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Cambridge Museum of Technology: A Story of Sewage and Waste Disposal in the Victorian Industrial Revolution

Three Cambridge University engineering students saved the old Pumping Station in Cambridge, England in the 1960s. The historical building today houses the only two working Hathorn Davey steam engines in the world.

Cambridge Museum of Technology: A Story of Sewage and Waste Disposal in the Victorian Industrial Revolution
Cambridge Museum of Technology ©Susan Fourtané

The city of Cambridge, England, is well known and recognized worldwide for its prestigious University. However, not many know about the Cambridge Museum of Technology and the engineering treasures it houses. This industrial heritage museum supported by Historic England is located at the Old Sewage Pumping Station on Cheddars Lane, right by the River Cam. The original building, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, housed a combined sewage pumping and waste destructor station built in 1894.

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Rowing in the River Cam, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

In the 18th century, British canals were a key part of the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century, the invention of the steam engine and steam turbine helped power the Industrial Revolution.

The history of the Pumping Station and the origins of the museum go back to 1894 when the pumping station was built to house the two large Hathorn Davey steam engines and pumps to pump the town's sewage to the treatment works two miles (3Km) away. The Victorians were very keen on efficiency and incinerating rubbish. Both aims were met by burning household rubbish as boiler fuel to raise steam. 

As Cambridge grew in population, the pumping station had to be extended with additional pumping capacity. First, two gas engines and pumps were added, then an electric motor and pump. In 1968, after 72 years in steam, a new all-electric pumping station was built next door; it is known as Riverside

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Cambridge Museum of Technology entrance, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

A visit to the Cambridge Museum of Technology shows how the industrial technology evolved from steam to gas to electricity. Moreover, looking at the design of the buildings one can see how the approach to architecture has changed over the years. The museum runs several steam weekends when one of the Hathorn Davey engines is run. A volunteer program is open to roles such as running the engines, caring for the collection, giving guided tours, or helping with school visits. 

Cambridge before the pumping station 

To understand the importance of supporting and enhancing technological advancement one needs to learn how life was before industrial technology came into place. In the 19th century, much like everywhere else in the world, the streets of Cambridge were dirty and the River Cam was an open sewer.

The conditions led to poor public health and rapid outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and scarlet fever. People often died young. Rubbish collection and sewage disposals were basic as well as hygiene conditions. A report of the situation was published in 1849. 

The Improvement Commissions paid official scavengers to collect rubbish and clean the streets. The system of sewers did not cover the whole town and discharged into the River Cam. 

Queen Victoria once asked the Master of Trinity College about the pieces of paper floating in the river. He tactfully replied, "those, Ma'am, are notices prohibiting bathing." In truth, they were toilet paper. 

Then the Commissioners understood the problem and searched experts for a solution. One of those experts was Joseph Bazalgettethe civil engineer who had planned and built London's first sewage system, one of the greatest advancements in urban planning which is still in use today.

Bazalgette was also the chief engineer of London's Metropolitan Board of Works. He designed the Albert, Victoria, and Chelsea embankments which housed the sewers in central London. Unfortunately, the Commissioners did not have the funds they needed to pay for the works. It took another 40 years until something changed in Cambridge.  

The local council built the pumping station in 1894 

Queen Victoria once asked the Master of Trinity College about the pieces of paper floating in the river. He tactfully replied, "those, Ma'am, are notices prohibiting bathing." In truth, they were toilet paper. 

The Pumping Station, built in 1894, solved the town's sewage and rubbish problems. It continued in operation for over 70 years. Pumping began in 1895 after the 18-month project that cost over £120,000 (around £10 million or almost $13 million today), was completed. It also provided enough work for local unemployed people.

The council replaced old sewers and built 37 miles of new sewers. An intercepting sewer diverted sewage and stopped it from reaching the River Cam. Sewage then flowed downwards under the town, pulled by gravity; it collected in the well beneath the Pumping Station.

The location for the Pumping Station was chosen close to the town's rubbish collection area. Rubbish was burnt in furnaces called destructors; this heated water in boilers to make steam which powered the engines. The engines then pumped the sewage uphill to a sewage farm in Milton where it was used as fertilizer. 

