IMG 2461fi - West India Dock Impounding Station

Does anyone ever wonder where all the docks around Canary Wharf get their water? The liquid stuff doesn’t grow on trees like the money does lol! Seriously, there has always been some form of pumping in these docks (as in the other London Docks such as St Katherine’s and Royal Victoria and all the others that once existed) in order to keep the water levels high. Prior to that it was a case of impounding the Thames at high water and allowing vessel movements only during these short periods of high tides.

With increasing industrialisation and the need for ships to have 24/7 access to the docks, mechanical pumping equipment was soon necessary and the first were of course very powerful steam engines which could lift huge amounts of water up from the Thames.

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The West India Docks were among the first to use steam engines for this purpose in 1829 at what is now Poplar Dock. The system was designed by John Rennie, but gave problems and was abandoned in 1843. From that date to 1895, the old method of impounding was used, when a new steam operated system was built at Blackwall lock. This worked until early 1930.

Generally the method used then was to pump the water somewhat higher than its mean level so by the time the need came to pump the docks up again, the water levels had in fact not gone down much. It was simply a case of putting this extra water in to act as a reserve – thus there would be less lost than if the system was being kept topped at its mean level. This is how the docks could allow shipping to continue using the locks when the river wasn’t quite so high and water wasn’t being pumped. The actual range of available lock hours depended on how well the the channels on the approaches were dredged, as well as the depth of water over the bottom cill of the lock.

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During the London docks busiest periods, being the first half of the twentieth century, electricity became the usual means for keeping the docks replenished, although some instead depended on hydraulic pumps operated by air and of course the West India Docks sought a more reliable and ready source of impounding. In fact they had sought very early on, this being 1913, to replace the Blackwall station with a more reliable system, but the First World War intervened.

Despite some set backs the scheme finally was revived in the 1920s and modified to provide an even greater pumping capacity. Between 1926 and 1929 a dam was built across the mouth of the former West India dock lock chamber. The system came into use in April 1930 and had cost a total of £38,787.

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General view of the pumping hall from the ground floor lobby.

There are three pumps (the motors are built by Lancashire Dynamo Motor Company and the pumps by Worthington Simpson) and these are capable of delivering 65 million gallons of water over a four hour period. That’s one Olympic sized swimming pool filled every nine minutes!

This amount of water was absolutely necessary at a time when the docks were practically at their busiest. I don’t think such huge amounts of water are required these days because ship movements are rarer and the amount of water space has been reduced. Just one pump would suffice for most needs, except when the Blackwall lock is being used – and then I think another one or two pumps would be called on as necessary to make up the loss accounted through lockage as well as the other usual means such as abstraction, leaks or evaporation.

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1929 plan of the impounding station and its three pumps. Source: British History

As the above plan shows. there are two pairs of motors/impellers on the east side of the building and one on the west side. The inlet where water is abstracted into the pumps is marked G, the valves are marked F and the outlets to the dock marked H.

The noted pumping station is a regular feature on London’s Open House weekend although it too is open for special visits. Its the first time I have visited it although I have been past it a number of times. In fact I have written about the impounding dock and station before though not in such great detail as this.

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Another view of the pumping hall, looking north.

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The Duke of Edinburgh re-opened the refurbished impounding station in 1998.

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The pumps are from Worthington-Simpson of Newark on Trent.

The Newark company is no longer extant, although the company AVT Pumps has a specialist division that supplies parts and backup for Worthington’s products, whose machines are still used at numerous waterworks across Britain.

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The huge motors were built in Trafford Park, Manchester, by the Lancashire Dynamo Motor Company.

The Lancashire Dynamo Motor Company was incorporated in 1899 and it lasted until 1933 when it was merged with the Crypto Electrical Company to form the Lancashire Dynamo and Crypto Company. However it’s clear the Crypto company was involved in the manufacture of these motors at West India Dock as their name is also engraved on the makes’ plates. The combined companies themselves lasted until 1967 when it was taken over, and then closed down, by GEC.

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One of the Open House guided tours.

Despite the rather vintage equipment in use, some of the latest stuff is also used. Digital equipment and new starter motors were installed by Canal & River Trust in 2014 to supplement the other more modern equipment such as switch gear. The equipment can thus be started/monitored via the digital boards or via the control panels/switchgear adjacent to each of the three motors/pumps and their operation can either be fully automatic or manual.

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Digital control for the pumps and motors installed by Canal and River Trust.

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Some of the equipment is no longer used such as this detector to show the water levels in the River Thames.

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Or this indicator which showed when the pumping valves were partially or fully open, or shut completely.

Starter motors are employed to initially turn the huge machines. Because of the machines’ size (and the fact there is no gearing) there’s a lot of weight to shift thus the starter motors are used to begin the operation. Once the main pumping motor is turning well it can look after itself.

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The pair of huge bulbous tubes are in fact the impeller housing. These are like waterwheels but run much faster in order to pump huge amounts of water up into the docks. The motor for this unit is on the left.

