News paper articles

News paper articles –  stef and nana

St Pancras – the cathedral of Britain’s railway stations

This edited article about St Pancras railway station originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 783 published on 15th January 1976.

St Pancras station, picture, image, illustration

St Pancras Railway Station was fronted by George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel by Harry Green

Sitting in his comfortable city office, a surveyor spread a map of London over his desk. With a black pencil, he outlined a large area . . . a densely populated area with hundreds of slum houses, a church and a crowded cemetery.

“This land will have to be cleared,” he said to his assistant. And cleared it was. The fact that ten thousand people were to be made homeless, a church dismantled brick by brick and erected elsewhere and many corpses unceremoniously dug up from their last resting places mattered little to the Victorian disciples of progress. Neither the living nor the dead could be allowed to halt the progress of the god of the age – the railways. And for the temple of such a god, no sacrifice was too great.

The temple in this case was St. Pancras station in London, which is the terminus for lines from the Midlands and the North. The company which wanted to build it was the Midland Railway. By 1857, its tracks reached Hitchin, and from there its trains had to run over the Great Northern Company’s main line into London. The Midland carried great quantities of freight and minerals and the Great Northern, being jealous of its rival, imposed a crippling tariff on the goods.

By 1862, the humiliation heaped upon the Midland Company by their rival had become so unbearable that they decided to build their own line into London and then construct an impressive station befitting their status.

Although a suitable site was found for the station, finding land for the tracks that ran to it was difficult. They would have to go through a slum area and over the Regent’s Canal and the Fleet River. But the project was pressed forward. People were evicted from their homes by the thousand and forced to find somewhere to live in already crowded slum areas. A brand new church had to be dismantled and rebuilt in Kentish Town at the Midland Railway’s expense. Even worse was the fact that the burial ground of St. Pancras Church was also in the way. This was packed so tight with human remains buried in layers that they had to be reburied in another cemetery.

Soon after the work had been started, the River Fleet had to be enclosed in an iron pipe, for it was nothing more than an open sewer.

To bring the station into line with the tracks, the platforms were built at an elevated level. It was intended to fill the space beneath them the soil from the nearby tunnels. Then it was suddenly realised that here was a ready-made storage cellar for the beer which the railway transported from Burton. It is interesting to note now that Burton beer is the main reason for St. Pancras’s famous, elegant single span. If two or three spans had been constructed, the supporting pillars would have intruded into the cellars in the basement.

The daring feat of constructing a single area of vast proportions was put into operation. The breathtaking roof, towering above the tracks, is still considered an outstanding example of engineering.

As for the front of the building, it emerged as just about the greatest example of grandiose Gothic revival, which was to epitomise the Victorian era.

The functional plainness of the Great Northern’s station next door (King’s Cross) was effectively dwarfed, and Gothic upon Gothic reached skywards. It was admired by the people of those times, and derided by their descendants as a Victorian monstrosity. But tastes have changed over the years, and St. Pancras is being admired again, particularly for the contrast it presents to the plain tower blocks that bristle nearby.

A hotel was incorporated with the station. It was to be very luxurious, a palace to pamper the business tycoons from the Midlands and the North.

With its castle-type fringes, scores of dormer windows, hosts of chimneys, steeply-pitched roofs, and every conceivable corner capped by a spirelet or a pinnacle, the Midland Grand Hotel surpassed every other building in the road.

Its long frontage terminated in a clock tower topped by a spire, which even rivalled the famous clock at Westminster popularly known as Big Ben. The outward appearance of the hotel was matched by its opulent interior and its luxurious food.

After the amalgamation of the railway companies in 1923 into four main companies, the hotel came under the control of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. After attempting to modernise it, they gave up the struggle and turned it into offices. Today, fittingly, it is the headquarters of British Rail’s catering department, and the original carpet still covers the grand staircase.

