Euston: Arch Enemies

I’d like you to cast your minds back to 1959. In a lonely cottage on the moors, an old lady was going about her daily business when there came a knock on the door.

“Gracious, who could that be?” wondered the little old lady.

At the door was a man in a hard hat with a clipboard. “Good afternoon, little old lady,” he said. “I’m an architect. I’ve come to take your house. I’m afraid it’s been compulsory purchased so we can build an office block.”

“Is that how compulsory purchase works?” asked the little old lady.

“I don’t know,” said the architect. “To be honest, I’m not sure I should even be doing this. But on the other hand, you don’t know either, and by the time it’s gone through the courts you’ll probably be dead and bankrupt. So anyway, you’ve got ten minutes to get out before the bulldozers move in. If you manage it in five, we’ll give you a coconut.”

“Who do you think you are, Crossrail?” asked the old woman, referencing events of early 2010 – which should have made the architect suspicious. “You can’t do that!”

“We can and we will,” said the architect, and laughed harshly.

“Just so?” said the little old lady. “Well, little do you know that I’m actually a witch! I place a curse upon thee and all architects – for the next twenty years you shall produce only terrible buildings, bringing architecture into disrepute and creating the public perception that architects are egotistical and uncaring!”

“Nooooooo!” cried the architect. But it was too late.

At least, this is the best explanation I can come up with for the various architectural decisions that plagued the third quarter of the twentieth century. Yes, today we continue our tour of London’s termini with Euston and the crimes visited upon it in the name of PROGRESS.

On the left, you can see evidence of what I’m rambling on about. This huge Doric arch was once the imposing entrance to Euston station.

Euston was one of the first of the London rail termini to be built, opened in 1837 – only 8 years after Stephenson’s Rocket was built. This arch was the London and Birmingham Railway’s way of saying “we are here” and effectively distracted people from the fact that by passing through they might end up in Birmingham. It was 72 feet high, the largest Doric propylaeum (that’s “gateway” to you) ever built. However, at the time of its construction, some considered it a little too imposing. Augustus Welby Pugin, Gothic revival architect, referred to it as “a piece of Brobdingnagian absurdity,” and in so doing broke my spellchecker.

The original intention had been to build the station at Kings Cross, but objections from landowners necessitated its construction a little west, and in so doing forced the railway up a steep gradient. This meant that those early locomotives were unable to cope with the climb, and so trains were cable hauled for the last leg of the journey. Engines were turned in the Camden Roundhouse. This disrupted many early rock concerts and was from 1846 until 1867, when locomotive technology had sufficiently evolved to allow the gradient to be tackled (i.e. engines were bigger and there were more of them).

In 1849, the Great Hall was completed. This was a massive and, again, architecturally impressive building with an interior in the Renaissance style, with pillars of marble and plaster bas-reliefs depicting emblematic figures representing the major towns and cities served by the railway. You can see part of it on the right there. And this was just for regular passengers – the Directors’ Office upstairs was even cushier. Apparently the actual passenger facilities were a bit rubbish, but still, it looked pretty good.

Unfortunately, so Brobnig Brodbingnag Brobingdga big was this structure that it would eventually be the station’s downfall. By filling the land they owned with this enormous building, they failed to take into account the fact that they might some day need to expand the station. Over the following decades, additional facilities were crammed in wherever they could be fitted, cluttering and uglying up the once impressive terminus. The sheer scale made keeping the place clean difficult, and by the 1950s the whole thing looked utterly shabby.

It may be surprising, in retrospect, to hear that the plans to reconstruct the station announced in 1959 were actually quite well received. Nobody had much love for the old place, and the common assumption was that the impressive architectural features would somehow survive. After all, the Great Hall and Doric arch were both on the London County Council list for buildings of historic and architectural significance.

Alas, a vital part of the rebuilding involved extending the platforms. The only way this could be done was by going through the Great Hall and knocking down the arch. The LCC grudgingly gave permission, provided the arch was rebuilt further forward. British Railways argued that this would cost £190,000 as compared to the mere £12,000 needed to demolish the bugger – a figure disputed by opponents of the scheme, who pointed BR at a Canadian contractor that offered to move it for far less. The LCC offered to sub a move, provided others would chip in. BR also argued that their plans wouldn’t leave enough space for the Arch to be rebuilt.

Eventually, Ernest Marples told the LCC to stop that, it was far too silly. Marples was the Transport Minister of the day, ultimately responsible for introducing parking meters, yellow lines and the Beeching Axe. Some would suggest that his considerable shares in road construction companies might have had something to do with his opposition to railways, but then they’d get distracted by the fact that he would later be found guilty of tax fraud and would die a fugitive in France.

The demolition was opposed by many, most notably John Betjeman and Sir Charles Wheeler, head of the Royal Academy. Despite vocal protests and appeals to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the demolition went ahead on November 6th 1961. Interestingly, it appeared that even at that stage there was some hope – the gates were saved for the National Railway Museum at York and the stones were carefully numbered.

British Rail decided that this on your left would be an adequate substitute. The original plans would also have involved office blocks being constructed on site, but the LCC told BR to go screw themselves. It’s also worth noting that, contrary to what BR and Marples had claimed, there was plenty of room for the Doric Arch to be re-erected.

There are a few reminders of the old station. The statue of Robert Stephenson seen in the Great Hall above was saved, and a couple of neo-classical lodges survive at the entrance – see one of them below.

However, it seems that the redeveloped station would itself prove wholly inadequate for 21st century demands. To quite Sylvia Plath, “This box is only temporary.” Except she was talking about suicide. Anyway, it’s been decided that a second rebuild will be needed, meaning that the new station will have lasted less than fifty years. One of the ideas for rebuilding submitted in 2007 included the rebuilding of a certain arch…

Despite the arch being destroyed, there are a few reminders of it to be found in and around Euston Station.

Incidentally, I hope you people appreciate what I go through for you. The Doric Way sign is above a strip club, and you get some pretty funny looks standing outside one of those and taking photographs.


While researching this, I bumped into my friend The Mog, who lives some 19 miles away. I almost never walk down Eversholt Street and nor does she. Coincidence? Well, yes.

See also – For more about the Roundhouse.



Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Current events, Geography, History, Kings Cross, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Photos, Politics, Transport

7 responses to “Euston: Arch Enemies

  1. Entertainingly, a Doric office building was also built in Birmingham, indicating the end of the line. It’s near a railway viaduct, but not actually connected in any way.

    That’s the logic of railways for you…

  2. Lang Rabbie

    Birmingham Curzon Street survived because it was only in use for eight years – they moved the terminus to New Street in 1846 which is closer to the town centre. Philip Hardwick’s doric building survived as offices for a goods depot. The carpark behind it is where the railway lines used to be.

  3. Paul Leopold

    As you may know, a similar atrocity was committed a few years later in New York. Pennsylvania station, a huge terminus in the form of a Roman baths, was replaced by the tatty basement of a gimcrack office building. As befits the old cliché about England and America, London lost a reminder of the glory of Greece, New York of the grandeur that was Rome.

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