How Did the Victorians Do That? – Markfield Beam Engine

Home History How Did the Victorians Do That? – Markfield Beam Engine
Markfield Beam Engine

This weekend is the start of the Open House Festival. Usually this would be the annual Open House London Weekend where architecture and design – both new and old – and our built-heritage of special, unique and unusual buildings all around London are admired and celebrated. This year it cannot be the same as in previous years so the team at Open House have drawn together what is possible to do safely this year to find out about our glorious architecture in London. For Haringey, Open House have compiled a little self-guided itinerary around some parts of north Tottenham.

For this weekend, with what promises to be good weather, there are some other additions that you can see locally – firstly, a self-guided Tower Gardens Walk of the 20th Century Cottage Garden Suburb in north Tottenham; and secondly, Markfield Beam Engine and Museum in south Tottenham. The volunteers at MBEAM will be ready to welcome visitors and you can find out even more by following the link here.

And here’s a little bit of history to tempt you about the wonderful example of Victorian technology – the beam engine at Markfield Park:

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

Close to the River Lea, the Victorian water and sewage pumping station for Tottenham and Wood Green operated on this site from 1864 for the next 100 years. From 1888, Markfield’s beam engine worked to transfer sewage from Tottenham to the Beckton treatment works in east London.

Today, the building – with its filter beds and the original surviving beam engine housed in Engine House No.2 – has been a museum since 1970. It is recognised as a Site of Industrial Heritage Interest and importance for Haringey, and is classed as a Grade II listed building in the UK. It is a unique reminder of the remarkable success of Victorian engineering and technology.

The Markfield Beam Engine is a particular design of stationary steam engine. Beam engines were often used to power pumps on canals and to drain water from mines. This engine was built between 1886 and 1888 by Wood Brothers of Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire. It is believed to be the last engine produced by this firm and the only surviving eight-column engine in its original location. There are few engines and buildings of this type left in this country.

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

“ Hornsey’s Rain Brings Tottenham’s Pain”

Why was the Markfield sewage works and pumping station built there?

To find the answer we need to look at the availability of water and the ground beneath our feet. We are not often aware of the ‘rocks’ far underground, as London is a built-up area with lots of people living here. We do not always notice the hills and valleys. Nor do we realise there are rivers and streams that still flow through London.


In the west of the borough of Haringey there are the Northern Heights – the hills of Highgate, Muswell Hill and Alexandra Palace. These areas of high ground stand on hard rock about 100 metres above sea level. Tottenham, in the east of the borough, lies on lower and softer ground of sand and gravels. These shapes in the landscape were formed millions of years ago during the Ice Age, when glaciers carved their way through these high rocks, leaving the gravel behind them.


The streams of the Moselle and the Stonebridge Brook bubble up from these western hills, and flow eastwards down towards the valley of the River Lea in Tottenham. You might not know these streams exist today as over 100 years ago they were diverted underground. Any Tottenham history book tells stories complaining about its severe flooding following heavy rain on the Northern Heights. The streams would swell and overflow down towards Tottenham. This happened so frequently that a local proverb arose:


“When Tottenham Wood is all afire

Tottenham Street is all but mire.”

Historian Fred Fisk recalled the terrible thunderstorm and flooding in Tottenham of 1878. It is said one of Mr Gripper’s sons (the family ran the Bell Brewery on Tottenham High Road) amused himself by rowing up and down the flooded street in a boat, taking passengers at 6d each and giving the money to the Tottenham Hospital.

A different part of the borough from Tottenham High Road, but Green Lanes, Harringay was also an area that was prone to flooding with these scenes dating from 1907.

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

Going Down the Pan: Sanitation and the Spread of Disease

Flooding and overflowing water was not the only problem for Tottenham residents. Over the 19th century, Haringey’s population increased dramatically. In 1801, 3,622 people lived in Tottenham. By 1871 it was 22,869. The coming of the railways in 1872 brought better transport. Along with advances in Victorian technology and the open fields ripe for development, this attracted more industries and businesses to Tottenham. People came too, choosing to live and work here instead of the cramped City. In 1881 residents numbered 46,441. By 1911, Tottenham’s population rose to 137,457.


With more people moving to Haringey, there was a high demand for clean water – and an increase in dirty waste. Unlike today, few households – if any – had running water and washing facilities. Families were often poor, with several families living in the same house. No one had a flushing toilet inside their home. Instead, natural streams were used as open drains and sewers to dispose of household waste and sewage. All this foul water flowed from the hills down to the River Lea.


With polluted water supplies and no way to separate sewage from drinking water, there was an increased risk of the spread of disease. In the 1830s Tottenham was warned of the threat of a breakout of the water-spreading disease cholera. The survival rate was low. In 1831-32 the first of three cholera epidemics took 6,356 lives throughout London.

By 1858 central London was hit by the ‘Great Stink’ ( you can listen to this short film here about it) – the smell of sewage from the polluted Thames. Government responded and entrusted the engineer Joseph Bazalgette to reorganise London’s drainage and sewage system. He introduced a system of sewers, pumping stations and treatment works that still serve London today.


To help improve the public’s health, Government had already passed an Act in 1848. Using this law, Tottenham Local Board of Health was amongst the first to set up a public water supply and sewage disposal system.

