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An Engineman's Tale


 It was the custom of a Mr William Green, a onetime screenman at the Abbey Pumping Station, to walk across a now teeming Abbey Lane and down the now treeless Corporation Road to the scene of his former employment on the anniversary of the day he started work there. Here is his story:

“I left the army in 1928, aged 25, and started work at the pumping station on the 17th March of the same year. My tasks were the cleaning of the engines, pumps and assisting the enginemen.  This post was a newly created position along with four others, of which one was an electrician to work in the  new electric pump house which was being built on the site of the old sewage screens and when I started the contractors, Shardlows, were still working on the new detritus tanks and screens which replaced them.  (Right where our steam navvy and marquee now stands). Shardlows navvies were itinerant workers with waistcoats, trousers tied at the knee, saucepans hanging from their belts and a supply of sugar in their pockets

The new tanks and screening system was to put an end to the periodic visits of the flushers who cleaned the sewers out every other month, always at night when the sewage levels were lowest and reduced even further by carefully controlled operation of the beam engines.

I seem to recall that I was a youngster among old men as many of the staff had been there since the pumping station opened in 1891, including the superintendent, a Mr Fred Gamble, who was a somewhat frightening figure of an ex-Gimson’s engineer who dressed like a tailors dummy and retired 3 years later.

 At this time there were nine men on the engines and electric pumps, two stokers on the Lancashire boilers and one screenman. Everyone worked a twelve hour shift.  I worked on the beam engines and pumps for about ten years, my duties included barring over which was always done by hand in preference to using the barring gear in the basement. Other duties included replacing the pump seals and tightening the ‘Old Man’ which was the large nut on the pumps which had a tendency to work loose. This last job was a particular unpleasant task for which a 6d (2½ new pence) bonus was paid.

The governors on the engines were inadequate and the engine speed was normally controlled by hand using the steam inlet valve.  Steam pipe joints were sealed with hemp or asbestos string smeared with a mixture red and white lead (No health and safety rules here).

I seem to recall that there was a fairly sharp demarcation between my work and the fitters work there being no chance to learn the fitters’ trade to gain a promotion.

 Just before the Second World War I was promoted to screenman and held this position for the next twenty six years. My appointment broke a tradition in which the senior of the two stokers was made screenman for his last few years before retirement for which an extra ten shillings (£0.50p) per week was paid.  The screenman’s job was to supervise the raising of the screens in the four detritus tanks and for the disposal of the sludge left behind (sometimes referred to as screenings).There was sixteen tipping rail tubs in use for the disposal all running on the narrow gauge (2 foot gauge track). Each tub was manhandled forward, filled by the use of a crane and then coupled to the petrol locomotive. The pumping station at this time was virtually a green field site. 

 Most of the screenings were taken along the main line which nowadays goes through the vehicle shed and across Wallingford Road to be tipped on the land which is now occupied by industrial units. There was a row of poplar trees along Corporation Road which were planted in screenings, their function being not so much to embellish the view as to try and disperse the smell.he remainder of the sewage sludge was disposed of by an enterprising local farmer who collected it a horse-drawn waggon and spread it on his land to the west of Abbey Lane.

During the war a third method of disposal was used, a digester, built on the site of the current vehicle shed. Here sewage was mixed with waste food and sold as powered pig meal. Mr Wicksteed , author of the abortive 1850’s process to sell treated sewage from Leicester as manure would have surely approved.

When the new sewage works opened at Wanlip in the early 1960’s I moved to the new treatment works along with other workers and finally retired in 1968.”

Paradoxically Mr Green remembers his job as a healthy one and one with having some status along with Police, Firemen and Sewage workers being regarded as top council jobs. His first wages as a screenman was £2 – 19s – 5d (£2.97) per week which was half a crown (12½ new pence) more a week than a tram driver.

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