Tag Archives: british railways

Getting Cross

Seeing the new Harry Potter film (it turns out Voldemort and Tom Riddle are the same person) has inspired me to continue my thrilling series on the termini of London with King’s Cross.

Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, King’s Cross is now probably the most famous railway station in London. Although, as I believe I said before, it rather irritates me that in the films, they decided to use St Pancras for the external shots instead. I don’t know, maybe they just felt that King’s Cross didn’t look stereotypically British enough, or just not sufficiently magical.

I know you’re not supposed to, but I actually prefer the architecture of King’s Cross to its Gothic neighbour. Its Italianate simplicity has a kind of casual dignity, a kind of unfussy impressiveness, like it’s cool and it doesn’t even need to try. Granted, these days it’s a little spoilt by that municipal bus shelter thing British Rail saw fit to graft on to its front, but that’s due to be demolished, so thank God for the triumph of common sense.

The station was designed by Lewis Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway, a company whose name alone inspires. It was opened in 1852, and the simplicity of the design was actually a deliberate measure to save money. The whole station, including the Great Northern Hotel, cost less than the frontage alone at Euston Station, a snip at £123,000 for the biggest station in London at the time.

The only conspicuous ornamentation was on the clock tower, which had been on display at the Great Exhibition the previous year. For some reason it has four faces, even though one is never visible due to the fact that there’s a bloody great train shed in the way. The clock also used to have three bells for sounding the hour, but these were removed in 1947. It’s also worth noting that it never agreed with the clock at St Pancras, which must have made for some interesting scenes among last-minute passengers.

As time went on, the original station was found wanting – pity the poor signalman, who had to juggle local services, goods trains, expresses to Scotland and, from the 1860s, Metropolitan Railway trains (which had to come in backwards). At peak times there was so much traffic that it could take up to half an hour to cover the half a mile to Holloway. Extra platforms were added and, in 1875, a whole new station. This was known as “Kings Cross Main Line (Local Station),” but is now the suburban platforms. This, fans of the Harry Potter books should note, is where Platforms 9 and 10 can be found. Legend also has it that this is the site of Boudicca’s grave, although scholars refer to this theory as “bollocks.”

In 1878, the Metropolitan got its own platforms (or, as they were known then, “Kings Cross (Suburban),” which is of course not confusing in the slightest), which were notorious among train drivers for being very difficult to start from – the tunnel leading out was smoky in steam days and the track was steeply graded and sharply curved, and condensation made the rails slippery. Some poor egg was stationed in the tunnel to drop sand on the rails every time a train went by. In 1932, one train actually slipped backwards without the driver realising until it bumped into the locomotive behind.

Various other alterations followed over the years, but I suspect they would be of zero interest to anyone other than my fellow geeks, so I’ll spare you for now.

The station has always been associated with speed and the romance thereof. In the late 19th century, they were one of the starting points for the Races to the North, when the East and West Coast railways competed to see who could provide the fastest service to Scotland (an unfortunate side effect of which was that passengers often ended up in Aberdeen at around 4am).

During the twentieth century, the luxurious expresses of the London and North Eastern Railway departed from King’s Cross. Most famous of these was the non-stop Flying Scotsman, but one should not forget the streamlined splendour of the Silver Jubilee, the Coronation or the Queen of Scots.

This art deco opulence was slightly marred in 1934 by the discovery of a gruesome crime – a disembodied pair of legs were found in the left luggage office. The crime was never solved, and the only lead police had was that the legs fitted a torso found in the luggage office at Brighton. This can only mean one thing – if a man can carry half a woman on the Underground across London without being noticed, there is no excuse for those tourists who make a massive hash of simply carrying a suitcase.

The station sustained some damage during World War II and was taken over by British Railways in 1948 who, as they so loved to do, ran the place into the ground. One notable event during the 1950s was the station’s prominent role in The Ladykillers, about which I have written before.

