

Churchill Gardens

Well kept gardens between the blocks:

Churchill Gardens

Shelley House with a glimpse of the hot water accumulator tower to the right:

Churchill Gardens

In the above photo, a blue plaque can be seen on the wall.

Shelley House was one of the first four blocks completed by 1950 and the blue plaque is a Festival of Britain Award for Merit granted to these first blocks. These four blocks (Chaucer House, Coleridge House, Shelley House and Keats House) along with Gilbert House and Sullivan House on the western edge of estate, and the accumulator tower are also Grade II listed, and indeed the whole estate has been designated as a conservation area.

The Festival of Britain Award for Merit:

Festival of Britain

Looking back along Churchill Garden Road, and the block on the left has another plaque:

Churchill Gardens

This plaque marks the official opening of the estate on the 24th July 1951 when the first phase of the estate, including the hot water accumulator tower, had been completed:

Churchill Gardens

In the 1951 book by the Association of Consulting Engineers, the estate was called the “Pimlico Housing Estate”, as the estate had not yet been given an official name. A newspaper article in the Westminster and Pimlico News dated the 23rd March 1951 provides the sources of the name:

“It was disclosed at Westminster Council meeting that the name ‘Churchill Gardens’ was the brainwave of Housing Committee chairman, Councilor Miss Paton Walsh.

Mrs. Winston Churchill has agreed to perform the opening ceremony of the estate and of the district heating undertaking on Thursday, July 19.

Miss Paton Walsh pointed out that Mr. Churchill had many connections with Westminster in that he had lived and worked there and he was also their first honorary freeman of the city.”

The official opening covered the first phase of the estate and construction would continue into the 1960s. The 1950s were a difficult time for construction as there were so many competing demands for workers and materials as post war reconstruction gathered pace. This was also having an impact on Churchill Gardens as this article from the 3rd of August, 1951 edition of the Westminster and Pimlico News reported:

“Heartbreaking – It will be heartbreaking for home-seekers if flats at Churchill Gardens are held up while huge Government buildings started in the city are favoured and supplied with all the steel they need.

Sir Harold Webbe, Westminster’s MP attended the opening of Churchill Gardens. He is fully acquainted with the position. If there is a grave delay in the building of these flats he will undoubtedly use his influence in an effort to get things moving.”

Although the streets and houses that Churchill Gardens replaced had suffered bomb damage, with many regarded as slums, they were still occupied, and people were only moved when building had reached their part of the future estate. In 1959, contractors were preparing for demolition of the houses on the eastern edge of the estate ready for construction of the blocks that would be built in the early 1960s, however as the Westminster and Pimlico News reported on the 31st July 1959, there could still be delays:

“Demolition of houses in Claverton Street and Ranelagh Road, Pimlico on the site of Section IV of Churchill Gardens housing estate depends on rehousing the families still there.

Ald. C.P. Russell, chairman of the housing committee, said this at the Westminster Council meeting in a reply to a question put by Cllr. O.M. Boyd.

If rehousing proceeded at the anticipated rate, he expected demolition to start in the sprint of 1960.”

Another plaque from A.G. Dawtry. Town Clerk, this time banning Hawkers, Canvassers and Street Musicians, along with cycling on paths, throwing stones or other missiles, and that exercising dogs on the paths and lawns is not allowed.

Churchill Gardens

It is at this point in the estate that we meet the hot water accumulator tower:

Hot Water Accumulator Tower

At the base of the accumulator tower are buildings that house equipment for the heating system.

The supply of hot water from Battersea Power Station ended in 1983, when the final generators at the power station closed.

The system supplying heat to Churchill Gardens was then converted to what we would now call as District Heat and Power system. In the buildings at the base of the accumulator tower are boilers along with heat and electricity generating systems which produce heat for distribution across the estate, along with electricity which is fed into the National Grid, which provides revenue to help subsidise the costs of the system.

A poor view through the fence into the equipment rooms at the base of the tower, along with a graphic of the tower on the glass:

Churchill Gardens

The range of the system has extended from the original 1951 installation. As well as Churchill Gardens, the system now provides heating for Abbots Manor, Russell House and Lillington Gardens, with 5km of underground pipes serving 3,250 homes along with schools and commercial premises.

Another view of the equipment rooms, with the brick base of the hot water accumulator tower in the right:

Churchill Gardens

When you get up close, you can see that the tower is built within a deep pit, the following photo shows part of the side walls to this pit:

Belgrave Dock

These walls look as if they have some age, older than the Churchill Gardens estate, and their original purpose is rather surprising.

Before the war, there was a considerable amount of industry in the area now occupied by the Churchill Gardens estate. A distillery, saw mills, engine works and a furniture stores. There were also a number of wharves and docks, including one long dock called Belgrave Dock. This can be seen in the following extract from the 1894 Ordnance Survey Map (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’:

Churchill Gardens

In the map, I have outlined the area occupied by Churchill Gardens in red and Dolphin Square in green. Note the difference in street layout between the area to the south of Lupus Street and the area to the north, which still remains much the same.

In the centre of the map is a long stretch of water – this is Belgrave Dock. I have marked the location of the hot water accumulator tower with the orange circle, and you can see that it stands in the middle of the dock.

The brick walls that can be seen in the pit next to the tower are the original surviving walls of Belgrave Dock. Rather amazing that these reminders of the areas industrial past survive.

Belgrave Dock seems to date from the early 19th century. The first written reference I can find is from the 26th February 1832 when the London News reported on a number of accidents during some of the very thick fogs that were covering parts of London at the time. As well as the Belgrave Dock, the report mentions the Grosvenor Canal, which was just to the left of the railway tracks on the left of the above map:

“FATAL ACCIDENTS DURING THE LATE FOG – Between eight and nine o’clock on Friday evening, a police constable discovered a woman in the Grosvenor-canal, Pimlico, quite dead: with assistance he got the body out, and conveyed it to the station-house, in Elizabeth street. The body was owned yesterday, and proved to be Mrs. Ann Hart, aged 72 years, residing in St George’s-row, near the wooden-bridge, Pimlico. There is no doubt that the poor old woman had, during the intense fog, walked into the Canal, which is very dangerous from its unguarded state, as she had her clogs on and a basket in her hand when found. She had merely gone out on an errand.