Thanks to the Pumping Station and the impact on people's lives, the local death rate fell by 15 percent in the first 10 years after it was opened. Gas engines and an electric pump were added to the Pumping Station in order to increase its pumping capacity. In 1923, an additional boiler was installed; it became the main boiler after the Second World War. When the old Pumping Station closed in 1968, it was replaced by the electric Riverside Pumping Station next door.  

Three Cambridge University engineering students saved the Pumping Station 

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Cambridge Museum of Technology in Cambridge, England, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

Perhaps it is fair to say that the Cambridge Museum of Technology exists today thanks to three Cambridge University engineering students who appreciated the great historical and educational value of the engines housed in the old Pumping Station. 

Back then, when the Pumping Station closed in 1968, the workers turned off the engines, put down their tools, and quietly left the site. The local council decided to demolish the building and scrap the machinery. Then, students and residents campaigned to save the site and the engines. They created the Museum to tell the story of Cambridge's industrial past, a fundamental stone in the Industrial Revolution. It was imperative to preserve the old Pumping Station as an important legacy for Cambridge, the U.K., and for the world. 

Thanks to Ken Moxham, John Sharpe, and Alex Ritchie, the engineering students who led the successful fight to save the Pumping Station in the 1960s, the Museum first opened its doors in May 1971 and around 5,000 people visited.

Since then and for most of its history, the Museum was run entirely by volunteers. They set up a 'trust' to buy the site and develop the Museum, gave their time, knowledge, and skills to repair the buildings, bring the machinery back to working order, and collect objects which represent local industry and technology. 

In 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the Museum major funding to transform the site. In 2016, Dr. Ken Moxham from the University of Adelaide and founder of the museum came back to Cambridge as the special guest speaker at a garden party hosted by the Cambridge Museum of Technology at the Engineer's House on Riverside. Through a fundraiser, the old Engineer's House was restored and reunited with the Museum, also adding a visitor center and café.

And finally, the Museum reopened in 2019 with new displays and facilities. For any engineer or technology enthusiast, a visit to the Cambridge Museum of Technology will represent a unique experience, transporting anyone with a little imagination back to the day when the Pumping Station and the steam engines were a central part in the evolution of the Industrial Revolution. 

What follows is an illustration of some of the extensive industrial engineering history artefacts that can be seen at the Cambridge Museum of Technology.  

Hathorn Davey

The Hathorn Davey Company was a British manufacturer of steam engines in Leeds and regarded as one of the biggest and best-known manufacturers of steam pumping engines since they took over the Sun foundry that made railway engines and pumping machinery in 1872.

Hugh Campbel, Alfred Davis, and John Hathorn were joined by Henry Davey in 1873 and traded as Hathorn, Davey & Co from 1880. The partnership was converted to a limited company in 1901. Hathorn, Davey & Co made marine engines and pumps as well as their pumping engines for mines and waterworks.

The pumping engine built for the Mersey tunnel in 1881 was described as the most powerful in existence at the time. Sulzer took over the company in 1936 and the premises were finally closed in late 1981 when Sulzer moved to a new site. 

The main component parts of the engine are the rocking disc, the two cylinders, and the control gear, which is often referred to as the Steam Man, together with the pumps in the basement.  

The Steam Engines House

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Hathorn Davey steam engines at the Museum of Technology in Cambridge; installed in 1894 and they are still working, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

The steam engine house contains the two large steam engines made by Hathorn Davey. Many of us who are close to technology and engineering are familiar with a steam engine pulling a railway train. What is unusual now is the stationary steam engine.

During the Industrial Revolution days, though, a stationary steam engine was not uncommon; the industrial age was built on power from the stationary steam engine. 

It was common to see stationary steam engines everywhere from a pit head winding gear to tanneries to cotton mills to breweries to draining mines. They were used to pump fresh water to towns as well as pumping sewage away from towns. 

Hathorn Davey steam engines: The only two working engines of this type in the world

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One of the two Hathorn Davey steam engines housed at Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

The two Hathorn Davey steam engines pictured here and housed at Cambridge Museum of Technology are the only two working engines of their type in the world

These engines are non-rotative, tandem, compound engines made by Hathorn Davey. They were both installed when the Pumping Station was built in 1894. 

The steam engines worked alternatively; one pumped 24 hours a day for up to two weeks, while the resting engine underwent cleaning, maintenance, and repairs. 