A plan was drawn up in the Sixties to extensively modernise the station with a new extension. This never came to pass. but based upon the contemporary account by Alan A. Jackson that I have in front of me, it would basically have been like what we got, only bigger and worse. The horrible extension that was actually built appeared in 1972.

The station saw a number of accidents over its lifetime, mostly caused by the aforementioned steep gradients, but the King’s Cross fire of 18th November 1987 was something else entirely. A discarded match or cigarette set fire to forty years’ worth of accumulated debris under one of the escalators in the Underground station. As a result of a hitherto unknown phenomenon called “the trench effect,” and the drafts caused by trains moving through the tunnels down below, this resulted in a conflagration that claimed the lives of thirty-one people. Subsequent to this, fire safety precautions on the Tube were drastically overhauled and smoking was banned altogether.

1997 saw the station achieve worldwide fame with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which Harry famously takes the Hogwarts Express from Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters (although, as I’ve said before, it seems possible that J. K. Rowling was thinking of a different station altogether). In tribute to this, half a luggage trolley is stuck into the wall near the suburban platforms. There is no Platform 9¾ for us Muggles, alas, but as of 2010 there is a Platform 0, which frankly I find a little sinister.

I’ll say one thing for the modern railway, they have finally figured out that maybe a nice, user-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing station is what people want, and in 2005 plans were announced to restore the station. It was decided that nothing could be better than the 1972 extension, and therefore they are replacing it with nothing – it’s being demolished and turned into a plaza. The older buildings are being cleaned and patched up and a new, modern (in a good way) concourse is being put up to the west of the station.

The future is looking bright for Cubitt’s creation. All in all, it’s not been a bad life for an economy terminus.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, History, Kings Cross, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Transport

Marylebone (Great Central)

Poor Marylebone. It’s a terminus you have to feel sorry for. It’s one of the smallest main line termini as well as the youngest. It only has six platforms, meaning it’s outdone by the likes of Richmond and Wimbledon out in the suburbs. Even the Underground virtually snubs it, only serving it with the Bakerloo Line.

The fact is, Marylebone never really had a chance. It was built by the Great Central Railway, opening in 1899 – long after the other main line companies had already got their foot in the door. The Great Central Railway, by the way, should not be confused with the Great Northern, Great Eastern, Great Western or Great North of Scotland Railways.

The Great Central Railway was a somewhat pointless enterprise. By the time it was built, several of the places it ran to already had a railway. Oddly enough, one of the railways it was in competition with was the Metropolitan Railway, now of course the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. I say oddly because a gentleman by the name of Edward Watkin was on the board of directors for both and had the ultimate ambition of a train service all the way from Manchester to Paris, using railways in which he had a controlling interest and an ambitious 19th century Channel Tunnel project.

Sadly, as we know, it was not to be, and the Great Central remained the line that no one asked for. Chronically short of money, the company could barely afford to get into London, squeezing in between Euston and Paddington. Even their station hotel, normally a grand statement by the railway to say “We Are Here,” had to be contracted out. Nevertheless, the company remained optimistic. Although they could only afford four platforms, they planned for ten. All this despite the fact that they couldn’t even afford their own trains.

Making things worse for them was the fact that much of their route into London was already developed. The biggest obstacle was, in fact, cricket fans – the proposed route would have threatened Lord’s, and so the plans had to be hastily rewritten accordingly.

Architecturally, it has to be said that a very nice job  was done on the station. While it’s not as grand as either Euston (as it was before redevelopment) or Paddington, it provides a pleasant aesthetic contrast with both, being constructed in a baroque style. It looks more like a country house than a railway station, but that’s no bad thing when it harmonises so well with its surroundings.

The station suffered when Britain’s railways were nationalised. More important services were diverted to the larger stations, turning little Marylebone into little more than a commuter station. Maintenance was cut down. Under the notorious head of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching, any line seen as a loss-maker was to be culled, and Beeching was ruthless. The former Great Central was the only main line to be closed, and with only a few commuter services to justify it, it looked like curtains for Marylebone. I refer once again to Alan A. Jackson’s London Termini, written during this turbulent period (in 1969 to be precise), in which he notes that:

Marylebone seems unlikely to last much longer. Already much of the goods yard has been sold for building. The temptation to dispose of the rest, which is on higher-value land, must be very strong… The killing could be done without too much pain, but when it comes, there will be a certain sadness.

