The council currently has plans for community use of what they described as the ‘Plumstead power station’, writes Mary Mills…

This is the rather grand building hidden away in White Hart Road, used as a depot by the Council for many years and generally ignored. More recently it has been part of the Crossrail site and the new line gives a very good view of it.

Once upon a time Plumstead was separate from Woolwich. It was a small local authority – Plumstead Vestry – but by the late 1890s Woolwich was about to swallow them up. They wanted to make sure that what was handed over was something really special.

In the 1890s electricity as a means of power in streets and homes was coming in fast. Local authorities were looking at ways in which this could be provided. One big issue was street lighting – often expensively provided from privately run gas works. Surely it would be better and more cheaply done with electricity and so why didn’t councils build power stations, which they would own, to provide it? There was also a problem with domestic and commercial waste that was expensive to deal with too. So why not put the two problems together and have one solution? Really go-ahead councils in the 1890s were building works where rubbish could be burnt to generate electricity. The first of these was in Shoreditch – the building which is now the Circus School in Hoxton Square, where local rubbish was used to generate electricity for local people in 1897.

In the 1890s new housing was being built at a tremendous rate in Plumstead. Waste was an expensive problem as was street lighting and, in addition, they needed bricks and road making materials. Plumstead Vestry began to investigate building its own waste burning power station which would save money and provide proper, well paid jobs. They appointed an Engineer-Surveyor – Frank Sumner – and he was to design and build the new station.

The scheme was barely agreed when Plumstead Vestry went out of existence but the new Woolwich Borough Council ratified their plans and continued with the scheme. They made sure that local companies could tender for the equipment and a loan was raised from the London County Council. There was, however, something else going on. Woolwich electricity was provided by a private company, Woolwich District Electric Lighting Company, and plans were going ahead for the Council to buy it up.

The new generating station/destructor was opened by the Woolwich Mayor in 1903 – and almost immediately a lot of whingeing started in the press about the cost. Meanwhile the council pressed ahead with plans for expansion for the old private power station in Globe Lane. This grew and grew larger and more magnificent until it was nationalised in 1948, then ‘notably efficient’ and the only functioning power station in the country built by direct labour. Many local people will remember it, with its three landmark chimneys – Woolwich was very, very proud of it. And the Plumstead generating station/destructor really got rather forgotten.

Electricity ceased to be generated at Plumstead in 1923 but they kept on burning the rubbish. They did other things too – from the start they had included a plant to manufacture road making materials and bricks from the sunburnt waste. It is important to remember that pre-1960s most household and other waste would be ash and clinker from coal fires. It was this high carbon content that made it possible to get the high temperatures needed in the boilers of the station, and at the end of the process there would be much ash and waste of the sort which brick makers used. Woolwich was proud of its local housing build with Council made bricks. As time went on other of the more unmentionable aspects of Borough life opened on the White Hart Road site – disinfection, special cleansing, and a laundry for foul bedding which still functioned in the late 1990s. And then there were the pigs – I am very unsure when they arrived but there were certainly pig stys on site. I think they lived on the food waste which the Borough collected – as late as 1953 the Woolwich Tenants Handbook gives instructions about using the bins provided for food scraps. The pork most likely went to the Boroughs homes for old people and children. Waste incineration ended in 1965 and the building was used for storage. The waste went to landfill.
I remember going there in 2000 and it was amazing! It was like every time the borough had installed anything – from light bulbs to gas meters and baths – and there had been a few items left over, they were kept ‘just in case’. There were shelves and shelves and shelves of spares going back to the 1920s. There were also piles of bits which had been saved from demolished buildings – plaques, ornamental stonework and so on. What happened to all of this stuff??

And so it was listed. The report from what was then English Heritage notes its complex plan, its elaborate interiors and the integrity of its design. Frank Sumner did a good job. It really is a very, very grand building which has sat in this obscure corner of the borough for nearly 120 years – but no one ever sees it and very few would know it was there. So some community use is what it needs because it was built for the people of Plumstead and – I guess – to show them off a little as well as to provide them with the very latest in municipal technology. Let’s hope it gets the credit it deserves, at last with the new plans by the Council.

Much of this article is based on research carried out by Dave Ramsey into Plumstead municipal buildings and Frank Sumner. There is also some reference to the Survey of Woolwich – and my own notes of our visit in 1999.

The Greenwich Industrial History Society meets once a month.
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• 16th April Richard Buchanan on Street Furniture
• 14th May Mike Clinch Underground Kent
• 11th June.Tracy Stringfelllow & Charlie MacKeith. Jacobean Vistas and public conveniences, Meeting will be in the Studio not the Bakehouse
• 15th October David Waller. Men of Iron – Maudslay
• 12th November Pieter Van der Merwe A Great Light in
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