What Is The Ancient Egyptian-Looking Building On The Thames?

David Fathers
By David Fathers Last edited 92 months ago

Last Updated 30 September 2016

What Is The Ancient Egyptian-Looking Building On The Thames?

On the eastern shore of the Isle of Dogs, near to Blackwall, sits a low, contemporary structure with the appearance of an ancient Egyptian temple. This is not a place of mystic worship but a water pumping station and its function, after heavy or prolonged rainfall, is to pump out surface water into the Thames and prevent the Isle of Dogs from flooding. The peninsula, enclosed on three sides by the river, is largely below the high water mark. The styling of the pumping station is no accident.

The Storm Water Pumping Station, Isle of Dogs.

Close to Hungerford Bridge, on the Embankment, sits a monument to the great Victorian engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Just above the stern-looking bust of the man it reads Flumini vincula posuit ("He placed chains upon the river"). This was a claim of the Egyptians pharaohs, who as early as 5,000 years ago began channelling the waters of the Nile into adjacent land to improve agricultural output. Bazalgette narrowed and embanked the Thames, not for the purposes of irrigation, but to enable the river to flush sewage out faster on each tide. Prior to this work, the Thames in places was two to three times the width we see today. Bazalgette had chained the waterway for the benefit of Londoners. He was also responsible for dramatically reducing the amount of effluent going into the Thames by creating of a huge sewerage system across London.

When the Embankment opened in the late 1860s, new benches were supplied to over look the river. The ends of these seats were decorated with camels and sphinxes. And in 1878, they were joined by Cleopatra’s needle. The pink granite obelisk was erected by the river, adjacent to the Embankment Gardens. The iconography was an homage to those earlier masters of river engineering.

In the early 1980s, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was tasked with installing infrastructures that would enable new business to flourish within the old abandoned Dockland district of east London. They devised a structure of new roads, utilities, a light railway network and even a new airport.

However, one major problem that faced the Isle of Dogs was that much of it was below the high water mark. For thousands of years the area has been prone to inundation by the Thames. From the Middle Ages onwards, walls were built around the peninsula to protect the land within (these barriers would give names to some local districts — Blackwall, Marsh Wall and Millwall). While the Isle of Dogs is now free from river flooding, thanks to the walls and the Thames Barrier, low-lying lands are still at risk after severe downpours. So three new pumping stations were commissioned by the LDDC. The architects John Outram Associates were commissioned to create a structure that would house the pumping mechanism located on Stewart Street, adjacent to the Thames.

Their design, for ‘a monumental temple’, was inspired by ancient Egyptian structures and practices of controlling water. The symmetrically designed pumping station has four huge, red brick columns topped with colourful fins or capitals, complete with an ‘eye’ (of Horus?) situated between them. This roundel is in fact a 3m extractor fan for removing any noxious gases built-up within. The main entrance to the pumping station is through a magnificent portal of stone and brick, worthy of any pharaoh. Yet bizarrely, this is the doorway to an unmanned station. The facility, ‘a temple of storms’, to quote the architect, opened in 1988. It can easily be viewed from the Thames Path.

Left: Location of the storm water pumping station. Right: An ancient Egyptian inspired bench end on the Embankment.

David Fathers is author/illustrator of The London Thames Path.