On Friday morning, john Dillon, a police-constable of the B. division, discovered the bodies of two men at the entrance of Belgrave Dock. They proved to be the bodies of Mr. Wilson, of No. 22, Prince-street, Lambeth, a wadding manufacturer, and his son-in-law, Mr. York; who it is supposed walked into the water during the fog.

The place is in a most dangerous state, particularly in foggy weather; and the only wonder is, that more accidents have not occurred. The place belongs to the Marquis of Westminster; and it is to be hoped that his Lordship will give immediate orders to have the evil remedied. We have heard that another female was brought out of the Canal yesterday morning.”

The report provides an impression of what the area was like in the early 19th century, and I like the address for poor Ann Hart as “near the wooden-bridge, Pimlico”.

Walking down the side road to the tower, and this is the view of the tower from the south:

Accumulator Tower

In the above photo, and in the photo below there is a large building completely covered in scaffolding, including scaffolding stretching across the road, presumably to provide some buttressing support to the building.

Balmoral Castle

Buried underneath the scaffolding is a closed pub – the Balmoral Castle. A painted sign can just be seen on the side of the pub.

Balmoral Castle

The Balmoral Castle dates from the mid 19th century and was part of the original development of the area. It can be seen in the 1894 Ordnance Survey extract above under the dark blue circle.

The pub seems to have been the focus for a number of sporting clubs, with the Metropolitan Cabdrivers Rowing Regatta and Mechanics’ United Rowing Club, along with the Pimlico Athletic Club all using the Balmoral Castle as their meeting place.

It was retained during the development of Churchill Gardens as the intention was to include community facilities for the residents. The pub closed in 2004, and the scaffolding was erected in 2014.

There have been plans to redevelop the area occupied by the pub and nearby Darwin House, but these do seem to be progressing rather slowly. In the meantime, part of the pub also seems to be supported by an incredible growth of what looks from a distance like a form of ivy.

Balmoral Castle

Continuing along Churchill Garden Road, and we can see blocks built during later phases. These do not have the multiple external stairs, but have galleries along each floor.

Churchill Gardens

There are design features such as concrete canopies over the entrances to the blocks:

Churchill Gardens

As well as the Balmoral Castle pub, a school was retained during the construction of the estate. This is St. Gabriel’s Church of England Primary School.

Churchill Gardens

The block of flats behind the school has the distinctive white rendered, rooftop drums for water tanks and lift equipment found on the top of the blocks across the estate.

At the end of Churchill Garden Road, I reached the western end of Lupus Street which forms the western boundary of the estate. The following photo is looking back through the estate:

Churchill Gardens

We then walked along Grosvenor Road, along the Thames for another view of the hot water accumulator tower, with the scaffolding surrounding the Balmoral Castle to the left:

Accumulator Tower

Part of the Churchill Gardens estate faces directly onto Grosvenor Road, however there are some original buildings that have survived:

King William IV

One of which was another pub that has recently closed and is now being redeveloped. This was the King William IV, originally from the mid 19th century and rebuilt in 1880:

King William IV

The future of the old pub seems to be some form of housing. The Health and Safety Executive Notification of Construction Project taped to one of the windows states that the address is now “Travel Joy Hostels Ltd” and the project will consist of 6 new apartments being designed and built, an extra floor added, and a basement to be constructed to the rear.

The old doors to the pub, with a gutted interior behind:

King William IV

A short distance along Grosvenor Road is Dolphin Square. This large estate was also provided with heating from the original Battersea Power Station / Churchill Gardens system:

Dolphin Square

My original reason for exploring Churchill Gardens was to find the hot water accumulator tower, and there was one final part of the original system that I had to visit, and this was Battersea Power Station, which supplied the waste hot water across the river to heat the estate.

Battersea Power Station seen from across the river:

Battersea Power Station

I also wanted to see how development of the old power station and the surrounding area was progressing. In the above photo, the large, glass apartment block that now sits between the power station and railway bridge can be seen on the right.

In the following photo, the additional building on top, and to the side of the power station can be seen:

Battersea Power Station

Crossing the river on Chelsea Bridge, and the apparently random jumble of towers that are spreading along the side of the Thames in Vauxhall can be seen:

Vauxhall

Battersea Power Station closed in 1983, and for many years the building was empty, roofless and derelict. After many false starts, much of the old building has been redeveloped. This included the complete reconstruction of the chimneys as the originals were structurally unsafe.

One of the chimneys is planned to included the Battersea Power Station Chimney Lift, which will lift visitors to the top of the tower to get a view from above. It is planned to open in 2022.

The redevelopment of the area follows the standard plan for any London developments – glass and steel apartments above, restaurants, cafes, shops and entertainment venues at ground level.

Alongside one of the new apartment blocks, restaurants, bars and a cinema have been built into the arches that line the railway viaduct:

Battersea Power Station

From the Battersea side of the river, we can look across the river to the blocks of Churchill Gardens, and the hot water accumulator tower that was once supplied by the power station:

Battersea Power Station

The new apartment block on the right closes in on the power station. There are restaurants on the ground floor and a small area of landscaping up to the river:

Battersea Power Station

Looking between the power station and apartment building. A similar glass and steel building has yet to be built on the opposite side of the power station as the area links up with the tower blocks currently being built along Vauxhall.

Battersea Power Station

The area behind and to the east of the power station is still blocked off for construction work, so there is not that much to see, apart from the area in front and around the new apartment building.

On a sunny Sunday, the cafes and restaurants seemed to be doing reasonably well.

The district heating system for the Churchill Gardens estate was the first of its type in London, and probably in the country. There have been a number of systems built since, the latest is the Bunhill 2 Energy Centre, built at the location of the long closed City Road underground station. Rather than waste heat from a power station, Bunhill 2 is unusual in that it takes heat from the Northern line tunnels below.

Bunhill 2 is an addition to the existing Bunhill energy centre built in 2012, which makes use of the more traditional gas powered engine to produce heat and generate electricity. The energy centre is open during this years Open House London event.

That was a rather long post, so thank you if you made it this far.

As usual there is so much to explore and discover. I find the combination of the hot water accumulator tower, built into the old Belgrave Dock, with the original side walls fascinating – relics of two very different industrial activities in Pimlico.

Churchill Gardens does have its problems, but is an estate that shows what can be done to provide housing with innovative design, well chosen materials, and importantly continuous maintenance of the buildings and landscape.

It was a fascinating walk.

