Coldbath Fields

Simon Bradley

  • London in the 19th Century: ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’ by Jerry White
    Cape, 624 pp, £20.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 06272 5

Moulded in terracotta relief above the door of an austere building in Shoreditch, on the northern fringes of the City of London, is an arresting motto: E Pulvere Lux Et Vis. The ‘light’ and ‘power’ were electrical; the ‘dust’ that was burned to generate them was the refuse from the surrounding streets. Twenty thousand tons of this fuel, most of it horse dung, was gathered locally every year. Incinerating waste and making electricity were combined successfully for the first time here. The surplus heat from the boilers wasn’t wasted either: pumped away from the works, it warmed the local public baths. (The stripped-out shell is now a school for circus skills.) The whole enterprise was the initiative of the parish of St Leonard, one of the more enterprising of the cobbled-together local bodies that governed Victorian London. In 1900, five years after this building was opened, Shoreditch became one of the 28 new metropolitan boroughs under the aegis of the London County Council.

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