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What Is the Kew Bridge Steam Museum?

C. K. Lanz
C. K. Lanz

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum, located in an old pumping station, explores water pumping steam engines and the water supply industry. The distinctive Standpipe Tower marks the museum’s location a few yards west of the Kew Bridge over the River Thames in London, England. Originally opened in 1973, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum features a variety of steam and beam engines as well as other technologies that once helped supplied the city with water. One of the museum’s primary goals is to make this history interesting and accessible to all visitors regardless of previous interest in steam engines.

Today’s Kew Bridge Steam Museum was once a fully functional pumping station that first opened in 1838. The station expanded by adding steam, Allen diesel, and electric pumps through 1958. Rather than destroy the engines when the station was decommissioned, they were stored with the intention of eventually founding a museum at the site. The Kew Bridge Engines Trust was created as a charity in 1973 to restore the pumping station and open a museum. By 1975, the trust had reached its goal, although it continues to rely on donations and other support to maintain and operate the museum.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The heart of this museum is Steam Hall. The collection here features a green triple-expansion steam engine that represents a design and type commonly built after 1900. Several distinctive beam engines are on display as well, such as the largest single cylinder beam engine that survives in the world. Other exhibits include the Maudslay engine, the first beam engine built for the pumping station when it began operating in 1838, and the Boulton and Watt engine, built in 1820. Visitors can also take a ride on the pumping station's steam engine, called the Waterworks Railway.

The Water for Life Gallery is more interactive and strives to educate the visitor about water supply technologies from the age of Rome to the present day. Baths, sinks, and boilers are on display as well as other technologies. There is also information and interactive displays about Victorian era toshers, or scavengers who hunted in the sewers for valuables in groups of at least three people in order to protect themselves from vermin. The exhibit ends with a section of the Thames Water London main ring that shows how the city’s water distribution system works today. Visitors will leave with a better understanding of water use in their daily lives and the work that goes into keeping it safe to use.

Groups and researchers are welcome at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. The museum has an extensive archive available, although most of it is technical in nature and focuses on London's water supply industry. Researchers can also examine oral interviews with former pumping station employees as well as staff lists. A research guide is available to interested parties, and the museum will reserve an appointment for a researcher upon request.

This museum is recognized internationally by various organizations. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers designated the Kew Bridge Steam Museum an Engineering Heritage Hallmark in 1997. The museum is also part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, a network of the continent’s key industrial heritage locations that emphasizes the impact of industrialization throughout European countries.

The museum’s unique location, collection, and architecture have made it a popular site for television and film. For example, "Remembrance of the Daleks," a 1988 episode of the science fiction television series Doctor Who, was filmed in part in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. The museum was also featured in the opening title sequence of Top of the Pops, a British Broadcasting Corporation music show, from 1991 through 1995.

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