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Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration and New River Head

House of Illustration is a small arts and education charity dedicated to the art of illustration – an art form that can be found on almost every aspect of modern life. Originally based in King’s Cross, the charity is moving to a very historic location and transforming into the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration.

Quentin Blake has been one of the most prolific and high profile illustrators of the 20th and early 21st centuries, with his work across many forms of illustration, including illustrating the works of the author Roald Dahl.

The new location for the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration will be at New River Head in north Clerkenwell / Islington, the site of the reservoir that terminated the first man made river bringing supplies of water to the city of London in the early 17th century.

Having been empty for many years, the base of the early 18th century windmill, the engine house and coal store at New River Head will be sensitively transformed over the coming year into the new centre. This transformation will ensure that these buildings are preserved and after being hidden away for so many years, will be given a new life hosting one of London’s small, but so important charities and exhibition spaces. The centre will also eventually be the home for Quentin Blake’s archive.

So why is this the subject of this week’s blog post? A while ago, a colleague from the Clerkenwell and Islington Guide (CIGA) Course was offered the opportunity to visit the site and create a walk that would illustrate how water has been key to the area’s development, and to visit the interior of the windmill and coal stores and the exterior of the engine house before work begins to create the new centre. 

Offered the opportunity to be involved, it took about a second to say yes, and for one week only there is a series of walks exploring the Fluid History of Islington, which, with the support of the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, includes access to the base of the early 18th century windmill, the coal stores and around the outside of the engine house at New River Head. I will be guiding on some of these walks, and colleagues from CIGA will be guiding the rest.

This is a unique opportunity to explore how water has influenced the development of the area, see these historic buildings up close, and learn about their future use.

The full set of walks are available to book here

As an introduction to the walk, the following illustration is the proposed plan of the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration.

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

Credit: Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, Tim Ronalds Architects

In the above plan, the round building to the lower left is the base of the early windmill. I took the following photo of the building on a recent visit:

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

The large building to the right is the old engine house. The interior will not be open for the visit as it is currently difficult to navigate, however we will walk around the outside of the building and talk about the part the engine house played in the development of New River Head and London’s water supply, along with the future of the site.

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

Credit: New River Head © Justin Piperger

The old coal store forms the longer building to the right, and will be open during the visit:

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

As can be seen from the following illustration, when transformed to a new exhibition area, the fabric of the building will retain its industrial heritage:

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

Credit: Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, Tim Ronalds Architects, Prospective Gallery

The location for the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration is at a place that played a key part in the supply of clean water for London’s growing population for a considerable period of time.

The New River and reservoirs at New River Head were the first serious attempt at bringing significant volumes of water into London from a distance, and avoiding the need to draw water from the Thames, which by the end of the 16th century was not exactly a healthy source of drinking water.

The New River dates to the start of the 17th century, a time when there was a desperate need for supplies of clean water to a rapidly expanding city. Numerous schemes were being proposed, and the build of the New River tells the story of how the City of London, Parliament, the Crown and private enterprise all tried to gain an advantage and ownership of significant new infrastructural services, the power they would have over the city, and the expected profits.

The New River proposal was for a man-made channel, bringing water in from springs around Ware in Hertfordshire (Amwell and Chadwell springs) to the city. A location was needed outside the city where water from the New River could be stored, treated and then distributed to consumers across the city.

The site chosen, called New River Head, was located between what is now Rosebery Avenue and Amwell Street. The red rectangle on the following map shows the area occupied by New River Head (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

The story of the New River dates back to 1602 when a former army officer from Bath, Edmund Colthurst who had served in Ireland, proposed a scheme to bring in water from Hertfordshire springs to a site to the north of the city.

As a reward for his military service, he was granted letters patent from King James I, to construct a channel, six feet wide, to bring water from Hertfordshire to the city.

Colthurst’s was not the only scheme for supplying water to the city. There were a number of other private companies, and the City of London Corporation was looking at similar schemes to bring in water from the River Lea and Hertfordshire springs.

Whilst Colthurst’s project was underway, the City of London petitioned parliament, requesting that the City be granted the rights to the water sources and for the construction of a channel to bring the water to the city.

In 1606 the City of London was successful when parliament granted the City access rights to the Hertfordshire water, a decision which effectively destroyed Colthurst’s scheme, which collapsed after the construction of 3 miles of the river channel.

It was an interesting situation, as Colthurst had the support of the King, through the letters patent he had been granted, whilst the City of London had the support of parliament.

The City of London took a few years deciding what to do with the water rights granted by parliament, and in 1609 granted these rights to a wealthy City Goldsmith, Hugh Myddelton. He was a member of the Goldsmiths Company, an MP (for Denbigh in Wales), and one of his brothers, Thomas Myddelton was a City alderman and would later become Lord Mayor of the City of London, so Myddelton probably had all the right connections, which Colthurst lacked.

Colthurst obviously could see how he had been outflanked by the City, so agreed to join the new scheme, and was granted shares in the project. Colthurst joining the City of London’s scheme thereby uniting the rights granted by James I and parliament.

Work commenced on the New River in 1609, but swiftly ran into problems with owners of land through which the New River would pass, objecting to the work, and the loss of land. A number of land owners petitioned Parliament to repeal the original acts which had granted the rights to the City, however when James I dissolved Parliament in 1611, the scheme was given three years to complete construction and find a way to overcome land owners objections, as Parliament would not be recalled until 1614.

There were originally 36 shares in the New River Company. Myddleton had decided to enlist the support of James I to address the land owners objections, and created an additional 36 new shares and granted these to James I who would effectively own half the company.

in return, James I granted the New River Company the right to build on his land, he covered half the costs, and Royal support influenced the other land owners along the route, removing their objections, as any further attempts to hinder the work would result in the king’s “high displeasure”.

The New River was completed in 1613. It was a significant engineering achievement. Although the straight line distance between the springs around Ware and New River Head was around 20 miles, the actual route was just over 40 miles, as the route followed the 100 foot height contour to provide a smooth flow of water, resulting in only an 18 foot drop from source to end.

The New River Head location was chosen for a number of reasons. A location north of the city was needed to act as a holding location, from where multiple streams of water could then be distributed through pipes across the wider city.

The location sat on London Clay, rather than the free draining gravel found further south in Clerkenwell, and it was also a high point, with roughly a 31 meter drop down to the River Thames, thereby allowing gravity to transport water down towards consumers in the city.

