Published: Fri 16 June

Power surge: countdown to the new Electric House

Jun 16 2017 5:32 PM

2018 will see the unveiling of the Museum's newest attraction, which brings right up to date the story of water pumping at the Kew Bridge site. The newly restored Electric House will be home to a unique collection of exhibits that show how electricity transformed London’s water supply in the twentieth century.

Originally built to house the last steam engine installed at Kew Bridge in 1891, the Electric House gets its name from its more recent inhabitants: six electric pumps installed in 1944 to replace the site’s steam engines, in operation right up until 1986 and the building of a more modern pumping station next door to where the Museum now stands.

At that time, five of the original pumps were removed, but the one remaining pump set, now restored and renovated, will form one of the centrepieces of the new display.  It’s also a reminder of the fascinating history of how electricity came to replace steam as the main means for water pumping in the capital.

The Metropolitan Water Board (MWB) was at the forefront of electricity generation right back in the late nineteenth century, originally with steam-powered generators which created sufficient electricity for lighting. One of the highlights of the new Electric House will be a 1907 steam powered generator which visitors will be able to see in action.

From the 1920s, the MWB was investing in larger sites with their own large-scale turbines generating sufficient electricity to power pumps. Much of this plant has all but disappeared, but our new display will include parts from these giant machines and the switchboards that would have controlled them.

As electricity became the main means of powering pumping stations, taking electricity from the mains replaced on-site generation. However, older sites had to tackle the issue of converting mains electricity (AC) to the DC equipment they couldn’t afford to update or replace. Enter another of our exhibits, the Mercury Arc Rectifier which, with its blue glow and appearance straight from the pages of science fiction, will justifiably be popular with visitors of all ages.

An electric pump rescued from the 1986 water pumping station, itself now obsolete, reminds us that, just as the Electric House represented a shift into the modernity of the electric age, so water pumping technology today is part of the electronic age. A visit to the Museum will soon take visitors on a journey from the giant steam engines run and maintained by shifts of workers to the eve of an era where, today, water supply is entirely automated and computer controlled.

Museum Members will have the opportunity to meet and hear from the Electric House’s Project Director, Richard Albanese at the upcoming AGM on 7th July, as well as the chance to see the latest progress for themselves.

Others won’t have too long to wait either. The finishing touches are being put in place for launch at the beginning of 2018. The new Electric House promises to be a fitting tribute to London’s water supply in the electric age, and a most exciting space to visit.

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