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At Walthamstow Pump House

April 10, 2019
by the gentle author

Tiggy, the Pump House cat

What could be a more appealing excursion over the forthcoming Easter holiday than a trip to a Victorian sewage pumping station in Walthamstow? Although I would not claim to any special interest in mechanical things, I was astonished and delighted by the mind-boggling collection of pumps, engines, trains, buses, fire engines, steam rollers, cranes, historic domestic appliances and model railways to be discovered here.

Unfortunately when the suburban streets of Walthamstow spread across the fields, all the sewage ran downhill and accumulated in the Lee Valley. Undeterred, the Victorians installed massive engines driven by steam power to ensure that their magnificent drainage system kept the effluvium flowing smoothly. So efficient were these sewage pumps, manufactured by William Marshall Sons & Co, that they ran continuously from 1885 for over ninety years until steam power was replaced by electricity in the nineteen-seventies.

At this point, the historic machinery might have been lost forever if a group of local visionaries had not stepped in to cherish the pumps, engines and boilers. One of these far-sighted enthusiasts was Melvin Mantell who took me on a personal tour of some of the highlights of the pump house collection and explained how it all came about.

“For years, I knew Big Dave the heavyweight boxer who ran the greengrocer underneath the railway bridge in Leyton High Rd. One night his wife, an enormous woman, rang me up to ask ‘Are you coming down to the farm to have a look at the engines?’ I thought, ‘What the hell is she on about?’ but I knew she worked for the council at the depot where the rubbish was dumped. She said, ‘The old pump house has got steam engines in it.’ All the years I had been going there with my dad, dumping rubbish and seeing the building but ignoring it.  She said, ‘We’re having an open day, would you like to visit?’

Me and a few others, we decided to come down on Thursday evenings and take care of the engines. We were known as the ‘Friends of the Pump House.’ At first, we were just cleaning off the rust with a Brillo pad and some oil, but my dad and old Reggie Watlings, the surface grinder who has been dead a long while, they restored the engines. We stripped them down and rebuilt them completely. Now we come down here every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday during the day. We love everything about this place. We are open every Sunday for visitors free of charge and we get a lot of visitors coming in. It is quite staggering.”

What makes this museum so charismatic is that it has been accumulated by enthusiasts rather than organised for any didactic purpose and it was my pleasure to spend a morning with the small band of volunteers who tend to it each week. Cramming all these objects into a cabinet of wonders emphasises a joyous delight in human ingenuity as expressed through mechanical contrivances of all kinds. If you are seeking a celebration of the East End’s heritage of industry and technological innovation, this is the place.

Melvin Mantell – “I was born in Brewster Rd in Leyton in 1947 and I still live in that house today. I started work in 1969 in a builders’ merchants and then I went into the trade doing carpentry work, which I had learnt at school, staying on to get qualifications. Carpentry is my thing, including woodturning, and I have made furniture and cabinets.”

Sid Bell works in restoration of artefacts. ‘I was born in Forest Gate and my first job was at Nonpareil Engineering in Walthamstow. When I was fifteen then I went into making hydraulic motors of cast iron used in the construction of the Victoria Line. They could not have sparks down there because of the risk of explosion so engines were driven by oil pressure. I have built railway engines and made all the parts myself. Nowadays, I am retired and I help old people out in their gardens, and I am here three days a week. I made all these displays and organised the tools.’

In the Pump House

Entrance to the Pump House

Tube trains under repair

Abdul Seba is the IT manager and works on the restoration of trains

Melvin with a favourite bus from his collection

Steam roller

Historic domestic appliances

Walthamstow in miniature

A model of Walthamstow Station

A model of Liverpool St Station

Mozz Blunden, company secretary, location manager, painter, canteen manager and toilet cleaner

Walthamstow Pump House Museum, 10 South Access Rd, E17 8AX

8 Responses leave one →
  1. April 10, 2019

    Thanks to this magnificent crew who are looking after these treasures – great job! Valerie

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 10, 2019

    Looks amazing! Definitely worth a visit…

    Word of the day: effluvium

  3. Ron Bunting permalink
    April 10, 2019

    Amazing!. it has a parallel in New Zealand at Auckland’s Western Springs. An old pump station of a similar design to that place was made into a little museum,But it soon became a hugely popular Big museum As the Museum of Transport and Technology,Or MoTaT . When I lived in Auckland in the 70′s the big pump wasn’t working and I often wondered if they would ever get it going.One highlight was to go there on the days they would fire up a lancaster (yes, a bomber) in the rather tight grounds of the museum. So it just goes to show what a group of keen volunteers can and will accomplish .

  4. Mary permalink
    April 10, 2019

    What a wonderful group of people making such heroic efforts. Long may they keep going!

  5. Barbara Hague permalink
    April 10, 2019

    I was at technical college doing a secretarial course 1957/8, so nice to see the pictures.
    Also lived in Forest Gate for many years.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    April 10, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a delightful visit you had and shared about your visit to Walthamstow Pump House. The place is pristine. So interesting. May the work of these good folks continue. I particularly liked the models and the historic domestic appliances.

  7. Carol Himmelman-Christopher permalink
    April 10, 2019

    What a wonderful and inspiring story! My daughter is head of the education department at The Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh — and we have always had a passion for museums, especially of things and subjects (like money and “everyday” machines) that are so often missed in larger, state-run museums. Congratulations to all involved, and many thanks for their passion and dedication.

  8. STEPHEN Glover permalink
    April 11, 2019

    Oh Good Lord, I want a job there. Looks magnificent.

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