The site already had a number of ponds, confirming the suitability of the land to hold water.

By the end of the 17th century, London had been expanding to the west and developement was taking place around the area now called Soho, including Soho Square.

The challenge the New Rver Company had with supplying water to London’s expanding population was down to having sufficient volumes of water available, and with maintaining water pressure.

The City of London was much lower than New River Head, and water pressure was generally good, however further to the west of the city, the land was higher, and the difference in height between places such as Soho and New River Head was insufficient to provide a good supply to new developments.

This is when the windmill appeared. The New River Company built a new reservoir at Claremont Square, towards Pentonville Road. This new reservoir provided extra storage capacity, and was also higher than New River Head, thereby able to deliver water at greater pressure.

A method was needed to pump water to the new reservoir and the method chosen was a windmill. This was in operation by 1709, but was never very efficient and the top of the windmill was severely damaged by a storm in 1720. Newspaper reports of the storm refer to “the upper part, quite to the brickwork, was blown of the Windmill at New River Head”

The storm also damaged large numbers of ships anchored in the Thames, and: “The Horse-Ferry boat, that passed to and fro from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs was lost and is not yet found, and the Storm was so violent as to lay the Isle of Dogs under Water by the beating of Water over the Banks”

The following print shows the windmill in the 1740s with the sails and top section missing after the storm  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

By 1775, the top of the windmill appears to have been castellated. The first engine house is in operation to the left. The engine house replaced the windmill and later horse power by providing the power for the pumps.  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

The following print from 1752 shows the New River Head complex with the remains of the windmill after the 1720 storms  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

New River Head

To the lower left of the windmill is a small building that would have housed the horse-gin, used between the storm and the installation of the steam engine to power the pumps, pumping water to the reservoir which can be seen in the lower part of the view.

If you look closely between the reservoir and the windmill, you can see what appears to be a couple of pipes running between the windmill and a building on the edge of the reservoir from where water is pouring into the reservoir.

Although now reduced to just the base, it is remarkable that part of the windmill has survived over 300 years, and it is the base of the windmill that we will see inside during the walk.

After the storm, a “horse gin” was employed which consisted of a small building adjacent to the windmill that provided room for a horse to walk in a circle whilst harnessed to a wheel. The rotation of the wheel was transferred to the pumps to provide the power to move water from New River Head to the higher reservoir.

Later in the 18th century, this was replaced by a steam engine. Whilst we will not be able to go into the engine house, we will walk alongside to explore the history of the building:

Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

Credit: New River Head © Justin Piperger

Behind the engine house is a coal store used to store the fuel for the steam engines in the engine house. The following photo shows the coal store buildings on the left, with a storage area marked with dimensions on the right:

New River Head

Some photos of the interior of the engine house:

New River Head
New River Head
New River Head
New River Head
New River Head

New River Head would continue to play a part in the supply of water into the 20th century.

Reservoirs eventually built at Stoke Newington were of the size needed for London’s ever growing population, and the New River would come to terminate at these reservoirs rather than continuing on to New River Head.

The central Round Pond was drained in 1913. The remaining filter beds had disappeared by 1946, and New River Head became the head offices of the Metropolitan Water Board, along with supporting functions including a large laboratory building.

New River Head continues to be a key part of London’s water supply with one of the shafts to the London Ring Main on the site. The shaft is one of the 12 main pump out shafts across the ring main where water is taken out and distributed locally.

New River Head appeared in a 1748 print with astronomical drawings describing an eclipse of the sun. New River Head is at the bottom of the print, then fields and with the City in the distance  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

New River Head

One of the two characters at bottom right is using a telescope, presumably to observe the eclipse which took place on the 14th July 1748.

The above print is the type of find that sends me searching for something that is not really related to the subject of the post, however as New River Head is in the view, there is a tenuous link.

The 1748 eclipse was an event well publicised in advance, and numerous papers published recommendations on how to view the eclipse, which sound very similar to what we would do today (apart from the candle).

1. Make a pin-hole in a piece of paper, and look through it at the eclipse. Or,

2. Hold a piece of glass so long over the flame of a candle, till it is equally blackened; and then the eclipse may be viewed through it, either with the naked eye, or through a telescope. Or,

3. Let the sun’s rays through a small hole into a darkened room, and so view the picture of the eclipse, upon a wall, or upon paper. Or,

4. Transmit the image of the sun through a telescope, either inverted, as usual on a circle of paper or pasteboard.

In London the eclipse would start at four minutes past nine in the morning and end at ten minutes past twelve. The eclipse was partly visible, however for much of the time it was obscured due to what were described as “flying clouds”.

I can guarantee that there will not be an eclipse at New River Head during the week of the walks, however the walks will provide a unique opportunity to view some of the buildings that contributed to the development of London’s water supply, learn about their future use, and to hear how water has influenced the development of Islington.

The walks can be booked here.

alondoninheritance.com

Euston Station and HS2 – A 2021 Update

For the past four years, I have written an annual post on the work around Euston to create the extension to the station for HS2, recording the area from before work started to at some point in the future, when the new station will be operational.

My first post was back in 2017 and covered St James Gardens, just before they were closed for excavation.

My second post in 2018 walked around the streets to the west of the station, as buildings began to close, and the extent of the works could be seen.

I then went back in 2019 as demolition started.

In 2020, demolition was well underway and St James Gardens had disappeared, and the associated archaeological excavation had finished

One year on, and in 2021, the majority of the buildings in the surrounding streets have now been demolished, and work has extended to the west of Hampstead Road, along with the grounds between Euston Station and Euston Road. Walking the area now provides an indication of just how large an area is being developed for HS2’s London terminus at Euston station.

So for 2021’s update, in today’s post are some of the photos from a walk through the area that will become Euston’s new HS2 station, following the route shown in the following map (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Euston Station and HS2

This is the view looking west from point S in the above map, at the south western corner of the station.

Euston Station and HS2

The road in the foreground is what was Melton Street, which now provides one of the access routes into the works.

From this point, there are a couple of pedestrian walkways that have been created through the site:

Euston Station and HS2

I turned right to head towards Drummond Street. The following photo is looking along the closed Melton Street. The old Euston Underground station of Leslie Green’s distinctive design is the one remaining building on the corner of Melton Street and Drummond Street.