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The steam engines were installed in 1894 and are still working at Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

The video above shows one of the main Hathorn Davey engines at the Museum of Technology in Cambridge installed in 1894 and still working. 

Each engine has two steam cylinders that lie end-to-end (in tandem) on the same piston rod. The rod pushes the large double disc at the end of the engine. It does not make complete revolutions. Instead, it rocks back and forth in quarter turns (non-rotative). This converts the horizontal motion of the piston rods into the vertical motion of the pump rods. 

The brewing industry: Fine Cambridge ales 

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Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

It is not surprising that the Cambridge Museum of Technology dedicates a space to the brewing industry; Cambridge was well known for its brewing with around 40 breweries in existence in 1887 and reportedly, the smell of brewing permeated the town. Businesses such as the Anchor Brewery and Star Brewery were local landmarks. 

Weak ale was brewed in homes and colleges before breweries were built. After the Industrial Revolution, Cambridge breweries flourished due to rising demand. Some breweries such as Dale's invested in the most advanced equipment, such as bottle fillers and refrigerators.

During the First World War, Star Brewery was run by women. Larger breweries took over smaller ones and by 1900, there were only 16 left. In the mid-20th century, national breweries took over. However, traces of the brewing industry in Cambridge still remain. Thomson's Lane is named after a prominent 17th century brewer. 

The Ash Tunnel 

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After 1926, the workers started to use trucks running on rails, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

The Pumping Station burnt Cambridge's rubbish in furnaces called destructors. The energy generated was used to heat water in boilers, which made the steam run the sewage pumping engines.

When entering the ash tunnel at the Cambridge Museum of Technology, you first feel as if you were transported back into the past. You hear sounds and you can see the doors that cover the fire grates of the destructors. The Pumping Station workers had to open the furnace doors to rake out the smelly ash and clinker. Then they emptied it into hand carts and wheeled it away. After 1926, the workers started to use trucks running on rails. 

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The Pumping Station burnt Cambridge's rubbish in furnaces called destructors, Source: ©Susan Fourtané  

There is a trough on the floor opposite the fire grates that held water to cool the long iron tools used for raking. The indentations on the ground show where the workers stood, off-center to avoid the direct heat of the furnaces. From 1926, the full trucks were pushed by hand along the rails past the building, a place now used as the Print Room.

Here, they were swung round on a turntable onto rails and pulled by a steam-powered winch to the top of the site. Once at the top, the trucks were pushed by hand and emptied into the many pits in this area. The pits were created when clay was dug out to make bricks. 

The Boiler House 

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Number 4 Boiler made by Babcock and Wilcox in Glasgow, Source: ©Susan Fourtané  

This Number 4 pictured above is a water tube boiler made by Babcock and Wilcox in Glasgow. It was installed in the Pumping Station in 1923. The glass tubes and brass fittings at the top are two gauges that show the water level in the drum. If the water level drops too low it causes the boiler to overheat and the water tubes to melt. 

The large dial between the water level gauges is the steam pressure gauge. If the pressure generated is too high, the safety valves lifts to reduce the pressure. If the pressure is too low, the engines will not work. Number 4 boiler still produces steam to run the pumping engines for the Cambridge Museum of Technology. It was restored in 2018.

Engineer-in-charge of the Pumping Station

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Charles Herbert Copeland and his wife, Source: Susan Fourtané at Cambridge Museum of Technology 

Charles Herbert Copeland was the engineer-in-charge at the Pumping Station between 1902 and 1934. He was born in Yorkshire in 1864 and died in 1944. Copeland made sure everything ran smoothly.

He lived at the Engineer's House right next door to the Pumping Station with his wife and seven children; he was always close by to be called if there were any problems at the Pumping Station. Copeland was always smartly dressed, wearing a three-piece suit underneath his dungaree-style overalls.   

Working at the Pumping Station

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Worker in the Engine Room, Source: Susan Fourtané at Cambridge Museum of Technology, 

The Pumping Station had to be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To keep it running, a skilled team spent half of their day at the station. There were two teams; each team worked a 12-hour shift in 1895. It was not until the 1920s when three eight-hour shifts were introduced. There were no showers, sinks, or rest areas at the Pumping Station until the late 1940s. 