Indeed, plans were made to divert all services to other termini and turn Marylebone into a coach station – Jackson’s prophecy looked worryingly close to becoming a reality.

In retrospect, we know now that a lot of the cuts were over-hasty, leaving many communities with inadequate public transport and forcing them on to the roads, with obvious environmental consequences. Indeed, railway historian Christian Wolmar has argued that even the Great Central shouldn’t have been closed, precisely because it served a lot of places that already had a rail link – it could have been used to increase the number of services to those destinations.

Is it worth noting that Ernest Marples, the Minister for Transport under whom Beeching worked, owned a road building company? I think it is. To be fair, when it was pointed out that there was a conflict of interest, he sold his shares in the company. By a million-to-one chance, they were bought up by his wife. Eventually he was forced to flee to Monaco due to legal difficulties and a heinous amount of tax fraud, living the remainder of his life in his French chateau. What a bastard.

The tube station was originally known by the railway name.

But anyway. Marylebone. Marylebone is a shining example of why it’s a good idea not to close stations. In the 1980s, Paddington was becoming overcrowded. And fortunately for British Rail, it happened that there was a badly underused terminus just down the road. Marylebone, the little terminus that no one wanted, found itself in demand. It was revamped – unused land was sold to finance repairs and rebuilding. In the 1990s, it gained two new platforms. About a hundred years later than planned, but still. Plans are afoot to reopen lines (including part of the old Great Central) and provide new train services to Wales, and suddenly Marylebone is, metaphorically speaking, the prettiest girl at the dance.

By the way, do you pronounce it “Marlibun” or “Marri-le-bone?” I was always taught the former was correct, but I seem to be the only person who pronounces it that way. Hmm.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Crime, Geography, History, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Politics, Psychogeography, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, Transport

London Bridge is falling out

Gather round, children, and I shall tell you such a tale – a tale of rivalry, reconciliation and railways. You may recall in my last entry I talked about Deptford and briefly mentioned passing through London Bridge station. Well, I thought it would be nice today to continue our little history of the termini with that lad.

Anybody who has to use this station on a regular basis will know what a godawful pain it is to get around. There’s one set of platforms over there and there’s another over here and that one’s a through platform and that one’s not and this entrance is at right angles to that one and the sweet shop is overpriced. Alan A. Jackson describes it as “indisputably the most hideous of London’s termini.” I still say Euston beats it, but we can take a vote later if you like.

The reason for the messed up layout of London Bridge is that, unlike most of the other termini, it’s actually several stations crudely stuck together. The first station was owned by the London and Greenwich Railway, which you may recall from the previous entry opened in 1836. The idea was to build on a viaduct whose arches could be rented out as shops and houses, thus bringing in highly desirable revenue. There are some of the arches above.

The station as opened was nothing special – just the end of a viaduct, really, where Platforms 9 and 10 are today. It was known in those days as Tooley Street. There was no shelter and barely any platforms. Later on they used a sail as a shelter, which meant that the first train shed was basically a tent. History does not relate whether the sail was swiped from a ship by someone leaning out of the train, but I like to pretend it was. A grand Euston-style entrance arch was planned but never built.

The station staff were not great either – the low platforms meant that train carriages had to have folding steps to let people down, and the staff were in the habit of not letting the steps down fully, allowing themselves a glimpse of any well-turned ankles belonging to ladies stepping down. There was also a reported tendency for staff helping women on to the train to press the ladies’ fingers and “stare them full in the face” (so says the Kentish Mercury). I suppose this was the 1830s equivalent of the subway frotteur.