Euston Station and HS2

View across Melton Street to the left of the above photo:

Euston Station and HS2

Here is the turning which takes you across Melton Street to Drummond Street:

Euston Station and HS2

The old underground station:

Euston Station and HS2

This was the station back in 2016, on the day I went on a Hidden London tour to visit the closed tunnels below the station. You can read my post of the visit here.

Euston Underground Station

Into Cobourg Street and the Exmouth Arms is still open, on the edge of the construction site.

Exmouth Arms

Another access gate at the end of Cobourg Street:

Euston Station and HS2

From where we can look out over what was St James Gardens, which is now a large hole:

Euston Station and HS2

View back along Cobourg Street showing on the left the large and continuous hoardings that have been erected along the edge of the construction site:

Euston Station and HS2

I cut through to the Hampstead Road and started walking north. This is the junction of Cardington Street with Hampstead Road:

Euston Station and HS2

Walking further north along Hampstead Road and the area to the left of the street, south of the rail lines out of Euston are now another major construction site:

Euston Station and HS2

Work had not started here back in February 2020, and now demonstrates how large an area is being covered by the work to create the new Euston Station and HS2. The entrance to the new work area:

Euston Station and HS2

Obligatory camera over the wall shot to see the existing tracks running into Euston:

Euston Station

Walking back south along Hampstead Road, and it is not just the geographic size of the construction work, but the related infrastructure, with a number of large, temporary buildings constructed for those working on the site:

Euston Station and HS2

Back into Drummond Street and this is looking from the part of the street that has not been touched, through to the demolished section which now forms the pedestrian walking route to Euston station:

Euston Station and HS2

Although the western section of many of the surrounding streets are not being demolished, there are several works taking place along their length:

Euston Station and HS2

The following photo is from the junction of Euiston Street (which once went straght on) and Cobourg Street on the left:

Bree Louise

The above photo was the location of the Bree Louise pub, here photographed just after the pub closed in 2018:

Bree Louise

With hoardings in place in 2019:

Bree Louise

Work blocking off Regnart Buildings:

Euston Station and HS2

View along Cobourg Street from the end of Euston Street:

Euston Station and HS2

The whole construction site is very secure, with very few points to look in and see the work underway. Tall hoardings with information about local businesses and institutes, what there is to find in the area, the history of Euston station, the future HS2 etc. line the entire site, with well protected work access points the only means of access:

Euston Station and HS2

Work access point at the entrance to what was the eastern section of Drummond Street:

Euston Station and HS2

Walking back to Euston Road, and this is the Melton Street access point:

Euston Road

There is now only a short length of Melton Street in use, providing access for taxis and drop offs at the station to the immediate right. The traffic lights providing access to Euston Road only seem to change to green for a couple of vehicles, resulting in a number of rather irate drivers.

Further along Euston Road, and this view is looking across the bus access road to the station, to what was green space in front of the station:

Euston Road

This green space is where demonstrators occupied the trees and dug tunnels a few months ago. Fencing around the site now seems to resemble some form of high secure establishment rather than a constructiion site.

Two layers of fencing, with an outer green mesh metal fence, and inner hoardings:

Euston Road

Indeed the whole Euston Station and HS2 construction site is the most secure of this type of construction site that I have seen. As well as the metal fencing and continuous hoardings through the site, there are plenty of orange high-vis security staff guarding entrances and walking the boundaries.

North east corner of the green space in front of the station. Closed Euston Square leading up to Euston Road on the left resulting in buses coming out of the station having to divert around Grafton Place adding to the congestion in the area:

Euston Road

The corner of Euston Square and Euston Road:

Euston Station and HS2

From the walkways and streets available to the public, there is really not much to see. The construction phase has reached what appears to be the end of demolition, there are plenty of big holes in the ground and temporary structures, but nothing yet of the new station.

According to the HS2 web site, “Phase One will open between 2029 and 2033”, so a minimum of eight more annual posts walking around Euston Station and HS2, more probably around twelve. By 2033 this area will look very different.

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Limehouse Cut and Angel Underground Station

Before starting on this week’s post on the Limehouse Cut and Angel Underground Station, can I thank you for all the feedback following last Sunday’s post. It is really appreciated.

I also hope that if you receive my posts as a subscriber, this one does reach you. For the last few days there has been a rather obscure error message in the component that links the blog with the WordPress tool that manages e-mail subscriptions. The hosting company is investigating, so my apologies if it does not reach you automatically.

You may well be wondering what on earth brings the Limehouse Cut and Angel Underground Station together in one post. I can assure you there is a common theme linking these two locations, which I hope will become clear as you read through the post.

Limehouse Cut

If you walk east along Narrow Street in Limehouse, over the bridge that crosses the channel from Limehouse Basin to the Thames, then turn towards the river along the Thames Path, and at the end of the new apartment buildings that go by the name of Victoria Wharf, you will find a short channel in from the river:

This was the original river entrance where the Limehouse Cut connected to the River Thames.

The Limehouse Cut was opened in 1770 to provide a direct route between the River Thames and the River Lea at Bromley-by-Bow.

The River Lea entered the Thames to the east of the Isle of Dogs, so the Limehouse Cut provided a much shorter route for barges heading to the City and east London by avoiding the need to travel around the full loop of the Isle of Dogs.

The following extract from the 1816 edition of Smith’s New Plan of London shows the Limehouse Cut running as an almost straight line from the River Lea at top right to the Thames, where I have marked the point where the Limehouse Cut connects to the river with a red circle – this is the short channel in my photo above.

The area to the lower left of the Limehouse Cut was mainly open space, with a limited number of buildings and streets, however this would be changing very soon.

Soon after the 1816 map was published, another canal was built to help with transport across the city. The Regent’s Canal ran from Limehouse and headed north to loop around north London, allowing goods to be transported from the river to the north of the city, thereby avoiding the congested road system.

Part of the Regent’s Canal included a large basin, an expanse of open water just before the point where the Regent’s Canal entered the river. There were warehouses around the basin, and barges would gather, waiting to transit to the river when tides allowed the locks to be open.

The Regent’s Canal Basin, and the entrance to the river was built immediately to the west of the Limehouse Cut.

For eleven years between 1853 and 1864, the Limehouse Cut was diverted into the Regent’s Canal Basin, however after 1864 the original entrance was back in use, with a new bridge carrying Narrow Street over the canal. This would last for another 100 years.

