Visit to Markfield Beam Engine and Museum, Tottenham

Part of Markfield Beam Engine machinery

Liz du Parcq reports on a recent visit

Friends of Windmill Gardens’ Archive and History Group are actively considering whether to work towards accreditation as a museum. Such status might help us with applications for funding and attract a wider interest in our activities. One organisation that is already working towards accreditation is the Markfield Beam Engine and Museum in Tottenham and Penny Steele, Nick Weedon and Liz du Parcq took up the invitation to visit on 7 January to experience one of their ‘Steaming’ events, and talk to trustees and volunteers about the process.

Exterior view of brick building with six large arched windows

Markfield Engine House, winter sunset.

Markfield Beam Engine and Museum is a comparable organisation to ours. They are a CIO (Charitable Incorporated Organisation) with one big listed building containing 19th century heritage equipment that was saved from dereliction and has undergone a major restoration in recent decades, funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Their Engine is set within a bigger park than our windmill and adjacent to the River Lea. They have only a quite small collection of related artefacts (though this includes some wonderful tools including the biggest spanners ever!), and they have a programme of open days and events with a strong community flavour and a distinct educational slant. They have a much bigger building – the engine and its pumps are housed in a tall narrow building, with the equivalent of two storeys above ground and another two below, to accommodate the massive beam, the pistons and cylinders, the huge flywheel and below ground level the pumps and plungers. There is boiler house where diesel-operated boilers generate the steam to power the engine, a new café and toilets. But the charity has no other community space and its quite limited shop is in a very tiny corner of its entrance.

Nine open-ended spanners on a wooden board

A collection of large spanners for the Markfield Beam Engine.

The Middlesex suburb of Tottenham had grown rapidly in the middle of the 19th century from a select residential neighbourhood to a crowded lower-middle and working class suburb thanks in part to the new railways. The land was swampy and the old cess pits overflowed into surface water drains and thence into streams and rivers. Tottenham set up its first public water supply and associated sewage disposal system under the provisions of the 1848 Public Health Act and the sewerage system evolved and expanded over the next 50 years on the Markfield Road site.


Interior of Markfield Engine House, beam engine and part of the flywheel

Visitors watch the Wood Bros. beam engine in action.

Initially a 45hp steam engine lifted the incoming sewage into deposit tanks through which it would pass to sand filters, the clear liquid then emerging into the River Lea and the residual sludge being compressed and removed for use as agricultural fertiliser. But, as the population increased and maintenance deteriorated, sewage began to leak into the river and pollute the marshlands and water sources, leading to a serious cholera epidemic in 1865 and by 1885 a major public outcry about the state of the River Lea. The sewerage system was significantly improved and expanded and the original 45 hp horizontal simple condensing engine was replaced in the 1880s by the coal-fired 100 hp beam engine that survives in the site today, with two pumps, each rated at 2 million gallons per day. The original deposit tanks were converted to form filter beds. In the 1890s the effluent from the works was connected to the Hackney branch of Joseph Bazalgette’s London Sewerage system and by 1905, three additional pumping engines and a second main sewer had increased capacity to 9.45 million gallons per day and chemical treatment had been introduced. The beam engine was relegated to emergency stand-by and storm water pumping. In the 1960s the sewage works closed and Tottenham’s sewage treatment moved to Deepham’s Sewage Works in Edmonton.

Beam engine centrifugal governor

The governor is a bit more ornate than Brixton Windmill’s governor.

The upper part of a large flywheel with a wall in the background

The flywheel is 27 feet or 8 metres in diameter and weighs about 17 tons.

The site reverted to Haringey Council and most of the area of the sewage works was combined with the adjacent King George’s Field to create Markfield Park. Between 2004 and 2009, the Engine House and Beam Engine were renovated and restored with funding from a variety of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The double-acting high pressure beam engine was the power that turned the wheels of British industry during the Industrial Revolution, pumping water from mines, pumping domestic water supplies and sewage and even propelling ships until replaced by turbines and eventually electric motors. Markfield is one of the few to survive into preservation. Steam enters the two cylinders in turn forcing pistons to rotate the beam which in turn operates plunger pumps below the floor at either end of the beam, each capable of moving 2 million gallons in a 24-hour period. An 8m diameter flywheel keeps the engine working smoothly past the ‘dead spots’ and a centrifugal speed governor (similar to the one on our modular mill) controls the running speed by adjusting the steam valve. On our visit the engine was started for the first time by a young woman, the charity’s youngest engineering volunteer and ran smoothly and powerfully for the duration of our visit. It was a truly impressive spectacle, although it was easy to see how the original coal boilers and the constant leakage of steam, together with a powerful aroma of sewage, would have made for quite unpleasant working and environmental conditions back when it was in full time use for pumping sewage.

Basement interior with large pipe and steam

The steamy basement of the Engine House.

A table with two ewers and basins, a soap dish and a carpet beater on it

A display of items related to water and personal hygiene.

Markfield Beam Engine and Museum is well worth a visit – see

We had the opportunity to talk briefly to trustees and volunteers about the process of accreditation as a museum. We already have some of the necessary documentation and procedures in place and we were encouraged by the successful step-by-step approach they had adopted.

Nick has put together a slideshow of the visit to Markfield Beam Engine and Museum.

Photos: Penny Steele

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