Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Tucked away between Albion Street and Lower Road, the chimney of the pumphouse in Renforth Street is visible from Canada Water Station and points to its industrial origins. The pumphouse was built in 1902-3 by the London Hydraulic Power Company, a company created in 1883 by Act of Parliament to set up a hydraulic power network throughout London to provide a cleaner alternative to steam. The Rotherhithe pumping station was the fifth and last to be built and utilised the unused Tower Subway** to carry pipes under the Thames.
The water used in the process was taken from the Thames, the Docks, canals and from wells sunk in gravel beds overlying London clay. The energy produced was used to power a variety of machinery including the safety curtain at the London Palladium the backup mechanism of Tower Bridge. Hydraulic power was used in the docks to power the gates, jiggers, cranes and warehouse lifts, and though electricity soon emerged as the more popular form of energy, the London Hydraulic Power Company survived until after the closure of the London Docks. The entire network closed down in 1977 and was bought by Mercury Communications who used the network of tunnels for telecommunications wiring. The Renforth Street Pumphouse has been converted into housing.
** The Tower Subway housed a railway that carried passengers under the Thames in a cable hauled carriage. It opened in August 1870 but was unsuccessful and closed by the end of the year. The tunnel then became a pedestrian route that charged a toll. It could not complete with the new, and free, Tower Bridge that opened in 1894 and the tunnel was closed to pedestrians in 1898.