In a park in Tottenham is a fine piece of Victorian engineering and an important piece of London's sewerage history. Markfield Beam Engine may not be a 'cathedral of sewage', but could perhaps be considered a significant temple! After a long restoration process, it displays its full glory once more.
Although far from the Thames, Tottenham shared the sewage problems of the central metropolis. This outlying town had grown rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, and many homes' sewage discharged directly into its rivers, the Moselle and Lea. Thus the local board built the Markfield Road sewage works, which were run by a manure manufacturer. However, when the contractor died in 1858, the foul water ran into the Lea instead. In 1866, the resulting pollution was alleged to have killed nearly 4,000 people in a cholera outbreak by contaminating the Lea, a major source of East London's water.
Improvements gradually followed, including appointment of a new contractor for the sewage plant, and the addition of the beam engine in 1886. From the end of the century, sewage went to Hackney's Northern High Level Sewer; Markfield Road was thus used only to deal with storm water until its closure in 1964.
The 100-horsepower engine is massive: a 27-foot, cast-iron flywheel standing 17 feet above floor level and a 21-foot, wrought-iron beam operate two plunger pumps. These were each capable of moving two million gallons a day. In true Victorian style, the machinery is ornate, with eight fluted cast-iron columns and decorative acanthus leaves. The engine's base and cast-iron columns ensure that it is independent of the building it stands in, not relying upon the surrounding walls for support.
It was manufactured by Wood Brothers of Sowerby Bridge. This company had been founded in 1847 to engage in cotton-spinning and engineering; a few years later, the two activities were separated, with Richard Wood taking over the engineering work and his brother John the cotton-spinning. Markfield's is believed to be the last engine they produced.
Massive and powerful as it was, the beam engine required plenty of resources to keep it running. Its coal consumption was four hundredweight per hour, and two driver/mechanics lived in tied cottages onsite. Its operation is no trivial matter, then, so we're especially fortunate to be able to see it in steam on the regular steam days. There are two left for this year, on 17 and 18 September (Open House weekend).