London Bridge was a pretty fine site for a station. I’ve mentioned in other entries the incredible difficulty and expense in building a major railway station within the City, and at that time it appeared that London Bridge was about as close as anyone could get. The London and Greenwich Railway had figured this, and had bought enough land on the site for other companies to build there. And so they did. Within a decade, the London and Brighton, the London and Croydon and the South Eastern Railways all had their London base there. A more pleasant but heinously undersized new station building was put up.

The history from here on gets very complicated and rather boring if you’re not a railway person, so I’ll spare you the full details. Long story short, L&GR got greedy, L&CR moved out to Bricklayers Arms, L&GR merged with L&BR and there was a lot of rebuilding at the station. The end result was one station owned by the South Eastern Railway and one owned by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, stuck together.

It’s a sign both of the somewhat unfriendly attitude between the companies at this stage that the two stations were wholly incompatible. That’s why nowadays you have a handful of platforms that, for no apparent reason, are much higher than the rest. That’s why the train shed doesn’t go all the way across. That’s why there’s a wall in the middle of the station. The companies didn’t even want to look at each other.

If you’ve ever wandered around outside the station, you may have noticed that there’s a St Thomas’ Street, but St Thomas’ Hospital is nowhere near. That’s the railway’s doing. In 1859, the South Eastern decided they wanted a terminus of their very own at Charing Cross, and so arranged to build a through line. At the time, St Thomas’ Hospital was just east of the station. There was no way to extend the railway without clipping St Thomas’ grounds. Not much, less than a quarter of an acre, and the railway was happy to pay a very fair £20,000. St Thomas’, however, demanded the price of the entire hospital and grounds – £750,000, 90% of the SER’s budget. The SER reluctantly handed it over, at which point St Thomas’ yelled “Suckers!” and used the money to build a new hospital in Lambeth.

In 1923, both the London, Brighton and South Coast and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (which the SER had become – I told you it was complicated) were taken over by the Southern Railway, who promptly banged the two companies’ heads together and knocked a hole through the wall between the stations.

The station took a hell of a hammering during the Blitz, with most of the buildings being damaged or destroyed by bombing. I think my favourite story from this period, though, was of the bomb that landed on the signal box on December 9th 1940, when a parachute mine got caught in a signal girder and came to a stop leaning against the box wall. It was eventually defused, but in the meantime the signalmen inside kept right on working. That, my friends, takes some balls.

Wartime damage was left largely unrepaired right into the early 1970s, when British Rail finally got embarassed enough to do something about it. The rebuilt station, opened in 1978, was generally agreed to be a great improvement on the old one. So remember that, commuters. When you’re running across the concourse because you’ve discovered your train leaves from a completely different set of platforms, things used to be worse.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, london bridge, London Underground, London's Termini, Medicine, Photos, Politics, Suburbia, The City, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark

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

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/02/07/all-about-chalk-farm/ – 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

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.


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

We are not amused

Having discussed the gates of London, I thought it would perhaps be fitting to discuss their Industrial Revolution equivalents – I refer to the railway termini.

These days, railways – underground, overground or Wombling free – are a vital part of London’s transport network. Look at the chaos that results when there’s a Tube strike, for example. But what’s less well appreciated in our everyday lives is how much life in the city was changed by the coming of the railways. For instance, the fish and chip shops? Not possible before the railways – fresh sea fish couldn’t be transported inland in time. National daily newspapers couldn’t exist until there was a means to transport them. Perishable goods like meat and milk could only be sold locally, often to the farmer’s loss. Suburbia didn’t exist in its modern form, because only the fairly well-off could afford to live more than walking distance from work (although what would have been considered “walking distance” in the early nineteenth century was considerably more than it would be today).

So the big railway stations of London are gateways to the city in two senses – firstly, they are the physical gateways. Indeed, if you want to get philosophical, the entire railway is a gateway. You step through the carriage door in one city and when you step out, you’re in a different city. I think Baudrillard said something along those lines. Him or Foucault, I always get those two confused. Wow, I must be the first blogger ever to admit not being familiar with philosophy. Har.

