"St Pancras"

January 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - Nigel Lowey


The January 2009 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth, on Friday, the 9th of January. The guest speaker for the evening was Nigel Lowey and his subject was St Pancras. The attendance for the meeting was very good, especially when the bitterly cold weather was taken into account. Nigel began his presentation by explaining the circumstances that led to his giving the talk to the society. This talk in particular has proved to be very popular, tonight being the second time this week that Nigel given the talk and no less than the thirty-third time in total!

How did the railway station come to be named after a fairly obscure saint? St Pancras was born in what is now modern Turkey. When the father of the young Pancras died an uncle took over the responsibility for looking after him and they moved to Rome. In Rome they were converted to Christianity. However, the Roman Emperor at that time, Diocletian, was strongly opposed to Christianity and persecuted the religion with ruthless determination. As a Christian Pancras was condemned to death but he would be spared if he renounced his faith. At the time he was only 14 years of age and because of his youth he was actually brought before the Emperor himself and given the chance to redeem himself. However, he was true to his religion and put to death by beheading. Pancras was beatified in the 7th Century, becoming Saint Pancras. A church was founded in his name in London and gave its name to the parish of the same name. It was in this parish that the railway station that shares the name was built. The station is now far better known that the saint from whom it took its name.

In the early 1990’s Nigel often travelled from Nottingham to St Pancras station in London. Once Nigel’s trip to St Pancras was complete he left the station via the nearest tube train entrance and thus never saw the station from the outside. However, on one occasion the underground access at St Pancras was closed. Nigel decided that he would walk along the Euston Road to Euston station and try and catch a tube train there. This necessitated leaving the station by the front entrance that exits onto the Euston Road. For the first time in his life Nigel saw the front of the station. He was stunned. The building had just been cleaned and was in pristine condition. Even though he wasn’t a railway enthusiast by any means Nigel immediately decided that he wanted to know more about the building and its history. Consequently, one weekend he had travelled to London to take advantage of the London Open House scheme that takes place in the capital annually. Various buildings that are not normally open to the public take part in the scheme and allow visitors to gain entrance to their premises. St Pancras was one of those buildings that took part in the event and it was to there that Nigel headed. Once inside he was amazed at the beauty and grandeur of the building.

What did disappoint him however was the amount of neglect that the building has suffered during its tenure with British Rail. It seems that, for some inexplicable reason, British Rail hated the building and did nothing whatsoever to maintain and preserve this historic structure; in fact they appeared to do all that they could to dispose of the building. At one time there were even plans afoot to demolish the building and redevelop the site. These plans were on the verge of completion and had it not been for the timely intervention from an influential group of people, foremost amongst them the poet John Betjeman, the building would certainly have been demolished to make way for the new development. The building was saved, quite literally, at the eleventh hour, the bulldozers and wrecking cranes were all ready to do their destructive work when sanity prevailed and the building was saved.

The station itself is in two quite separate and distinct parts. There is the train shed, designed by William Barlow, and, forming the front of the train shed, what was originally the Midland Grand Hotel that was designed by George Gilbert Scott. The hotel was closed in 1935, becoming an office block for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. One of the first things that struck Nigel was the quality of the materials that had been used in the construction of the hotel. No less than fourteen types of British stone had been used in the construction of the hotel. Stone that could be found at various locations that the Midland Railway served. Wallpapers, tiles, ironwork, and other materials were all of a uniformly high standard. The cost and quality of these materials became quite a source of friction between the Midland Railway and the architect, Scott. The railway company trying to do everything as cheaply as possible to save money, whilst the architect was doing all he could to maintain the high quality of the building materials, fittings and fixtures.