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An old impeller that has seen better days. It was replaced due to damage, possibly a piece of wood that found its way into the pumps. Any breakage simply means the impeller is much less effective at shifting water.

One of the undocumented jobs that is done here is the filtering and separation of rubbish where the intake of water takes place. This is important because any rubbish getting into the pumps will damage them. The rubbish collection is automatic and involves a screen that collects any rubbish. It is then lifted out of the water and onto a conveyor belt and transferred to a skip. The damage done to the above impeller shows how important it is to keep the incoming water absolutely clear of rubbish.

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A better view of the impeller housing. They are sort of ovoid shaped which enables the impellers to force even more water through to the valves at the east side of the building. Some sources describe the system here as a centrifugal pumping system which it essentially was.

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These people were having fun – who doesn’t these days – especially when it comes to social media! On a serious note, the huge housings seen here are in fact the valves (or hydraulic penstocks) that regulate the water being forced through by the impellers. The whole system is actually a forced sump system, which means the water is pushed upwards rather than pumped.

The reason this system works so well is because the water cant flow back as the impellers are pushing more water through, so the water has to lift upwards into the adjacent dock. The valves/penstocks simply ensure the water is delivered effectively. Its an old system of course and its not really that different from a natural sump where water is pushed down a hole and then emerges in a different location altogether. Its an extremely powerful system however in terms of the amount of water than can be shifted and its effectiveness is a good reason why it has lasted such a long time.

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These huge steel loops on top of the impeller, motor and valve housings are for the purpose of lifting up the housings when repairs or inspections need to be done. A modern overhead gantry crane is used for this purpose.

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View of the overhead gantry crane. Its used for maintenance as well as lifting the motor and pump housings, the six impellers, and other equipment. The maximum that can be lifted is ten tons.

There are all sorts of fascinating dials and controls on the original system and these include valves, levers, oil level and water level indicators.

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The amount of power being used by the starter motors. The dials are no longer used but form part of the building’s heritage whilst the starter motors have certainly been upgraded. The old 60 volts indicated here does not seem much, its actually the amps which provide the power. Sixty volts seems to have been the nominal maximum employed in Lancashire Dynamos and Crypto’s smaller motors.

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Oil level indicator on the housing which consists of the bearings used to support the large drive shafts.

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Valves and copper piping.

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These are indicators that show the pumps are fully primed and ready to use.

There are two to each impeller housing. Its just a drip of water on the end of a thin pipe I know, but that is very important! Basically this is an old means of gaining sight as to whether a pumping system is properly primed or not and clearly it still works.

The only alternative to these drip indicators would be to have a hatch which opened, allowing someone to see if there is water in the impeller housing. Its not a good idea though because guess what! Due to the immense pressures employed the water would shoot out and flood the pumping hall. So really these vintage indicators are doing an excellent job which would otherwise be impossible.

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The electric motors and their control panel.

The most important component of the whole operation are without a doubt the huge electric motors. They are extremely powerful and its necessary in order to enable the impellers to do their job. Again they are old equipment having been built in 1929, but seeing this is actually their 90th year, these machines’ longevity are a strong testimony to their builders.

The main motor operates at 440 volts/380 amps and attains 167 revolutions per minute, giving a force of 360 brake horse power. It seems to me the motors are in fact paired, this being a smaller armature housing at one end and a huge armature housing at the other. I’m not fully sure of the technical aspects however so I am doing my best here. The larger armature wheel in fact, due to its weight and size, doubles as a flywheel, otherwise there would have to be a separate flywheel within the arrangement.

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The commutator slots on the smaller armature spindle. How these work is each is separately charged in sequence and this forces the armatures (in the next section of the motor) to create very powerful opposing magnetic fields and the simplicity of these (and any electric motor of any sort, small, medium or large) is that it simply forces the whole motor shaft to rotate and as long as the electrical feed is active the motor will just simply keep rotating.

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The armature’s electrical contacts which keep the machine continuously charged.

The fact this is an industrial type of motor likely accounts for its longevity. Its not like a small motor, for example for a model train, or a electric fan, that is small and easily worn out. This motor has large commutators and huge carbon based contacts which can certainly stand a lot of wear and tear.

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On the right hand side is the smaller armature housing, and this is the drive shaft that leads to the large armature housing on the left. In the centre is the main armature commutators. There’s just three but these carry a hefty current and its clearly DC rather than AV. The armature wheel itself has to be substantially large in order to create the force necessary to rotate the impellers through the water and as I have said earlier, it too acts like a flywheel.

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One thing I noticed about the building was these particular decorated tiles and they seem to be reminiscent of those used on the tube lines of the early 20th Century. Perhaps the same supplier, Carter’s Tile Manufactory at Poole, involved?

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The old order seen in 2008. British Waterways managed the impounding station and One Canada Square was the prominent tower!

When Canary Wharf as first built the 800 foot tower was a prominent landmark soaring over the pump house and until recent years it continued to be seen. However these days its no longer visible from here because other skyscrapers have now been built.