The Sewage Works

The Tottenham and Wood Green sewage treatment works and pumping station were established at the Markfield Road site, opening in 1864. It was built to treat and transfer sewage from Tottenham into the London system for treatment at the Beckton works in east London. It first used a 45 horse-powered steam engine.

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

The problem of contaminated water in Tottenham was so bad that in 1866 the Local Board of Health took legal action to ban their neighbouring authority – the Hornsey Parish – from allowing sewers and drains to empty into the Moselle stream. A report followed in 1867 from Bazalgette:

“The Parish of Hornsey is without any distinct system of drainage. It is drained as Tottenham used to be, partly into cess pools and partly into the ditches and natural watercourses, where the sewage matter stagnates and creates a great nuisance. The sanitary requirements of the place render resort to some effectual system imperative., but disposal of sewage by the natural fall of the country is rendered impossible, in consequence of the Injunction against the Tottenham Local Board of Health, restraining the further pollution of the River Lea into which the sewage of Hornsey would ultimately find its way by natural gravitation … “

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

The beam engine began operating at Markfield on 12 July 1888. Following public outcry over the pollution of the River Lea, a more powerful steam engine was needed to increase capacity for sewage disposal. The beam engine was used until 1905 when it was left on standby duty for pumping storm water.

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

All sewage treatment works were built with filter beds to purify processed water. These were invaluable for improving the water’s quality, by filtering it through sand and gravels. You can see these filter beds today at Markfield – the high concrete structures are just outside the building.


It is hard to imagine what it was like for workers carrying out daily tasks at this Victorian pumping station. The boiler house would have been poorly lit, noisy, extremely hot and steamy. The two mechanics (who lived in work cottages on site) kept the fires going for the pumping engines. It was hard work and very dirty, shovelling coal or wood to stoke the fire. There were always work hazards in keeping the machines running. Accidents could easily happen.

From old photographs of the sewage works, there were once two chimneys on site. The chimneys were essential for dealing with excess steam produced by the beam engine.

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

By the late 1950s the site was too small to cope with new changes for treating sewage. A modern treatment works was built at Edmonton. By 1964 – a hundred years since it first opened – all sewers were diverted from the Tottenham site to the new East Middlesex Works. The Markfield Works closed.

Inspecting a sewer

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

Tottenham Borough Council’s rat catchers baiting the drains, 1950s

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)


The Age Of The Machine  Markfield’s Beam Engine

Victorian Design

The engine houses and the beam engine were built for a specific function and are prime examples of the best of Victorian advances in technology of the industrial revolution. The architects also took great care in their designs following the “only the best” attitude of Victorian local authorities. The exterior shows an eye for detail, with elegant, classical-style door and window casements, influenced from grand Georgian town houses.


Engineer designers Wood Brothers of Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire, also incorporated ornate details of classical buildings in creating the ironwork for Markfield’s beam engine. The eight supporting columns are made of hollow cast-iron, following the simple Doric style seen on ancient Greek temples. The remaining structure is decorated with acanthus leaves.

Its original colours were dark green, with all exposed metalwork highly polished and oiled.

Victorian Industrial Technology

The ‘beam’ engine is a type of stationary steam engine with an upright piston rod attached to a rocker or ‘beam’. The beam stands 17 feet high and measures 21 feet long. It drove the piston rods into two cylinder pumps. The pressure was kept steady with the 27-foot wide rotating flywheel, weighing 17 tons. The beam engine is rated at 100 horsepower, capable of moving four million gallons a day.

How Did the Victorians Do That?

The steam engine is one of the most important inventions in modern technology. It is probably only second to the discovery of the wheel. So how does it work?

The engine is operated using hot steam generated from a boiler. A steam engine is a type of ‘combustion engine’ where fuel is burned outside the engine. Wood or coal was burnt in a boiler, heating water to boiling point to make steam. To power the engine it is necessary to control the pressure of the steam produced. This pressure powers the pistons located inside a cylinder. The piston connects to a ‘beam’ that converts this energy into motion.

The process used by the beam engine is called the ‘double-expansion compound system’. That means steam is first let into a high pressure cylinder where it uses half its pressure before moving into the next low pressure cylinder to do further work. This was an efficient system as it allowed the smooth running of the engine with minimal use of fuel.

To see and listen to a few sights and sounds of the Markfield beam engine in action, then do check out these two very short films here and also here. You can even follow a 23 minute presentation (set to music!) all about the technology of the beam engine at Markfield, here.

But it hasn’t always been like this. After many years of engine inactivity, it was on Open House Weekend in 2009 that saw the inaugural steaming again of Markfield Beam Engine, following a Heritage Lottery Funded restoration project for Markfield Park led by Haringey Council (Parks Department and supported by Bruce Castle Museum, and Friends of Markfield Park). None of the restoration project on the beam engine would have been possible of course without the fabulous dedicated team of volunteers from MBEAM who still support and maintain the museum and the beam engine. That same year the MBEAM volunteers won their category at the first London Volunteers in Museums Award ceremony on HMS Belfast, nominated by us at Bruce Castle Museum. It was great seeing museums around London coming together to celebrate with them – and eleven years on the volunteers are still doing wonders with this masterpiece of Victorian engineering in Tottenham.

So, if you can this weekend, do show your support for Markfield Beam Engine and Museum – even if viewing from afar. And if you can’t visit, then do save it up for visiting at a later date – it is well worth a visit.


Deborah Hedgecock