The Midland Railway were latecomers to the capital, having concentrated their activities in the Midlands coalfields. The Midland Railway was one of the most profitable and richest of railway companies in the country. Its fortune was built on the coal traffic that it carried throughout the midlands. Though originally formed in 1844, being the product of an amalgamation of a number of other railways, the Midland Railway had been gaining access to London, firstly via Euston Station and the London & North Western Railway, and latterly into Kings Cross via the Great Northern Railway. The arrangement with the GNR whereby the Midland ran their trains into Kings Cross had not been an harmonious one. As private companies they were in competition with each other and the GNR only allowed the Midland into their station because the MR had running rights into the terminus that were enforceable by law. That said the GNR did everything in its power to inconvenience the Midland. The friction had been a long running affair and had become very acrimonious, witness the Nottingham Railway Engine Hijack of 1852 (article in the current News Letter by Kerry Donlan).

The majority of the English major railway companies sought a mainline terminus in the capital, London; it was a matter of both prestige and profitable business. The Midland Railway was no different from any other railway company in this respect. As a dynamic and enterprising business the Midland sought to have a mainline of its own that ran from London to Scotland. However there were already two competing routes from London to Scotland. The west coast route from London Euston was operated by the London & North Western Railway as far as Carlisle and thence via the Caledonian Railway to Glasgow. The east coast route was operated from London Kings Cross as far as York by the Great Northern Railway, then on to Edinburgh by the North Eastern Railway (who used the track owned by the North British Railway from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Edinburgh.)

The Midland Railway had commenced construction work on its own London to Scotland route in the early 1860’s. From its base in the Midlands the MR extended northwards to Scotland and southwards to London. However, due to the terrain that had to be traversed, the route that the Midland had chosen into Scotland proved to be far more costly to construct than the company had budgeted for. This left them financially short of money to build the southern section of the route. The Midland sought government permission to abandon, if only temporarily, their northern extension. Permission was refused; the company was told that it had to continue with the building of the railway. Hence cost-cutting exercises needed to be implemented to save the company from acute financial embarrassment. One area where costs could be saved was in the new hotel then being constructed at St Pancras Station.

The authorities in London had decreed that no railway approaching the capital from the North could build a main-line station below a line bounded by what is now the the Euston Road. Thus, by the time that the Midland reached the capital in the 1860’s suitable sites were at a premium. The Midland Railway finally decided upon a site in the borough of St Pancras across the road from Kings Cross station. It has been said that if the Board of Directors of the Midland had tried to pick a less suitable site for such a huge undertaking then they would have been hard-pressed to find a worse position. The site covered the slum areas of Agar Town, Kentish Town, and Somers Town. These were some of the worst slums in London. The site was also adjacent to the Regents Canal, London Gasworks, and an ancient church with a large and overcrowded graveyard. Through all of this flowed the Fleet River. Agar Town, where the station was to be constructed, was an area comprised entirely of slums. The Midland railway bought the whole area and razed it to the ground. Many of the tenants who were evicted took the railway to court for compensation. However, the courts decided that the Midland had done nothing wrong. The land was bought from St Paul’s Cathedral who rented the slums out. The railway had paid the market rate for the land and also paid the owners of the houses to remove the tenants. In all around 32,000 people were made homeless by the development.

One particularly scandalous situation occurred after the Midland Railway had been given permission to remove a part of the churchyard through which the proposed line would run. To do this it was necessary to remove a large number of bodies and re-inter them elsewhere. Unfortunately the workmen allotted to the job were very lackadaisical and bodies and parts of bodies were left scattered over the site. The final straw came one day when a passer by saw a lock of beautiful blonde hair spilling out of a coffin and reported the incident to the authorities. An inspector from the council was sent to assess the situation and was appalled at what he saw. The outcome was that the railway company was instructed to erect 14ft high screens around the site, to do all the necessary work at night and to show proper respect for the dead. An architect named Bloomfield was put in charge of the work. This architect had an assistant, the famous writer Thomas Hardy, who was then an architectural trainee. One day, whilst supervising this work Hardy came across a coffin with the remains of two bodies in it. He was moved to write:

"Oh passenger, pray list and catch our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch of wrenched memorial stones!”
"We late-lamented, resting here, are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear, “I know not which I am!”