The following extract from the 1955 revision of the Ordnance Survey map shows the Limehouse Cut running from top right down to the River Thames, with the Regent’s Canal Basin immediately to the left, labelled as “Dock” (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

By 1968 industrial activity in the area had been in long decline as was trade on the Regent’s Canal and Limehouse Cut. The entrance to the river was again closed, and the Limehouse Cut diverted into the Regent’s Canal Basin that was renamed as the Limehouse Basin.

The following extract is from a map of the area today. Limehouse Cut is coming in from top right and diverting straight into Limehouse Basin, I have again circled the original entrance with a red circle (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

The pink road that appears to loop across the north of the Limehouse Basin is in reality underground as this is the Limehouse Link Tunnel.

The following view is looking across the old entrance to Limehouse Cut. The wooden boards may well be the original planks that lined the entrance to the canal.

A couple of high explosive bombs landed in the immediate vicinity so the area surrounding the wooden planks may well be repaired bomb damage.

A very faded information board at the old entrance to the Limehouse Cut:

Between 1853 and 1864, the Limehouse Cut had been diverted to the Thames via the Regent’s Canal Basin. In 1864, the original entrance was restored, and a new wrought iron girder bridge was installed to carry Narrow Street over the Limehouse Cut. This 1864 bridge remains in place, although because of the filled in entrance, the bridge is not that obvious apart from the iron side walls as the street is carried over the Limehouse Cut. This is the view from Narrow Street looking south towards the Thames:

The view looking north:

Looking over the northern edge of the bridge, we can see the section of the Limehouse Cut that was originally the lock that controlled access between the non-tidal canal and the tidal river. Much restored late 19th century lock keepers cottages line the western side of the old lock (to the left in the photo below):

The old Regent’s Canal Basin, now the smaller Limehouse Basin, today hosts a marina, and provides links with the River Thames, Regent’s Canal and via the Limehouse Cut, the River Lea, and are all really interesting walks.

The old Limehouse Cut entrance is evidence of the canal’s original 1770 route into the River Thames for one of London’s early transport systems.

Angel Underground Station

Today, the entrance to Angel Underground Station is on the corner of a modern brick office block, facing onto Islington High Street. It has not always been in this position.

To find the original station, you need to walk south to the junction of Islington High Street with Pentonville Road, and walk a short distance along City Road and on the left is a rather strange looking building:

This is the original Angel Underground Station.

The Angel Station opened in 1901 as part of the City and South London extension from Moorgate. Six years later in 1907, the line was extended on towards Euston station. Today, Angel Station is on the Bank branch of the Northern Line. The following extract from the 1954 Ordnance Survey Map shows the original station in the centre of the map, on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street. This is the station building photographed above (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

The location of the old and new stations can be seen in the following map (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

When Angel Station was built, it had a narrow central platform, with both tracks running either side of the platform. Whilst this was probably fine for the short period of time before the line was extended, it was a rather dangerous place when the platform was crowded, and busy trains ran in both directions.

The following clip is from the 1989 BBC film Heart of the Angel (link at the end of the post), showing the crowded platform.

From the same film is a clip of the 1989 entrance to the station, looking down City Road and is on the right of my photo of the station at the top of this section of the post.

The platforms were also served by lifts from the ground level building. The exterior cladding around the original brick building was a later addition to provide extra space. The view down Torrens Street with the station on the right:

By the late 1980s, the station had a long history of overcrowding along the narrow single platform. It would frequently be rather chaotic when two trains pulled in, with passengers leaving both trains onto a narrow platform full of passengers waiting to get on the trains.

The lifts were also relatively small for the number of passengers at busy times and would also frequently break down. At the end of the 1980s a major rebuild of the station began.

A new tunnel was excavated to take the northern branch, thereby separating the northern and southern tracks so each could have their own platform. The southern branch today occupies the space of the original tunnel so has a rather wide platform compared to a normal station, as the platform occupies the space of the original platform and the northern tracks.

Escalators were installed to avoid the use of lifts, and these took passengers between the platforms and the new station entrance on Islington High Street.

The new station opened in 1992, leaving the original station building to sit on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street.

Crossrail 2 includes a station at Angel, and the complete eastern side of Torrens Street, including the original station building, was designated in the safeguarding map of sites for Crossrail 2 construction and operation.

The following view looks along Torrens Street at the buildings included in the safeguarding map.

The buildings along this side of the street are an interesting mix of old warehouses.

Candid Arts Trust occupies a 19th century warehouse:

And at the end of the street is an early 20th century building that was constructed on the site of a smithy and may have been used to stable horses, however it would be occupied by a metal working and plating company.

And there is still evidence of this activity:

The building is now occupied by the “Islington Metal Works” – run by a hospitality company and the site is used for Wedding Receptions, Corporate and Christmas events.

The link between these two very different sites, in different parts of London is hopefully now clear; that they are the redundant entrances to once busy transport links that have now been diverted.

The entrance to the Limehouse Cut was once a busy route for barges moving between the Lee River and the River Thames, with the Limehouse Cut now diverted into Limehouse Basin.

The original entrance to the Angel underground station has now been closed for some thirty years, with passengers now diverted along escalators rather than lifts to the new station entrance on Islington High Street, with a considerably improved and safer platform layout at the station.

There are many examples of these across London where the ever changing transport system adapts to changing technology, different patterns of use and improvements.

A film was made for the BBC 40 Minutes series in 1989 documenting 48 hours in the life of the Angel station.

Heart of the Angel was made by the BAFTA award winning director Molly Dineen, and it is a very honest portrayal of a station struggling to cope with the numbers of passengers using the station and the creaking infrastructure supporting the station.

if you have a spare 40 minutes, it is well worth a watch and can be found here.

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Rotherhithe Gas Works and a soon to be lost Gas Holder

If you have a gas boiler or cooker, the chances are that the gas you use could come from the North Sea, Norway, or via ship carried liquefied natural gas from countries such as Qatar, Russia and Trinidad to the terminal on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary. When gas started to be used as an energy source in the 19th century, the production of gas was very local to consumers, and for this week’s post I am exploring one such production facility, the Rotherhithe Gas Works.

