Last week we looked at the ‘gas wars’ that intermittently flared across London as Victorian businessmen sought, Klondike-style, to stake their claim in a business that would pay off for generations to come. But even as the gaslights flickered on in the new terraces of Bow, Bethnal Green and Stepney, a new form of power was waiting to take its place. Just as the canals would swiftly be supplanted by the railways, so electricity would replace gas as the lighting of choice in the home.
But in the early 1800s, another idea began to grasp the imagination of London entrepreneurs. This was a town built around a river — maybe the river could provide the energy it needed? The new docks and railways required huge amounts of power and during the 1800s the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC) began to supply it, with steam-driven power station forcing water at high-pressure all around the capital. It sounds like something from a modern steampunk novel, but by the mid-1800s, much of the dock and railway infrastructure of the East End was running on water power, with the liquid drawn straight from the Thames.
Many of the hydraulic power companies in other parts of Britain were also the providers of the new clean drinking water that cities were demanding — especially as the links between dirty water and cholera became clear. But the LHPC was purely a generating business, and by the late 1800s it had built a huge network of customers, fed by its nearly 200 miles of pipes.
The biggest users of these hydraulic power networks even had their own accumulator towers, where the power supplied to them (in the form of vast quantities of water) could be stored until needed. These tall brick structures replaced the earlier towers, some of which had been 90 metres high, and used a more efficient system of weights. When power was required, a controlled release of weights would push down on the water, generated the energy required to power cranes or train.
Once they were everywhere in the East End. Today, many of the buildings have been demolished and some are simply being allowed to rot. Head east of Tower Bridge, to the junction of Mansell Street and Royal Mint Street, and you’ll see a brick rectangle with faded lettering. Look harder and you may be able to discern ‘London Midland & Scottish Railway City Goods Station and Bonded Stores’. This was once the route of the London & Blackwall Railway, which ran from Minories to Blackwall and the London Docks, and the Minories accumulator tower lay on its route. Minories was a shortlived railway station, opening in 1814 and closing 14 years later when Fenchurch Street was built.
The London & Blackwall Railway is long gone too, eventually being subsumed into the larger LM&S (hence the lettering) and then into British Rail. But the route and the Victorian viaducts of the L&BR, long redundant, were pressed back into use by the new DLR from the late 1980s. Follow the old London & Blackwall Railway and you end up at Blackwall station (now on the DLR) and a rather better preserved example. Before the development of ‘Docklands’ in the 1980s, the area around Blackwall Way was dominated by the Poplar Dock Company, which boasted a complex network of railway goods sheds and a hydraulic power network. The only thing that remains of the development today is the accumulator tower and pump house, saved by commerce (the Victorians would probably approve). It’s now a Majestic Wine warehouse, so you can combine a little architectural history with restocking the drinks cabinet.
But perhaps the most impressive example of the great age of London hydraulic power is the sole LHPC power station to survive with all its machinery intact. You can pay a visit to this one too — and enjoy your lunch at the same time. The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, on Wapping Wall, was opened by the LHPC in 1890, powered by steam when it opened and converting to electrical turbines in latter years. And from Wapping (and the LHPC’s other hydraulic stations at Pimlico, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and the Regents Canal) ran an extraordinary 200 miles of pipework around the capital.
The company even bought the Tower Subway, which was first the conduit of a shortlived underground railway and then a foot tunnel beneath the Thames, before that too was forced out of business by the opening of the toll-free Tower Bridge in 1894. The tunnel was now used to run LHPC pipes. At its peak, the Wapping station was forcing water around London at 800 pounds per square inch, not just powering trains and cranes, but raising theatre curtains and even powering the dumb waiters at the Savoy. Remarkably, the system lasted until 1977, when the Wapping station was the last of the five to close.
That was the end of hydraulic power in London, though today it seems a remarkably green alternative to burning coal and gas — one thing London has plenty of, is water.
Map of sites mentioned: http://bit.ly/ZtYMyX
London’s Lost Power Stations and Gasworks by Ben Pedroche, published by the History Press, www.thehistorypress.co.uk, £14.99