A little known but fascinating company will finally  cease supply in July (1977) to a power distribution network  which presented the only viable alternative to electricity  to be commercially developed.

  In 1883 the London Hydraulic Power Company commenced supplying power generated at central stations and distributed via  an extensive public network laid beneath the streets to consumers who bought it via a meter - thus predating  the commercial supply of electricity on a similar scale  by four years. The medium of transmission was high  pressure water, contained in cast iron mains, and derived from the Thames.

 The brainchild of Edward Bayzand Ellington, managing director of the Hydraulic Engineering Company - Chester, similar  systems were eventually established in Liverpool; Birmingham; Manchester; Glasgow; Melbourne; Sydney; Antwerp and Buenos Aires, of which the LHPC is the sole survivor. Developing side by  side with electricity the relative obscurity of the system  today and its ultimate demise leaves no doubt as to the  technological verdict on hydraulic power generation, but its survival for ninety four years demonstrates that there is always an alternative to even such a universally adopted  system like electricity.

  The elimination of such bulky and labour intensive  prime movers as steam or gas engines by a highly efficiently  transmitted secondary power source was such a welcome idea  in the late nineteenth century that the LHPC's rise was meteoric, new machines being connected at a rate of  250 a year for 25 years. An increase in demand of 150 Ml/yr required five pumping stations - Blackfriars l883; Millbank 1888;  Wapping 1892; City Road 1893; Rotherhithe l902 and Grosvenor  Road (replacement for Millbank) 1911; and by 1930 the Company  reached its peak, supplying 140 Ml/wk to 8,OOO machines  through 300 km of mains stretching from Kensington to Poplar  and Kings Cross to Kennington.

  The main application was for great force intermittently  applied quite slowly; the Port of London and the railway  goods depots making up the profitable two thirds of the  Company's business with uses such as dockside  cranes, warehouse hoists, coal conveyors, wagon hoists,  capstans, dock gates, and baling presses. The remaining consumers  were the multifarious commercial and domestic lifts, other small  appliances. Pumping was by magnificent compound and triple-expansion steam engines/hydraulic pumps, specially designed  by Ellington, smoothed by 7 mt high rams loaded with 112 tonnes of slag known as accumulators.

 After 1926, when part of the Port of London Authority's  system was acquired, expansion slowed to a halt as competition from  electricity bit deeply, but WWII provided the  death blow. The areas of highest concentration of hydraulic  machines were also the high priority targets for the German Blitzkrieg, and the destruction of the Docks, railway  goods yards, and the inner City resulted in the total loss  of hundreds of machines and the destruction of the profitable  section of the LHPC's business. Despite a gallant electrification  programme from 1953-66 (which unfortunately resulted in the  destruction of all the original steam engines) and the acquisition  of the remainder of the PLA's system; the post-containerisation  decline of the port of London and the Beeching Axe finally  left the company with snowballing overheads and falling  demand. Progressively retrenching back to the Wapping station,  they commenced closing down the network last year, and ceased  supply in June/July this year, having made provision for  their remaining 500 consumers to be converted to self  contained electrically powered oil or water hydraulic units.

  London is thus left with an abandoned network of 500 km  of mainly cast-iron mains (average bore 150 mm and depth  1 m ); the remnants of 8,OOO hydraulic machines of all sorts;  and some rather magnificent Victorian pumping stations. Such  a legacy must be utilisable in some commercially viable way,  and the 5,500 m of mains awaits an entrepreneur to make his fortune using them for storage, communication or supply.  Three of the pumping stations have been demolished already, but  a constructive example of re-use is Marico's furniture factory  in the City Road station. The rich crop of useless hydraulic machinery should provide a valuable addition to our industrial heritage,  assuming the pressing task of identification and conservation  can be accomplished.

  To indicate the unsuspected influence the LHPC has had  upon the life of the capital, and as an indication of the  extraordinary diversity of the applications of hydraulic power,  a list of the best examples includes - Tower Bridge, revolving  stages at the Palladium and Coliseum, fire curtains at Drury  Lane and Her Majesty's theatres, organ console lifts at  the Leicester Square Theatre and Odeon Marble Arch, the swimming  pool floor of the Earls Court exhibition building, fire hydrants  at (Old) New Scotland Yard and the National Gallery, a picture  lift at the Royal Academy, piped vacuum cleaning and artesian  well pumps. It is to be hoped that other equally fascinating  survivals of this magnificent Victorian example of technological  verve come to light due to the cessation of supply, and the  author would welcome and information on further examples. Pending  the release of the Company's records sites of existing or replaced hydraulic machinery may be identified by the  characteristic LHP service stop-cock covers, surrounded by a  raised chequerboard margin, located near the gutter or in the  pavement outside premises once served.


Copyright Roger J Morgan 1977

Published in ‘New Scientist’ 1977