St Pancras – more than just a pretty facade

And now, children, we continue our story of London’s termini with St Pancras Station.

These days St Pancras is undoubtedly the most glam of the termini, thanks to the arrival of High Speed One and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (take a hike, Waterloo). Of course, it was not always thus. Yr. Humble Chronicler recalls the days when it was just a drab, second-rate grey sort of place. When you’re overshadowed by the awful Euston Station, you know you’ve hit rock bottom, all. When Alan A. Jackson wrote his book London’s Termini in 1969, he observed that its future was far from certain, although he thought it unlikely that the station would be allowed to disappear entirely.

Having said that, in 1966 British Railways floated the idea of running all St Pancras’ services into King’s Cross, demolishing St Pancras and building an office tower in its place. A look at Euston down the road will show you how awesome that would have looked, and fortunately the uproar caused by the rebuild of that station seems to have given them pause for thought.

Nonetheless, for many years the station was massively underused. The Midland Hotel – the huge Gothic structure that one immediately thinks of when St Pancras is brought up – was closed in 1935, turned into offices and later abandoned, decaying fittings and all. Indeed, St Pancras has had something of the Gothic about it in a way that goes far beyond its architecture.

Consider the circumstances of its construction. The Midland Railway, its builders, drove their railway straight through the slums of Somers Town and Agar Town, moving the occupants on without compensation. The line also cut across the overcrowded St Pancras churchyard, and little reverence was shown to the dead who had to be moved. Accounts speak of open coffins left on site and bones scattered in the road. I’m surprised nobody’s tried to claim there was a curse on the station.

Supernatural aside, the reality behind St Pancras’ semi-abandonment was that in 1923, the Midland Railway became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. The LMS, as it is known to enthusiasts, also took over the much larger London and North Western Railway, whose terminus was at Euston. There was no sense in the same railway having two major termini within ten minutes’ walk of each other, so it’s understandable in practical terms that St Pancras would become the poor relation. Things became worse in the late 1980s with the opening of the Thameslink route, which took yet more of St Pancras’ traffic.

The station in its day was magnificent – the Midland Railway’s philosophy was that they might not be able to get you there as quickly as the other companies, but they’d be sure to get you there in style. The William H. Barlow train shed was, at the time of construction, the largest single-span arched roof in the world. The slightly Gothic-looking ridge that echoes the architecture of the Midland Hotel is actually a coincidence – Barlow thought it would offer some advantage in terms of reducing wind resistance. The hotel was intended to be the finest in London, and was designed by George Gilbert Scott. The original design was to be a storey higher, the Midland Railway’s head offices to be housed on the top floor. However, their decision to base themselves in Derby removed the requirement for one floor.

Scott’s design is sometimes erroneously described as simply being his design for the Foreign Office, hastily redesigned. In fact, though Scott did submit a Gothic revival design for the Foreign Office, and it was rejected, it did not become St Pancras. This was, therefore, his chance to prove himself as a Gothic architect and recover from Lord Palmerston’s snub. Indeed, Scott somewhat snobbily observed of the completed hotel that “my own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose.”

The combination of the Gothic architecture and the fact that it was abandoned have made it a popular filming location. If you’ve seen Batman Begins, the stairwell of Arkham Asylum isn’t in Gotham City at all – it’s the main entrance to the Midland Hotel. When Harry Potter goes to King’s Cross in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone  (Sorceror’s Stone in the US), it’s St Pancras he passes. Even the Spice Girls got into the act with the video for Wannabe. Or so I heard, cough cough. The station itself, having had such an infrequent service for so long, was a popular choice for anyone needing to film at a London terminus without causing disruption. Films with scenes here include King Ralph, Shirley Valentine, Chaplin, Howard’s End and Richard III, among others.

As we now know, of course, fortune was to turn in St Pancras’ favour once more. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link needed a London terminus and – by Jove! It just so happened that there was a half-abandoned one right there between King’s Cross and Euston! The rest, as they say, is history. The rebuilt station is, in Yr. Humble Chronicler’s opinion, a perfect example of how to modernise for the future while retaining respect for the past. You’d hardly think, looking at it today, that it had once been a candidate for closure. Why, they’re even planning to reopen the hotel.

Of course, I can’t finish this entry without mentioning the significance of the shopping arcade. As you can see on the left there, the platform level is supported by pillars. These pillars were originally designed with a very specific aim in mind. Apart from passengers, the major traffic intended to use St Pancras was beer. The Midland Railway served the well-known brewing town of Burton-on-Trent. They therefore built their station with extensive cellars under the platforms in which beer could be stored. The redundant cellars are now the shopping arcade. It’s worth noting that the pillars were specifically built with the optimum spacing for storing beer barrels.

A gloomy picture of the St Pancras undercroft, most likely taken in the 1950s.

The undercroft of St Pancras was to play a significant role in the history of Britain’s labour laws. Thomas Bass was the MP for Burton-on-Trent, a reforming sort of gent, was concerned about the working conditions of the Midland Railway. Trade unions were virtually non-existent in the 19th century, the attitude of the railway companies being very much “Here’s the work, if you don’t like the conditions then someone else can do it and screw you.” The consequence was ridiculously long hours (36-hour shifts were not unknown, even routine with some companies), no pensions and if you wanted to strike, the procedure was to down tools and get fired.

As well as being a Member of Parliament, Bass was a customer of the Midland Railway. And not just any customer.

This customer.

So when he mentioned that he was bothered by working conditions on the Midland Railway, the Midland Railway had to take note or risk a big, empty undercroft. Bass’ involvement with them and others led to the 1872 formation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the first proper railway workers’ union.

Next time you’re enjoying a croissant at St Pancras International, pause a moment. You’re in an important place.

In other news

Fans of this blog should keep an eye on the Evening Standard, for, er, no reason.

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11 Comments

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Churches, Film and TV, Geography, History, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Occult, Politics, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Transport

11 responses to “St Pancras – more than just a pretty facade

  1. Pat Brown

    Another little bit of trivia regarding St Pancras and the adjacent hotel, is that they were the setting for the climax of Douglas Adams’ novel, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

    Which I must read again soon……

    I must say, I thoroughly enjoy London Particulars and Coarse Scale, so do please keep scribbling.

    • TGW

      Ah yes, I can’t believe I forgot that one – thanks for reminding me. Obviously it’s been too long since I read it as well. The line about “If you wanted quick sex or a dirty fix or, God help you, a hamburger” particularly sticks in my mind.

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  4. I love St Pancras, and I realise that sounds a bit odd but the facilities are brilliant. Definitely prefer it to most other London stations, and next time I’ll be using the international side of things which is quite exciting!

    Andrea

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