Deep in the bowels of Charing Cross Library basement, on a wall fronting the main road (in the gent’s toilet actually), there is mounted this curious rusty old iron socket, bearing the cryptic message ‘LHP 1927’.
Most people would not give it a second glance, but for those in the know, it gives an interesting clue to the building’s history…
LHP stands for the London Hydraulic Power Company. Hydraulic power, using the pressure energy of water, had first been used commercially in Joseph Bramah’s hydraulic press, patented in 1795. But the man who did most to put hydraulic power on the map was William Armstrong. In 1845 Armstrong presented a paper to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society “on the employment of a column of water as a motive power for propelling machinery”. Armstrong patented his crane in July 1846, and in the following year he and his associates opened the Elswick works to concentrate full time on hydraulic machinery.
Other installations followed. Many docks installed their own hydraulic supply to work cranes, bridges and lock gates, but there were also public supply companies in a few places, including in London – eventually five pumping stations were in use; at Pimlico, Blackfriars Bridge, Rotherhithe, Wapping Wall and at the City Road basin on the Grand Union Canal in Islington.
There were many other usages, particularly the powering of lifts. More exotic was the cabaret platform at the Savoy Hotel and an adjustable height “swimming pool” floor in Earls Court exhibition centre. The mains extended from Limehouse in the east to Earls Court in the west, from Pentonville Road in the north to Lambeth and Rotherhithe in the south. When public processions were taking place in central London an LHP safety official had to be present as a precaution in case of bursting mains!
At the peak of activity, between 1927 and 1939 some 8000 separate machines were being powered. Business declined after the war due to a number of factors and the London Hydraulic Power Company finally closed down in 1977 at which time the remaining pumping station at Wapping was the world’s last on a public hydraulic supply system.
Tower Bridge, opened in 1894, was also originally hydraulically powered. Armstrong supplied the machinery for raising the bridge and also for the lifts that originally carried passengers to the high level walkways while the bridge was open to shipping (these were closed in 1910). The equipment worked unfailingly until 1968 by which time the bridge had opened more than 350,000 times. With the declining number of ships requiring passage and the high staffing cost of steam operation, the decision was taken in 1971 to install electric power. Some of the old steam equipment was retained and now forms part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition along with the high level walkways.
But what, you may ask, has this got to do with a library? Well the Charing Cross Library building was not always a library. Numbers 4 and 6 Charing Cross Road were originally erected in 1891 as a warehouse for Samuel Addington & Co, woollen merchants. According to the Kelly’s Post Office Directories, Addington’s continued to use the premises as a warehouse until around 1934. They would have needed a lift to move products between floors and it would seem that this was hydraulically driven.
The City of Westminster rate books record that the property was vacant in 1935 and 1936. From 1937 the rates were paid by the Italian Benevolent Society and it became the Italian Club. This lasted until the outbreak of World War Two, at which time the building was seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property. On 9 August 1940 Mrs Winston Churchill opened the New Zealand Forces Club at 4 Charing Cross Road and number 6 became the New Zealand War Services Association.
Following the war the City of Westminster took over the building and on 5 July 1948, Charing Cross Library was opened. The building still has a lift, but now of course it is worked by electricity.
For more information on the London Hydraulic Power company, take a look at their entry on Wikipedia. And for more information about the history of the Charing Cross Library building, visit the City of Westminster Archives Centre.