The engine houses at Eastney were built between 1865 and 1904, to accommodate pumps and sewage works that served the growing population of Victorian Portsmouth. Though the engine houses may have been used for drainage and sanitation purposes, today they stand as monuments to the fascinating period of Victorian engineering.
Why was the Beam Engine House built?
Because the city of Portsmouth is a low-lying island with poor natural drainage, sewage and waste often polluted the water supply. Water was often drawn from wells that were next to cesspits. This resulted in many deaths from diseases such as cholera, as well as countless illnesses. Drainage became the responsibility of local authorities in 1845. By 1868 a new drainage system had been developed that used gravity to move sewage across Portsea Island to Eastney, from where it was pumped out to sea.
However, as the city’s population increased, more pumping power was needed to prevent blockages in the system. With a reward of £500 put up for anyone who could provide a workable solution, Colonel John Frederick Crease and Sir Frederick Bramwell stepped forward with a plan to pump waste to holding tanks, from where it could be discharged at will on the outgoing tide.
There was confidence in Sir Frederick, with the Hampshire Telegraph and Evening News declaring him an “eminent engineer” whose association with the project was “itself a guarantee” of a good end result.
This confidence was well placed, as the result of Sir Frederick’s involvement was the building of Eastney’s Engine Houses that improved the living conditions of people across Portsmouth, and which can still be seen today.
What was built at Eastney?
In addition to the Beam Engine House and its engines, large boilers were built to provide the steam to power them, as well as three storage tanks at Fort Cumberland with a capacity of some 20 million litres. Finally, a chimney was added to dispel gases, with a furnace underneath to burn off any excess and create a strong updraft.
The engines were officially switched on by the Mayor of Portsmouth on 9 May 1887. This effectively began the pumping at Eastney that would continue for generations. In a toast at the dinner that followed, all parties involved in the development of the engine houses were thanked for “the almost certain health [Southsea residents] would enjoy as a result.” It was also said the systems would improve tourism to the area, leading to there being no empty houses in Southsea, as more people come to visit and remain as residents.
The engines certainly did play an important part in improving the health and living standards of everyone in Portsmouth. When they were retired from normal use, the beam engines were still kept in operating condition as a backup until 1954. Maintenance of the engines and pumps was discontinued after this date and they were handed over to Portsmouth Museums in 1968.
Following extensive restoration, the Beam Engine House was opened to the public as an industrial museum in 1972.
The Gas Engine House
This building which stands to the west of the Beam Engine House originally contained three 180 horse power double ended gas engines, each driving a 24 inch diameter Tangye centrifugal pump. Today, two of them remain.
These engines were installed in 1904 and were a response to further residential and industrial expansion of Portsmouth and the inevitable increase in sewage. The engines were designed to deal with at least six times the normal flow produced by the population of Portsmouth.
They operated alongside the beam engines until 1954 and were converted to run on North Sea gas in 1971.