Maintaining the water level in our waterways is important across the whole network, from canals to docks. Every time a boat travels through a lock, water is lost from the higher waterway to the lower and must be replenished for the canal or dock to remain navigable in the long term. On many canals, natural sources such as local rivers could be utilised for this purpose, but on those routes where this wasn’t possible canal engineers were forced to come up with a different solution. This solution often came in the form of pumping stations, which would pump water from nearby rivers or reservoirs, powered by steam, diesel or electric engines.
In the West India Dock, engineers originally anticipated that the water level could be replenished by opening the locks at high tide and allowing water from the River Thames to flow into the dock. However, it was found that huge amounts of silt were being carried into the dock from the river water, which meant the docks had to be regularly dredged.
To counteract this problem, an impounding station was built in 1929, which pumps water from the river into the dock via the disused entrance to the South Dock. The rather unremarkable red brick building, the result of austerity following the First World War, survived the bombing that flattened many of the surrounding buildings and is still operational today.
It houses three large pumps – the original machines installed in 1929, which have been restored and upgraded but still have the original wood shafts inside the pump. Each of the three machines includes a small starter motor, the main electric motor that drives the pumps and the impellers that pump the water, housed in large donut shaped housings. At peak operation, the pumps can move an impressive 65 million gallons of water into the docks over the four hours around high tide.
Westferry Impounding Station opens its doors to visitors each year on Open House day when you can see inside the station and get a closer look at the remarkable pumps it houses.
Plan your visit to West India Docks with our online guide.