I have marked the location for today’s post by the red star in the following map  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Rotherhithe Gas Works

That is not a bridge across the Thames at the point of the star, it is the way Openstreetmap shows the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

The reason for the post on the Rotherhithe Gas Works is because of a photo taken by my father in 1948. The following photo shows what is probably open space following the demolition of bomb damaged houses, with in the background, parts of two large gas holders.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

I wanted to find the location of the photograph. I knew from my father’s notes that the location was Rotherhithe, but not from where the photo had been taken. The two gas holders were obvious clues, however the area is very different today, so I started off with the 1950 edition of the Ordnance Survey map of the area.

I have copied the photo below, added the map extract and marked up key points shown in both photo and map, and the approximate location where my father was standing to take the photo. I needed to rotate the map to get a similar orientation to the photo, so north is at the bottom and south at the top of the map.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The red oval marks a semidetached pair of houses. To the left of these houses, there appears to be a tall wooden fence, and next to the fence, a terrace of older houses (you may need to click on the photo and enlarge to see the details of these clearly). These are the terrace houses shown by the green oval on the map.

In the background are the two large gas holders. The one on the right appears to be a larger circumference than the holder on the left, which matches both photo and map. Part of the gas holder on the left is obscured by a large building, again the same in both photo and map.

Extending the alignment of these features back, and they converge at a point on a street which again aligns with the photo as part of a street is in the lower right corner.

Rotating the map back to the correct orientation, and the street is Neston Street, marked below with the red star. The terrace of houses on the right of the street ends in a blank space on the map which corresponds with the 1948 photo (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Rotherhithe Gas Works

So it should be simple to find the location today? Not very, as the area has changed so much. In the 1950 map above, All the large buildings between the round gas holders and the River Thames at top left, were part of the Rotherhithe Gas Works. To the left, there was some housing, along with other industrial buildings, and the area had also suffered bomb damage.

The Rotherhithe Gas Works closed in 1959, and over the last few decades, the area has been considerably redeveloped with new housing now covering all the original site of the gas works (with one exception). Roads have changed, and Neston Street has disappeared.

Marking Neston Street on today’s map of the area (red line) allows the location of the 1948 photo to be identified (red star),

Rotherhithe Gas Works

I needed to visit the site to see the area today, and to find one of the two remaining elements of the Rotherhithe Gas Works infrastructure, one that may not be around for too much longer.

I walked along Rotherhithe Street from the west, and walked up Canon Beck Road (to the left of the red line), a road that appears on both today’s and the 1950 map.

Just over half way along Canon Beck Road is a short entrance road to a residential square, Clifton Place. This is shown in the photo below:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Neston Street would have run, left to right along the front and over part of the houses at the far end of the photo. To take the 1948 photo, my father was probably standing somewhere around the green and blue bins to the left of the photo.

Looming in the back of the above photo is one of the two remaining parts of the Rotherhithe Gas Works – the gas holder also seen to the left of the 1948 photo.

As well as visiting the site of my father’s photo, the gas holder was the second reason for wanting to visit, as it may well be soon disappearing as a local landmark, and a reminder of the industrial history of this part of Rotherhithe.

I walked up to Brunel Road. The terrace of houses along Brunel Road are not part of the redevelopment of the last few decades, they are much earlier. The gas holder can be seen in the background.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Walking along Brunel Road up to the location of the gas holder, to find the one remaining holder from the gas works, sitting in the space that was also once occupied by the second gas holder in the 1948 photo.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The remaining gas holder may not be here for long. Plans have been submitted for a complete redevelopment of the site which includes the land occupied by the gas holder, and the surrounding land.

The work will involve the demolition of the gas holder, and the infill of the tank below the gas holder, and the tanks below ground of the gas holders that have already been demolished.

Considerable work will involve removing contamination of the land and the move of operational gas piping and controls that still occupy the site.

The current plans appear to cover the construction of:

  • 40 dwellings for social rent
  • 39 dwellings for discount market rent
  • 198 private dwellings

The plans include the intention “To celebrate the character of the site and its industrial heritage”, which as far as I can see runs to “Balconies and stairways take reference from the industrial metal work” and “Pitched roofs reference the storage sheds associated with the Surrey Water Docks” along with the use of the colour red to accentuate certain features to recall the colour of the existing gas holder.

There is a web site for the proposed development, which includes presentations on the proposed work. It can be found under the name of the development Rotherhithe Holder Station.

A view of the gas holder and the surrounding land which is in-scope of the proposed development:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The history of the Rotherhithe Gas Works is complex, and tells the story of the consolidation of the local gas companies throughout the 19th century and nationalisation in the 20th century.

Using a number of resources (which I will list at the end of the post), I have attempted to put together a graphical history of the Rotherhithe Gas Works, their ownership, and mergers with other gas companies. Be aware that there are various conflicting dates for some events, and also definition of a date, for example when a gas works became operational, the incorporation of a company by Act of Parliament etc.

Any corrections would be appreciated.

The following graphic shows how the Rotherhithe Gas Works (starting at left and highlighted by the red dotted line) integrated with London’s gas companies through to closure in 1959.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The first gas works in Rotherhithe seem to have commenced construction by Stephen Hutching in around 1849, with the works becoming part of the Surrey Consumers Gas Company, a company incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1854.

In the mid 19th century there were many concerns about the quality of the gas provided to consumers and the cost, with companies having a monopoly within their local supply area. An 1849 article in The Era titled “Gas Monopolists In A Fever”  talks about the need for gas companies who can supply gas “free from sulphureted hydrogen, acid and ammonia” and the extortionate price charged with upwards of 15 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet, where independent calculations estimate that gas can be produced using modern methods for 2 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet.

The Surrey Consumers Gas Company merged with the South Metropolitan Gas Company in 1879, which brought together two gas companies serving south and south east London.

In 1881, the South Metropolitan purchased a large area of land on the Greenwich Peninsula and started the construction of the gas works which would go on to be one of London’s major gas producing centres for many years.

The South Metropolitan Gas Company would continue to integrate other, smaller companies, including the Phoenix Gas Company based in Bankside in 1880, the Consumers Gas Company in Woolwich and the Equitable Gas Company in Pimlico, both in 1885.

Probably because of the growth of sites such as the Greenwich Peninsula and Rotherhithe, the South Metropolitan closed and sold off sites at Woolwich and Bankside.

Reading newspaper references to London’s gas companies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are very many references to the monopoly position of these private companies, the cost of gas and frequently the quality of the gas, and pollution from the gas producing works.

