The Wapping Project in London.

History of Wapping Hydraulic Power Station

The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, on Wapping Wall, was built by the London Hydraulic Power Company in 1890. One of five London stations of its kind, it harnessed Thames water to provide power, not only to the surrounding docks, but also throughout the central London area. The showcase building of the London Hydraulic Power Company, the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station was used as a model for power stations in Argentina, Australia, New York and Europe. Celebrated for its singular combination of challenging contemporary art and performance, fine food and inspiring architecture, it re-opened to the public as THE WAPPING PROJECT in October 2000.

Before the universal adoption of electricity, hydraulic power was a powerful rival to other sources of power in London, generating power for everything from dock cranes and bridges to lifts in private households in Kensington and Mayfair. In the 1930s, during the heyday of hydraulic power, more than 33 million gallons of water a week were pumped beneath the streets of London, raising and lowering almost anything that needed to be moved up and down. As a power source, hydraulic power was cheap, efficient and easily transmitted along some 186 miles of underground cast iron piping.

Tower Bridge depended upon hydraulic power, as did countless City offices and West End department stores. For London theatres it was essential: the revolving stages of both the London Palladium and the Coliseum were powered hydraulically, as were the lifts for the organ consoles at the Leicester Square Theatre and the Odeon Marble Arch, and the fire curtains of both the Drury Lane and Her Majesty’s Theatres. Hydraulic power was widely used in museums too, for example, for driving the picture lift at the Royal Academy and the fire hydrants at the National Gallery.

When first built, the pumping station at Wapping was steam driven. Coal was delivered to the adjacent Shadwell Basin and used to fire six steam boilers and their pumping engines. Two electric turbine pumps were added in 1923 and the whole station was modernised and converted to electricity in the 1950s. However, as electricity became cheaper and electronically powered equipment increasingly sophisticated, so industry and private citizens began to forsake hydraulic power. Gradually the London Hydraulic Power Company stations closed until, in the mid-1970s, only one remained at Wapping. When it, too, finally closed in 1977, it was the last of its kind, not only in London, but also in the world.

Although in use for over a century, hydraulic power is now largely forgotten. The opening of Wapping Hydraulic Power Station as a public venue provides a fascinating glimpse into London’s industrial history.


The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station lies on the north bank of the Thames in the eastern district of Wapping, midway between the City of London and Canary Wharf. Located between the Shadwell Old Basin and the well-known pub, The Prospect of Whitby, it occupies a site of considerable historic significance. Originally a timber-framed country house, The Prospect opened in 1543 and is London’s oldest surviving riverside pub. It was first known as the Devil’s Tavern, and Judge Jeffries and Samuel Pepys are both claimed as early patrons.

The hydraulic power station, which is listed Grade 2, is adjacent to old riverside warehouses such as Metropolitan Wharf and the Jubilee and Lusk Wharves. These, with the hydraulic power station, form the centrepiece of the Wapping Wall conservation area.

On a wider scale, the site lies within Wapping, an area that, since the advent of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981, has seen outstanding achievements in regeneration. The renewal of London’s Docklands area is the most successful urban regeneration project in Europe.

Since the opening of London Underground’s Jubilee Line Extension in 1999, Wapping has become easily accessible from all parts of London. Visitors using the Jubilee Line change at Canada Water and travel two stops on the East London Line to Wapping.

Architectural development

The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station was built in 1890, with alterations and additions carried out in 1923. Today it is a Grade 2 listed building. The architectural aim was to keep as much of the existing building structure and machinery as possible, and to maintain both the atmosphere of the power station’s industrial past and the archaeological detail that underpins it.

THE WAPPING PROJECT has carefully returned this historic building to its essential structural form, providing dramatic exhibition and performance spaces. These have been created from the Boiler and Filter Houses, which have both been stripped back to their 1890 form. To fulfil the extremely varied uses required of them (including, for the opening installation, flooding of the floor), the spaces have been designed for the greatest possible flexibility. The building may be used as a completely empty space, or may be installed with seating for 350 people.

More space will be provided subsequently by the addition of a new clerestory and roof. This will sit above the cast-iron water tanks and the solid brickwork storey, which links the tanks to the Engine House. During daylight, the roof structure will appear to hover above the transparent clerestory, emphasising the bulk and details of the original brick building and the tanks. At night the clerestory, illuminated from within, will act as a beacon, advertising THE WAPPING PROJECTs presence in the neighbourhood. A new building providing additional gallery and office space will be added in the grounds.

The new architectural additions reflect today’s technology, and make a quiet but clear distinction between what is old and what is new. The new insertions are intended to emphasise the industrial scale of the building by their own lightness of touch – for example, in the case of the new suspended Boiler House staircase that does not touch the ground. The primary elements of the new structures are of steel, slate and glass, and the juxtaposition of the light and transparent qualities of the new with the gravity of the original building intensifies the effect of each.

Rules have been broken to give the contemporary elements a feeling of architectural impermanence with, for example, stairs made from mild steel and untreated to develop a patina of rust. The new work identifies with the beauty of the historic building and aims, above all, to create a backdrop against which artists can create bold contemporary work.

Inspirational inside

In this challenging environment one of the most exceptional restaurants in London is located. The archaic architecture is accentuated by the establishment. The curved, ergonomic design classics such as the panton chair by Verner Panton and the Plastic Side Chair by Charles & Ray Eames can be found here as well as the Tom Vac chair by Ron Arad. Conveniently bedded the food from the daily changing menu, combined with so much savour and beautiful spirit tastes even better. Lunch or dinner during the week and weekend brunch in addition – what women and men of the world can wish further more?

Text by Bianca KILLMANN
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Experience the Project The Wapping Project by Jules Wright.

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