Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The London Museum of Water & Steam

Green Dragon Lane
Brentford TW8 0EN
Thursday August 25 2016

This appears in our list as the Kew Bridge Steam Museum but we learnt from all the literature and signage that it now trades as the London Museum of Water & Steam. However the Kew Bridge bit gives a hint as to how to approach this West London outpost – trains on the somewhat infrequent Hounslow Loop pass through Kew Bridge, which is indeed very close to the Museum, easily spotted due to its impressive brick chimney. There is no shortage of space throughout the Museum as of course it used to house the most enormous steam pumps, and while there are still plenty of large scale machines there is room to circulate.

One of the first things we noticed was a plaque thanking the EU for their financial support to setting up some galleries and we would also guess that Thames Water played a contributing role.
The first large wall has a more or less chronological display of domestic appliances which use water – these of course include basins and sinks, bath tubs and boilers and toilets and tubs for washing and washing up, interspersed with old fashioned adverts and films of how to use said appliances. Dominating amongst the public service notices were frequent requests not to ‘waste water’ including some catchy rhymes and slogans…  Given that the average Londoner gets through over 150 litres of water per day it is no mean feat for the companies which provide us with this precious commodity to achieve this in an area (SE England) where there are known water shortages (maps give examples of this both for the UK and the whole world) . So how do they manage this? – by re-cycling of course.

Also looked at historically is the management and distribution of water and its various components:
Pipes various through the ages from terracotta (good to a point), stone (nah), lead (seemed a good idea at the time), copper (costly), to iron. There are a range of pumps scaled down so you can test the various types and see which are most efficient… and which require the most effort.

(Once the oomph or heft was applied technologically or industrially you are looking at the huge machines upstairs).
You also need a system to get water from where it collects (downhill/rivers) to where it is needed and the answer to this is not only pipes and pumps but the LONDON RING MAIN, which as you can see from both maps and models does indeed encircle London – presumably areas beyond are dependent on other managed sources of water supply.
We live very close to the Honor Oak Reservoir, which occupies a raised and very protected site.

Back to water distribution through the ages and this section is well illustrated by a combination of appropriately costumed historical figures on video giving their accounts of various water/sewage problems and the solutions alongside various dolls’ houses complete with the historical water distribution and disposal methods of the day. The talking heads include 
 The talking heads include James Simpson, who introduced water filtration, and the more famous Dr. John Snow – the ‘water detective’ 
whom we have also featured in our blog on the Anaesthesia Heritage Centrethough he is better remembered as the man who established the wisdom of not crapping where you intend to drink – and that applies to animals too. This section of the museum has great fun with sewage – and many details of how widespread it is (faecal matter found on 75% of mobile phones)and how it is dealt with safely through an instructive series of films, models and even cartoons – an excellent example of multimedia education. Soberingly, 2 millilitres of (rain)  flood water can trigger a sewage discharge into the Thames… hence the need for the London Tideway/ sewer works. This visit may not be for the squeamish – there are more pictures than you might choose of sewage disposal systems past and present and models of the ‘muck’ that the public dispose of incorrectly. 

Having exhausted the very absorbing ‘Waterworks Gallery’ and taken a spare water saving shower head and shower timer (courtesy of Thames Water) we stepped up to the main body of the very fine building to look at what was undoubtedly the core collection of steam pumps run mainly by coal. Although we like ‘industrial heritage ‘ the detail of different models of pumps did not detain us for long though there are doubtless visitors who like to ‘commune with the metal’ as Jo put it, especially on steaming days, which are most weekends and thoughtfully half-terms too.

We enjoyed the building itself – the brick tower holds a flue to expel the excess steam and there was another flue demolished when it became unstable.  The history of the site is probably typical of similar pumping stations – there had been a proliferation of private water companies as the population and its expectations grew – competitors promised reliability of supply and good quality water but competition led to the inevitable cost cutting and drop in standards that follows this kind of ‘privatization’ (think railway companies then and now). Kew was one of the better operations – working conditions were good with apprenticeships and affordable rented housing (some of these can be spotted from the windows). It was a large site with its own coal yard and a small railway to transport the coal to the eight engines run by 14 boilers. It was bombed in 1915   but apparently escaped further hits during World War II. Steam pumping ended in 1944, replaced by diesel until 1975. There is a garden which is raised and offers a good overview of the site. Apart from the pumps original to Kew, different models  have been donated as other pumping stations closed.

Shortly after this visit the water supply for the area where one of us lives suffered a collapse due to a broken pipe and it is only then that you realise how water dependent we have all become – indeed on average we use 163 litres per person per day. Without the infrastructure  of pipes, pumps, filters and sewers that keep London going, and which are so well explained in this museum, our lives would be a deal less comfortable, clean or safe. 

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