In January 1860 the Surrey Consumers Gas Company were at Southwark Police court being charged by the Bermondsey vestry under the Nuisance Removal Act “for that they, in the manufacture of gas on their premises at Rotherhithe, did, on or about the 16th inst. cause an intolerable nuisance to exist as to be dangerous and injurious to the inhabitants of the parish of Bermondsey”.

The issue in January 1860 seems to have been a considerable amount of ammonia in the gas supply which had not been removed by the purifiers at the Rotherhithe gas works, and was causing a very bad smell, and health problems to those in Bermondsey who consumed the gas.

In 1875 at the half yearly meeting of the Surrey Consumers Gas Company, the news reports stated that the meeting “must have been attended with considerable interest by the fortunate individuals who hold shares therein. They have been too long accustomed to their unfailing profit of 10 per cent per annum. The balance sheet was as good as had ever been issued by the company”.

Consumer groups were frequently formed and south London’s vestries were often complaining about the costs and quality of gas, and there were many arguments that such companies should be publicly rather than privately owned.

London’s gas consumers would have to wait until 1949 for this to happen, when the countries gas companies were nationalised by the post war Labour government and the South Metropolitan Gas Company along with other London gas companies were merged into local gas boards under public ownership.

Ownership of gas provision came full circle when the nationalised gas board was privatised in 1986 as British Gas, and since then many of the arguments about the cost of gas are very similar to those in 19th century newspapers.

The production of gas was a very dirty business. Coal was heated in a furnace, which produced a range of gases including hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These gases were passed through a condenser where solids and liquids such as tar would be removed, before passing through a purifier where impurities such as sulpher and ammonia would be removed.

The gas was then fed to the gas holders ready for distribution at pressure to gas consumers.

An impression of the interior of the Rotherhithe Gas Works can be had from the following artwork dated 1918, with women working in the “retort” area (retorts are the furnaces where coal was heated to produce gas).

Rotherhithe Gas Works


 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/105

Work at the Rotherhithe gas works was dangerous and there are newspaper accounts of accidents within the works. For example, when one of the gas holders was being built in 1890, a labourer named Barnes, aged 23, working for the contractors Clacton & Son of Leeds, died after falling twenty feet to the base of the holder.

Workers at the gas works had the Rotherhithe Gas Works Institute, and in October 1894, five crews from the institute raced on the Thames from the coal jetty at the gas works to Deptford Creek.

Discovery of North Sea gas in the 1960s resulted in the replacement of so called Town Gas from gas works such as that at Rotherhithe, by gas piped from below the North Sea. Although Rotherhithe has already closed in 1959, the majority of coal based gas works in the country had closed by the 1980s.

The lone gas holder at Rotherhithe now stands as an isolated reminder of this period of south London industrial history.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The gas holder stands next to the remains of another of the areas lost industries. This is the Surrey Basin, one of the few reminders of the large area of docks that once occupied this area of Rotherhithe. The towers of the Isle of Dogs are in the background.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The following photo is from Salter Road, a road that did not exist when the Rotherhithe gas works were in operation. The space in front of the camera, and the space occupied by the houses behind the trees was the space covered by the buildings of the gas works, which fed gas to the gas holders which are to the left of where I was standing to take the photo.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Crossing Salter Road and looking back at the gas holder, which now supports mobile phone antennae’s at the very top.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The following map from 1895 shows three gas holders with the main buildings of the Rotherhithe Gas Works to their north. There were a total of four gas holders over the life of the gas works (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Of the three shown in the map above, one was destroyed by war time bombing. I suspect that this was the smaller holder between the two outer holders, as it is not shown in the 1950 map, or in my father’s photo. The larger of the two gasholders was demolished at the same time as the rest of Rotherhithe gas works in the 1960s and 70s, leaving only the holder that remains today.

Apart from the gas holder, there is part of the site wall remaining alongside the Surrey Basin. Another part of the gas works infrastructure that we can see today is shown in the above map. If you look at the very top centre of the map there is a pier extending into the River Thames.

This was the pier used by ships bringing coal to the gas works, and looking at the map, you can see the conveyor system that carried coal from the pier, over Rotherhithe Street, to the retorts where the coal would be heated to produce gas.

The Rotherhithe Gas Works pier remains today. The view looking west:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Looking east along the river with the gas works pier, and the round air shaft building for the Rotherhithe Tunnel behind the pier on the right.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The Rotherhithe Tunnel was built under part of the site of the gas works, and during Parliamentary inquiries into the tunnel, the South Metropolitan Gas Company objected to the construction of the tunnel. Mr. George Livesey, chairman of the gas company stated in his evidence that “the proposed tunnel would pass under a corner of the works of the gas company where they had important buildings, retort houses, coalhouses, and so forth. These structures were of considerable weight, and the foundations were thoroughly sound. If there was any disturbance to the foundations – which were taken down to the gravel – it would put the retort house out of use, and if that happened in winter time it would be a very serious matter.

Pumping operations such as would have to be carried out by the County Council in constructing their tunnel might be a source of serious damage to the company’s works. The gas tanks were set into deep excavations full of water, and if this water and the sand in the foundations were interfered with the results would be that the tanks would leak”

it appears that the company had suffered damage to their operations on the Greenwich Peninsula when the Blackwall tunnel had been built, and they had not received any compensation for this damage, and they wanted a clause in the bill for the Rotherhithe tunnel to ensure they received compensation for any damage to the Rotherhithe works.

The statement about the gas tanks being set into deep excavations, full of water explains why the site today is a complex site to prepare for new building. The tank below ground of the existing gas holder is still in place, as is the tank of the demolished gas holder which was simply capped at the time. These tanks will need to be drained of polluted water and sludge and the hole refilled ready for building above.

I am not sure what the current state of the proposals for the site development are, I suspect that COVID has delayed the process.

Whilst there is an obvious need for more housing across London, it is a shame that another part of London’s industrial history will be disappearing.

This post has covered the history of the gas companies and the Rotherhithe gas works at a very superficial level, this is the problem with a weekly blog, I can only cover topics to a limited level.

The National Archives have a brief summary of the history of each gas company. Use the search box on their site to search for a company. The Early London Gas Industry site by Mary Mills is a fantastic resource covering the gas industry in London.

Although the area has changed significantly since 1948, I am pleased to have found the location of another of my father’s photos. Rotherhithe and Bermondsey is an area I will be returning to in the future.

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