This Machine Saved The Lives Of Londoners And Helped The City Build Upwards

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 84 months ago
This Machine Saved The Lives Of Londoners And Helped The City Build Upwards

"What a monster! Imagine an enormous see- saw, with a steam engine at one end, and a pump at the other…" So enthused Charles Dickens in Household Words magazine, April 1850. He was talking about this particular monster:

It's the Grand Junction 90-inch engine at the London Museum of Water and Steam. In Dickens's time, this was Kew Pumping Station, and in 1846, the engine was installed here — quite probably the world's biggest at that time.

Manufactured in Cornwall, then famed for its powerful beam engines, the 90-inch was a one-of-a-kind — built specifically to supply water to parts of west London.

So powerful was this 'monster', it was the first to have the capacity to pump water to upper floors in buildings. In that regard, it's partially responsible for encouraging London to build upwards — residentially in particular.

It also must have saved countless lives; London was in the throes of a cholera crisis, and the water from Kew was filtered and relatively clean compared to that being dished up in other quarters of the city.

The engine was no flash in the pan. It was still running close to a century after Mr Dickens had admired it. According to the museum, it went almost non-stop until 1944, rarely breaking down.

In the mid 1970s, the engine was restored — a feat celebrated by Blue Peter presenters, as they held a tea party inside the 90-inch diameter steam cylinder (that, by the way, is where the engine gets its name from).

Visitors are now invited to weave in and out of the iron columns holding the engine in place, climb the stairwells, and get up close to this Victorian beast — just as Dickens did over 170 years ago. There are also regular demonstrations, when it jolts into life.

Blue Peter, by the way, isn't the only link this engine has to childhood TV. Perhaps you recognise it from this 1990s Top of the Pops title sequence:

Oh, and if you're looking for a bigger kick, its next door neighbour is a 100-inch engine.

If you've not been already, we highly recommend a visit to the London Museum of Water & Steam.

Last Updated 20 April 2017