Like most railway stations, it was a target for wartime bombers, whose efforts to put it out of action were ineffectual. During the First World War of 1914-1918, a stick of bombs fell on the station and killed 20 people. Then during the Second World War of 1939-1945 a land mine closed the station for five days. On another occasion, the station was out of action for more than a week. But the trains, for the rest of the time, kept running, and the station’s main structure survived intact.

After the war, plans were made for the government to take charge of the railways. Nationalisation came about in 1948 and the various companies were formed into regions under the umbrella of British Railways.

A lot of money was spent renovating St. Pancras station and modernising the passenger facilities. With the ending of the use of steam trains in 1960, it was kept clean and free from soot for the first time.

Inevitably, there was talk of combining St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations, even of turning St. Pancras into a sports centre or an exhibition hall. British Rail began thinking about replacing the hotel with a towering office block.

However, Parliament has decreed otherwise. St. Pancras has been classed as a building of architectural and historical interest and, as such, must be preserved. So British Rail are resigned to the fact that St. Pancras is theirs for keeps, like it or not. Nothing conceivable can rid them of their great Gothic monument in the Euston Road. For Londoners, its portals are a gateway to the North, and for people arriving from elsewhere they are an introduction to an historical city. For them, London would not be London without St. Pancras station.

Lewis Cubitt’s shockingly plain railway station at King’s Cross

This edited article about King’s Cross railway station originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 785 published on 29th January 1977.

King's Cross Railway Station, picture, image, illustration

King’s Cross Railway Station

“Ridiculous,” people snorted. And when the Victorians thought that something was ridiculous, they really meant it. After all here was a railway station without any of the ornamentation that usually adorned Victorian buildings. There were no mock Gothic features, pillars or colonnades or any of the other bric-a-brac of the era.

But such criticism did not bother the Great Northern Railway Company who built their London station – King’s Cross – of two simple sheds fronted by a plain fa√ßade.

When St. Pancras was built a few years later, it looked like a palace and was intended to have a calming effect upon the nerves of highly-strung passengers about to embark upon a nerve-wracking train journey at high speeds.

However, the Great Northern did not worry about that. They decided that theirs would be a plain, straightforward, functional railway station. It was brazenly clean and uncluttered for its day, and it has survived to become admired in our own times.

The line had to be pushed under the Regent’s Canal, and by October, 1852, it was opened to traffic.
We have learned how St. Pancras was built on the site of slums and a cemetery. King’s Cross has its own macabre site. Occupying ten acres (four hectares), it stands on an area previously occupied by a death-ridden fever hospital and an equally depressing smallpox hospital. Houses were also swallowed up, with the displaced occupants being left to find other homes in the already overcrowded city.

The designer was Lewis Cubitt. He closed the two sheds at the road end by a facade of London stock bricks. These incorporated two arches which revealed the echoing shape of the interior.

Crowning the frontage is a high tower housing a clock which was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Its time never agreed with that of St. Pancras (opened in 1871) After being silenced in 1914, its bells were heard again for a few years after the First World War, and they were finally removed in 1947.

Along the front of the station was a protective porch with six arched openings, though this was spoiled later by the addition of an iron and glass canopy.

Of the two sheds, one was for departures and the other for arrivals. Three-quarters of the roof was glazed and supported by laminated wood girders. In the later years of the 19th century, the wood was replaced by iron. On the left of the station were office blocks, while on the right was an elegant, covered way for cabs.

When it was opened, King’s Cross was Britain’s largest station – and one of the cheapest. Euston’s great hall and portico had cost more than the whole of King’s Cross.

Cubitt also designed the five-storey Great Northern Hotel, an equally simple building still in use and set apart from the station to the south-west.

As time went by, a series of suburban platforms was added in a grim, untidy fashion, thankfully out of sight of the main buildings.

For a while, the Midland Railway shared the terminus, but their traffic increased to such an extent that they were forced to build their own station – St. Pancras.

However, traffic continued to expand, and the platforms and lines had to be rearranged and added to.

