Victorian Pumping Station of 1894


As the population of Cambridge surged with businesses and housing, plus the University growing, there was a problem with sewage and smells in the River Cam. Not only did this cause discomfort to breathing and health problems, it also spread diseases, such as typhoid. The terrible stench and state of the river was noticed alike by poor and rich, worker and monarch. On a visit to Cambridge in 1843, Queen Victoria asked, “What are those pieces of paper floating in the river?” Rather than saying they were book and newspaper pages used as toilet paper, the tactful answer was, “Those Ma’am are notices that bathing is forbidden!”. Eglantyne Jebb was a campaigner for improved living conditions. She wrote an important policy report advocating proper piping from toilets to sewage pipes, and a sewage treatment facility. Her work resulted in the pumping station built on Riverside in 1894 through which the sewage from the city was pumped out to the village of Milton, powered by steam pressure. It was closed down in 1968, but volunteers maintain the steam engines, which are now on display as part of the museum.

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:


In the Victorian era, all rubbish and waste of every kind was disposed of directly into the river Cam, or into King's Ditch, right near Market Square.  At the end of the 19th

century, there were about 35 thousand people living in Cambridge, all throwing their garbage into one place.  It made a terrible smell, made it very dangerous to drink even the 'clean' water, and made many people sick.  There were two waves of a disease called 'cholera', an illness that typically strikes when people consume the same bacteria that you would find in toilet water; this is the same reason why you wash your hands after using the toilet.  Cholera is deadly, and hit Cambridge along with many other parts of England.

According to legend, Queen Victoria herself came to visit Cambridge early in her reign, in the 1850s.  While she was here, she looked at the river, and found it so filthy that she couldn't even identify all the kinds of rubbish that were floating in the water.  She asked what a stack of papers were, to which her attendant told her that they were warnings to students not to go swimming.

Cambridge reacted to this health disaster by building the pumping station in 1894.  All sewage that was produced by the city passed through this one spot, and sent two miles away to Milton, where it could be dealt with safely away from the water supply.  The project meant that the river could be properly cleaned, and was no longer a health hazard.  Pumping stations like this one were built all over the country at this time, and it made living in cities safer, which was important because more and more people were moving to the city from the countryside.

The two engines in the main engine room are called 'Tandem Hathorn Davies', and they are the last of their kind in the world.  The engines are connected to beams on the wheels because each engine pumps water up from about 13 metres below ground to move sewage out to Milton.  The engines first started in 1894, and pumped water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until the site shut down in 1968.  That means that these engines were pumping non-stop for 74 years.

The engines run on steam by using pressurised steam to move pistons back and forth.    You can find pistons in a car, which might have six, eight, or even twelve pistons moving back and forth to make the car move.  In a car, a piston is about the length and width of your finger.  On the in the engines there, they only have one piston each, and each piston is over a metre wide.  The power of an engine is measured in 'horsepower'.  The engines have a horsepower of about 80, meaning if you had a team of 80 horses pulling a rope in one direction, and these engines pulling in the opposite direction, no one would move.  To compare, a family car has between 100 and 200 horsepower, a Ferrari has a horsepower of 560, and a monster truck would have a horsepower of 1500.


The main engine room has a lot of decorations:  there are high ceilings, there is lots of natural light, and the walls are covered in colourful tile work.  The Victorians thought that sewage was so disgusting, that they designed the space to be beautiful and distract from why the building is there in the first place.  This is common to many Victorian sewage works:  in London, Cross Ness sewage pumping station has the nickname of 'Cathedral on the Marsh'.

At this site, workers worked 24 hours a day to keep fires burning to produce the steam that would power the engines.  At first, the pumping station burned only coal, but in the early 20th century, the council started burning rubbish here too.  This way, the council saved money on coal, and the rubbish got removed from the streets.  It burned rubbish 6 days a week, with coal on Sundays, as there was no garbage collection on Sundays.  This was a kind of Victorian recycling centre, when things like air pollution was not considered serious.  The museum still uses the boilers to power the engines, so there are volunteers that come in to shovel coal! Now, the museum uses a special kind of coal called 'coke', which is coal infused with gas.  It is used here instead of coal because it burns without making black smoke, and it is better for the environment.

You can imagine how difficult it would have been to go to the pumping station every day to shovel rubbish and coal.  Many workers lost their feet from sharp shovels or being crushed under moving weights of fuel.  Only one person ever died in the building, and it was after a long shift of shovelling.  He sat down next to a boiler and died of exhaustion.  This space was hot, smelly, and very uncomfortable.  Because of the lousy conditions and the fact that there were people here 24 hours a day, we also know that the workers became something like a family – the people that came in for the morning shift would sometimes bring bacon and eggs to cook on the boiler so everyone could have a nice breakfast to round off the day.

There are a few different measurements for the chimney, but they are all about 60 metres.  When the pumping station shut down in 1968, BBC3 put an antenna at the top, and in 1992, steam engineer Fred Dibnah did a documentary about the chimney.

There is a grill leaning up against the side of the chimney.  This is because the local council tried to destroy confidential documents in the furnace, but because of the extreme heat of the bottom of the chimney, and the extreme cold of the top, the chimney became a vacuum, and sucked all the papers away from the fire and shot them out the top like a fountain.  Tax returns were raining all around the city, and there was an emergency calling of street sweepers to get them destroyed without everyone seeing.  To prevent this in the future, the chimney got a grill that would catch any papers that had not yet been burned.

Also on site was a laundry room that had extra steam from the furnaces pumped into it so that local hospitals could use it as a laundry.  The super hot steam would kill bacteria and germs left in the linens.

The site became obsolete with the advent and installation of the vortex engine.  In 1968, the vortex engine was installed right next door in a new sewage works.  The newer engine ran on electricity instead of coal, is much smaller than the steam engines, and needed much less work to maintain.  The vortex engine was replaced in the early 1990s with an even smaller, more efficient engine.

Discover More


That Tall Chimney, Jeane Underwood, Cambridge Museum of Technology

Sewage, Stench and Steam, Cambridge Museum of Technology

Cambridge Museum of Technology, David Stubbings, Cambridge Museum of Technology

Handbook for Industrial Archaeology in Cambridgeshire, Peter Filby, Industrial Archaeological Society


Cambridge Museum of Technology-

The Old Pumping Station
Cheddars Lane

Education Officer/Curator: Pamela Halls

Victorian Pumping Station of 1894


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