The London Hydraulic Power Company

The London Hydraulic Power Company

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One of my favourite things about walking London is the little things you find that tell a big story. Take this valve cover marked LHP in Royal Mint Street. Its a remnant of the London Hydraulic Power Company, a network that powered equipment all over London in the late 19th and early 20th century. Hydraulic power, using water compressed by a steam engine to work machinery, had been developed by Lord Armstrong to control cranes in Woolwich Arsenal in the 1850s. This was all very well in big sites but smaller sites didn’t have room for a steam engine. What was needed was a way to have the power generated off site. Step forward a young engineer called Edward Ellington. At the age of 26 he set up a company to distribute hydraulic power through a network of pipes from a central steam engine. In 1871 after a successful pilot in Hull the company built a pumping station near Blackfriars Bridge, with a network of hessian wrapped cast iron pipes providing power to cranes and factories in the docks. By the 1890s the network had expanded to five pumping stations  and 180 miles of pipes. They powered theatre curtains, clocks and a turntable on the stage at the Royal Opera House. Hydraulic powered lifts meant that buildings could be taller, while hydraulic powered printing presses meant newspapers and books became more affordable.
The great days didnt last. There was increasing competition from electricity after World War One and the pipes often burst causing damage to streets. The Blitz destroyed big chunks of the LHPs network but somehow the company limped on until 1977 when Cable and Wireless bought their subterranean routes. The valve covers are the most visible survivors of the LHP, you can find them all over London. One of the pumping stations is now a restaurant and art gallery, http://www.thewappingproject.com/ which has kept some of the machinery intact. Near the Tower of London you can find a round building marked London Hydraulic Power Company, this is the entrance to the Tower Subway, which was originally an old pedestrian tunnel the LHP bought to carry power under the Thames
The LHP might seem like an engineering dead end, but they played a part in turning London into the worlds first modern city. You can hear more about the engineers and inventors involved in my walk The Makers of Modern London that will be running on 22nd January 2015 – see  http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-makers-of-modern-london-tickets-14648934357 for more information.
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