The suburban traffic was especially heavy and a tiresome departure procedure was endured. Trains had to negotiate a tunnel known as Hotel Curve, which all drivers loathed. Wreathed in smoke, it had a sharp curve and a steep climb. The engines slipped so badly that a man had to spread sand on the rails each time a train passed.

And the interior of this fearsome tunnel was so dense that drivers often had to feel the walls to find out in which direction they were moving.

However, better tunnels were built and the conditions improved.

By the turn of the century, King’s Cross was handling 250 trains a day, and more improvements had to be made.

The main line trains were departing from a single platform and, with forty departures a day, this was plainly intolerable. Two more platforms were added. The final major changes were made in 1924, mainly to the suburban facilities, by the London and North Eastern Railway which took over from the Great Northern.

With the coming of longer trains, the main platform was extended. This enabled it to accommodate the large Gresley Pacifics which were now the standard express engines of the L.N.E.R.’s northern routes.

During the 1930s, the station reached its peak. The railways were not in the doldrums, as they often are today, and the L.N.E.R. was known for its efficiency.

A uniform type was used for all the company’s lettering on the station, as indeed it was throughout their entire railway system. It also appeared on the company’s posters and their signs.

During this period, the famous Silver Jubilee and Coronation trains came out, with their streamlined coaches and engines.

King’s Cross had a gruelling war, handling millions of troops as well as civilians. Some trains were made up of 20 coaches or more, and some carried 2,000 passengers on one journey.

Bad damage was inflicted during air raids. On one occasion, two bombs tied together partially destroyed the offices, restaurant and booking hall. Despite the enormous casualties, the train service was uninterrupted.

Since then, the suburban services have become less hectic and, from 1959, they have been worked by railcars and diesels.

The main line to the north and Scotland lost its wonderful locomotives in the early 1960s, when diesels took over. King’s Cross then became soot-free and cleaner than it had been before, but it was far less interesting to the fans of steam locomotion.

Today, apart from the noble, original architecture, King’s Cross is falling behind the times. Its amenities are now considered by some to be inadequate for the needs of modern travellers. But a shortage of money prevents this from being remedied.

In the 1960s the building of the Victorian Line underground station presented a good opportunity for the erection of a fine frontage.

A great modernisation scheme incorporating St. Pancras’s traffic and the closure of that terminus was torn up in 1968.

Apart from the electrification of the suburban services, it seems that King’s Cross will mark time for many years to come – a monument to past glories.


Last stop for King’s Cross restored glory

Rail bosses today promised to recreate the historic grandeur of King’s Cross as work begins on the final stage of a radical upgrade of the station.

Demolition work has begun to remove the station’s eyesore frontage and create a 7,000 square-metre King’s Cross Square which will be London’s newest public space, 50 per cent larger than Leicester Square, when it opens in autumn next year.

It will open up views of the historic frontage of the station and across to St Pancras International Station and the Renaissance Hotel.

Network Rail project manager Matt Tolan said: “The aim is to bring something of the grandness and old-world charm of Europe’s city centre railway stations to the heart of the capital.”

Today workers began taking down the green canopy that has overshadowed the front of the station since the Seventies to reveal architect Lewis Cubitt’s Grade I-listed Victorian facade.

The demolition of one of the capital’s longest surviving temporary buildings marks the start of the last phase of the biggest transformation in the station’s 160-year history. It follows the opening of the glass and steel western concourse in March, which provides three times more space for passengers than the old concourse, with improved links to both the London Underground network and St Pancras station.

More than 45 million passengers a year, travelling through London and to and from destinations including Cambridge, Peterborough, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh, now have improved facilities including better lighting, larger destination boards, clearer station announcements and more shops and restaurants.

While demolition of the old concourse and construction of the new King’s Cross Square takes place, passengers arriving by train into King’s Cross will need to leave the station either left onto York Way, right into the Underground or right through the new western concourse.

When construction is complete, passengers will enter the station via the new western concourse and exit through the front of the station onto the new square. – evening standard. 12/11/12



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