The Abbey Pumping Station is an unusual science and technology museum in Leicester, England. Its main attraction is the set of four working steam-powered beam engines leftover from its time as a sewage pumping station, but it also houses a range of other exhibits.
The building was constructed in 1891 by Leicester Corporation to pump the town’s sewage to the main sewage treatment works. The impressive building, designed by Stockdale Harrison, houses four compound beam engines built by a local firm, Gimson and Company. Even if the building was empty, it would be worthy of preservation. The internal decoration of the pump room is a fantastic example of British Victorian civic pride.
The engines were already considered somewhat old-fashioned when they were built. The engines produce 200 horsepower, and they ran at 12–19 rpm. When working at maximum capacity, they pumped 208,000 gallons of sewage an hour. The cast-iron flywheels measure 21 feet in diameter and the beams are 28 feet long.
This steam pumping station continued pumping Leicester’s sewage until 1964, when electric pumps took over. Shortly after that, further changes in the sewer and treatment system meant that the station was not needed at all. In 1972, the building was re-opened as a museum of science and technology.
The magnificent beam engines were retained intact, and were restored to full working order although they are now fired by a gas boiler which is itself on display in the museum in the same space as the last of the eight coal fired Lancashire boilers. In its early years, the museum focused mainly on water and sewage. Today, it houses a wide range of technological material, often relating to Leicester, from the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.
Items on display include a replica of an old-fashioned film theatre and displays of film projection equipment. There is a collection of the locally made Imperial typewriters, an early industrial knitting machine, and collections of other artifacts and images ranging from domestic appliances to toys and trams. In the museum on permanent display is a collection of early motorcycles and a 1908 Clyde motorcar that was built in Leicester, one of only three left in the world.
The museum also has a narrow guage railway including steam and diesel locomotives. There is also a collection of vintage road vehicles, which are operated on selected days. Exhibits include several fire engines, buses, and an 1894 steam roller. A massive quarry steam shovel is being restored outside.
One of the museum’s highlights is a see-through toilet and drainage system, which directs water to an open inspection chamber on the other side of the hall. A rubber model of a “poo” can be dropped in the toilet, flushed and followed as it makes its way to the inspection chamber where it can be picked out and recycles back to the toilet.
Know Before You Go
Entry to the museum is free but has what must be the world’s most imaginative collection box for donations. Near the main door is an early 20th-century urinal (with the outlet screen removed) which is connected, via a short pipe, to a receptacle for donated coins. The Pumping Station is open daily from 11 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Engines can be seen in steam at various steam days along with other steam and early internal combustion exhibits. There is plenty of free parking most of the time but on steam days it gets busy.