Friday, 17 October 2008

Of Drains and Stink-Pipes

Put a peg on your nose if you must, but it's about time we tackled the emotive world of the "Main Drain Stink Pipe"... Well that certainly seems to be how they are referred to in general conversation. Not that the subject comes up much though and to be honest I've a feeling it's a bit of a misnomer. After all could it really be possible that the manufacturers of London's sewage system would build in, at regular intervals, outlet pipes to waft the sickly -sweet hints of sewage across the neighbourhood? I doubt it. Actually, I believe that they were installed almost as 'safety valves' to prevent any dangerous increase in air pressure in sections of the tunnel. Although there seems to be pretty much a standard design, the ones I've found do have interesting variations

Let's start with the first one I spotted

Merton Road, Wimbledon
As proof of how innocuous these pipes can be I had walked past this several times before I suddenly noticed it. I was taken by its relatively ornate design when, let's be honest, a straight pipe would have done just as well. Yet there it is - a hint of Victorian over-design nestling quite happily in its modern setting.
Although there are some cracks in the iron these days, you can see how the Victorians felt thatn even a basic pipe would benefit from a little ornamentation. Southey Road, South Wimbledon
Not too far away from my first spotting (and possibly even on the same main drain?) is my favourite stink-pipe. Two for the price of one, this unit was adapted to take an early electric light. Now very much defunct, I believe this design would date back to the early years of the last century, with the small pices of mirror reflecting the light back on the assers-by below
Not much left of the mosaic of mirrored glass these days...The ivy's starting to take a hold around the 'collar' area but a plastic id tag is still is the still ring of spikes designed to deter any would-be lightbulb thief!

Lambton Road, Raynes Park
This seems to be of the same design as the one on Merton Road, but what I like here is the fact that the paint-job only goes half-way up. Could it be that the painter wasn't allowed to go any higher due to Health & Safety regulations about streatching too far above your head?

Vicarage Road, Hampton Wick
This beauty looks as though it should either have a flame coming out of the top, like some strange lantern, or lots of Victorian children tying ropes to the top. It really does seem an evocative object and I've no idea what either the spurs were for... ...or the basket -effect near the top. A subtle dispersal of faint aromas possibly?Still there's a nice bit of cast-iron scroll-work near the bottom and that'll do me.Garrat Lane, Wandsworth.
Here's a whopper! Tucked behind an advertising hoarding I couldn't see the base of this one, but it was by far the tallest I'd seen. Looks a goody though...


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the spurs were for Victorian hanging baskets? I have always wondered what these strange things were, thanks for the post! (no pun intended!)

Yelfy said...

Hi Deptford,
Your comment got me thinking about the original use of those bits sticking out at the side of old lampposts. I don't think I've ever seen a picture of one with flower-baskets hanging off of it, so I discounted that idea - likewise my mum said that that they used to tie ropes off of them and use them as swings, but I couldn't believe that they would build that in as a feature especially for children! Then it dawned on me. Most of those early designs were originally for gas lights and although they might be lit by a man with a long stick, the wicks would need to be replaced and trimmed on a regular basis. This would require someone with a ladder and, importantly, somewhere to prop it! I think those bits sticking out were ladder props to allow regular maintenance to be carried out, with light-bulbs needing to be replaced when gas-lights went out of use. No cherry-pickers in those days, just a man and a ladder looking for somewhere to prop it...

Anonymous said...

Sounds very plausible. Btw you might like to look at Neil's latest post on Transpontine about TFL's plans to relocate a very ornate example in New Cross.

Anonymous said...

I think the spurs were for the painter to stand on so he wouldn't breach Health and Safety by stretching too far above his head

Anonymous said...

How about to support wires for trams?

John said...

The side bars were used for ladders.
Gas lights do not have a wick, but a flame which makes a mantel glow white hot. The mantels sometimes need to be replaced. Also the glass around the lamp needs cleaning. Later gas lights were lit by a pilot flame and not a man with long pole, these had a clockwork timer/valve to turn the gas supply to the lamp on and off. A man would come round weekly or monthly to wind up the clockwork mechanism.
There were sewer gas street lights in London.
There still is one sewer gas lamp in use. You can go and see it in Carting Lane WC2, round the back of the Savoy Hotel.


Yelfy said...

Thanks for that John. That would suggest that that there was originally a gas lamp on top of the pole which would have blocked the pressure release to the underground sewer. This in turn makes sense of the 'basket' underneath which would have provided the appropriate ventilation. So it would suggest that these ventilation pipes were piggy-backed by both gas and electric lighting.

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How about to support wires for trams?

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