Back on topic. But in another sense, the railway termini are a gateway in time – they makr the boundary between the old city and the modern. I will start my little series with Victoria, not so much because it has any special significance as because I was there the other day.

victoriaThe station was opened in 1860, built on the site occupied by a conveniently-abandoned canal basin. The western side of the station was run by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSC) and served the lines now running through Battersea Park, Balham and Crystal Palace.

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway coat of arms preserved on the viaduct at Battersea Park

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway coat of arms preserved on the viaduct at Battersea Park

The western side was owned by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR). Of course, despite being built on basically unused land, the construction of a terminus in fashionable Belgravia did not come cheap, and there were strict and frankly bizarre regulations put in place by the landowners – the lines would have to run under a glass roof from the river to the station and the rails had to be underlaid with rubber to deaden noise.

Despite this, the men of the Companies didn’t feel the need to build a station in keeping with its surroundings, and both the LCDR and LBSC made their home in shabby wooden shacks, and it was only in 1908 that the LBSC completed the rebuild of their half of the station (seen above). Not very fitting for station that promised luxury services to the South Coast and the Channel ports, but frankly this attitude wasn’t unusual in the mid-nineteenth century – the need to drive a line into London outweighed any aesthetic considerations. Shortly after the LBSC began their rebuild, the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (a company formed out of the LCDR and the South Eastern Railway) decided they weren’t going to be shown up and did some rebuilding of their own. The completed building featured, according to Alan A. Jackson, “a maritime flavour bestowed by four mermaids contemplating their well-parted bosoms”. Yoy. Less racily, due to the proximity of Buckingham Palace, the rebuilt station featured luxury waiting room for Royalty.

Victoria Station famously plays a part in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed, it is mentioned in the most oft-quoted section of the play:

JACK: The late Mr Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL: Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK: (gravely) In a hand-bag.


JACK: (very seriously) Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles on it – an ordinary hand-bag, in fact

LADY BRACKNELL: In what locality did this Mr James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK: In the cloakroom at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

LADY BRACKNELL: The cloakroom at Victoria Station?

JACK: Yes. The Brighton line.

LADY BRACKNELL: The line is immaterial, Mr Worthing. I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

The stations were united in 1923, when the Southern Railway took over both the SECR and the LBSC.

As well as offering Royal trains (not that these were unique), Victoria gained a name for prestige, luxury trains. Boat trains – trains timed to meet ships in the Channel ports – were a mainstay of services. There was even, for a time, a Flying Boat Train. This sounds like the most awesome form of transport ever, but was in fact just a train timed to meet seaplane services at Southampton.

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway locomotive. I'm not joking. You think I'm joking? I'm not joking.

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway locomotive. I'm not joking. You think I'm joking? I'm not joking.

Slightly cooler was a plan to build a heliport on top of the station in the 1950s. Fortunately, due to concerns about traffic congestion in the area, this idea wasn’t carried out – let’s face it, given the standard of architecture in the 1950s and 60s, we wouldn’t have ended up with anything beautiful. However, 1962 saw the start of the Gatwick Airport service that continues to this day in the form of the Gatwick Express.

Which was why, in the 1960s, it was thought that Victoria, rather than Waterloo or St Pancras, would be the terminus of the Channel Tunnel rail link. There were also plans to run a line to Victoria from Heathrow, the idea being that by the time all this was complete, Victoria would be a world-class epicentre of travel in the West End. The Victoria Line, opened in 1967, was in part intended to take advantage of this. Alan A. Jackson, he of the contemplative bosoms, noted in 1969 that this development would be essential with “the pending arrival of high-capacity civilian aircraft (the so-called jumbo-jets)”. Ah, hindsight.

Incidentally, to end on a low-down note, British railways (like most around the world) are divided into signalling sections. When a train is in one section, another cannot be allowed into that section until it has moved on. Thus are accidents prevented. The first section out of Victoria ends at a place called Pouparts Junction, which is brilliant.


I talk a little more about this on My Other Blog – http://coarsescale.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/layout-ideas-victoria/


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, Literature, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Transport