Staff heated meals they brought to work on the steam engines and boiled water for tea in the furnaces. At night, the station was lit by a few bare light bulbs, making it dark and shadowy. One can only imagine how it was to work there for 12 hours a day. An engine driver, a cleaner, and a stoker were needed to run the engines. 

The engine driver checked the depth of sewage in the well, predicted rising levels, and made sure the machinery was running well. Cleaners kept the engines and engine rooms sparkling and helped the engine driver. They also cleaned the 52 windows at the Pumping Station weekly. In the 1930s, a cleaner earned £4, 14 shillings, and 6 pence a week (that would be around £186 or $239.74 today).  

The stoker shoveled coal into the boilers in the hot, dark Boiler House. The stoker had to move 20 heavy barrow loads to the boiler every shift. He also raked hot ash from the boilers and had to wear wooden clogs to protect his feet. The other staff, including the engineer manager in charge and destructor workers who sorted rubbish, worked during the day. Women were never employed at the Pumping Station. The Pumping Station remained open for over 70 years.

Gasworks women 

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Women sorting the coal by size at the Cambridge Gasworks during the First World War, Source: Image courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library - Susan Fourtané at Cambridge Museum of Technology

Around six million men were mobilized in the U.K. during the First World War. With so many men gone, women started to replace the men who had joined the army until the end of the war. It was then when women started working at the Cambridge Gasworks. Coal was used to make the gas. Women wore overall coats and pants when working, something which was very unusual for women at the time.

Rubbish collectors 

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Scavengers during the First World War, Source: Image courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library at the Cambridge Museum of Technology 

During the First World War, the local council hired women to empty bins and sweep the streets to replace the men who had joined the army. They were known as scavengers, which was the old word for the job. The job consisted of cleaning the streets and picking up the rubbish using sweeping brushes and spades. They put the rubbish in their carts and then took it to the Pumping Station where it was burnt.  

Gas engines 

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Gas engines installed in 1909, Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

The gas engines pictured above were installed in 1909 to run pumps in the basement. They supplemented the steam engines and increased the Pumping Station's capacity. 

The National Gas Engine Company engines were fueled by coal gas supplied by the gasworks next door. They reached full capacity within 10 to 20 minutes, whereas the steam engines needed to warm up for several hours.

Unlike steam engines, though, the gas engines needed to be started without being connected to the pumps as they did not have enough energy to drive them. The pumps were then connected when the engine was up to speed.

Electric lighting set

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Electric lighting set installed in the 1920s, Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

The picture above shows the second-hand electric light-generating set that was installed in the 1920s to replace a set from 1898. The Pumping Station was the first building with electricity in the area. The set was used to light both the Pumping Station and the Engineer's House next door, replacing gas lights and oil lamps. 

The lighting set was used until the site was connected to mains electricity in 1937; however, it was kept as a backup. The changeover switch was used to swap between mains electricity and the electricity produced by the lighting set.  

Electrification: Electrifying Cambridge

Before electricity, people lit their homes with gas and oil lamps, or candles. The first electric lighting in Cambridge was installed at Peterhouse in 1884 to celebrate the college's 600th anniversary. It became the second place in Great Britain to have electric lighting. 

In 1888, Baily, Grundy, and Barrett provided Cambridge with its first commercial electricity supply. The company's engine and dynamo supplied lighting to a small area in town. In 1892, Cambridge Electric Supply Company provided the town's first large-scale public electricity supply. It was the first to generate electricity using a new steam turbine invented by engineer and University of Cambridge graduate Charles Parsons. The company used the turbine to drive generators for the next 30 years. 

The Electricity Act of 1947 expanded the electricity industry nationwide. Hundreds of small local companies were merged into regional boards of the Central Electricity Authority. Cambridge Electric Supply Company became part of the Eastern Electricity Board. Cambridge's power station closed in 1966 and its landmark chimney was demolished in 1967.  

Electric motor and pump

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Electric motor and pump, Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

The electric motor with a pump was installed in 1937 to increase the pumping capacity of the Pumping Station. It was used to cope with storm surges and increased drainage to the sewers caused by a growing population. However, the electric pump was only used as the last resort because it was expensive to run in addition to only pumping to the holding tanks. 

Once the motor was running it did not need any supervision. It drove the pump in the basement below it through a vertical shaft. When the Pumping Station closed in 1968, the fully electric Riverside Pumping Station next door took over sewage disposal.   

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