Indeed, so moved by the experience was Hardy that he gave up the life of trainee architect, retired to Dorset and took to writing as an occupation instead. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another huge problem regarding access to the site of the station was the Regents Canal which was situated very close to the proposed station. The Great Northern Railway, when faced with the same problem, had decided to traverse the canal by tunnelling underneath it. The Midland Railway took the opposite view and opted for a bridge over it. In order to avoid a very sharp drop into the station it was decided to raise the level of the station. This created a problem for Barlow which he solved in a most original way. He built a huge undercroft beneath the station concourse and used it as a warehouse. The breweries at Burton on Trent were very important customers of the Midland. The railway transported vast quantities of beer from the breweries at Burton into the capital. This beer was transported in large barrels. The station concourse at St Pancras was supported on metal pillars. Barlow ensured that the distance between these supporting pillars was just wide enough to allow three barrels to be stored there.

However, there still remained the problem of designing the train shed. At one time Barlow contemplated building a structure similar to Kings Cross station, though on a much grander scale of course! This plan was dropped when it was realized that such a building would need a central wall to support the roof. Given the length of the platforms this wall would occupy a large amount of space, space that, if available, could be much better used. Barlow finally opted for the arched structure that we see today. Another problem associated with a structure that has walls is the roof needs to be ‘tied’ in some manner to the sidewalls. Barlow, in a flash of genius, decided to do away with the sidewalls altogether and simply put the roof on the floor! The whole of the framework for this roof would be wrought iron, which is lighter and more flexible that cast iron. All of the iron-work for the roof came from the Butterley Ironworks, situated not too far from Derby. Thus the Midland Railway could carry all of the ironwork from foundry to station without relying on any third party for transport.

One problem with iron structures is that they are more susceptible to temperature variation than a similar sized masonry structure would be. However, once again Barlow design was inspirational in that when the metal expanded or contracted the top of the arch, where each side met, simply rose or fell. On a hot day the roof may move as many as eight inches up and down but because of the way that the glass panels were fitted to the arches this presented no problems at all. A giant wooden structure was erected at one end of the train shed and the ironwork for that particular arch was put in place. When that arch was completed the wooden structure was moved along to the next arch and so on. There were twenty-five of these arches to install and work began to fall behind schedule. To rectify this problem another wooden platform was built and work commenced from the other end of the train shed. When the train shed was completed in 1868 it was 243ft wide and was the largest single-span arch in the world at that time. It was also the world’s largest enclosed space. Even today, over 140 years later, it is still the tallest, single-span arch in the world. As a comparison, the whole of the Market Square, from the front of the Council House, all the way to the Brompton House Library would fit inside the train shed. The market place is approximately 240ft across so that too would fit inside.

The hotel that the Midland Railway built at the front of the train shed was, quite simply, a Gothic masterpiece. The railway company decided to hold a competition and invited eleven architects to submit their plans. Rough requirements were laid out, as was a price that the company were willing to pay for the finished building. The basic requirement was for a 200-bed hotel at a cost of around £200,000. The finished building was to be of a simple design to complement to simplicity of the train shed which lay behind it. The architects involved worked to this requirement. George Gilbert Scott was one of those architects. However, he totally ignored what the railway had asked for and came up with a design that he thought that the Midland should build. His design was both much larger and more expensive than that which his opponents had submitted. His plan was for a 400-bedroom hotel at a cost of £500,000. However, his audacity paid off and the Midland Railway were impressed enough with his design to award him the contract, though he did have to take off two floors of bedrooms and a further floor of offices! Even so, it still took 60million bricks to complete the building. These bricks were of the very best quality and were made by the Mapperley Brick Company from Nottingham. Once again, the railway could ensure that there was no problem with the transporting of the bricks from Nottingham to London, it did all of that itself too. Today, according to Government statistics the average house has 10,000 bricks. At St Pancras over 20,000 bricks were laid every single day for the duration of the construction. There was also over 9,000 tons of ironwork inside the hotel. It took over nine years to finally complete the hotel. During all that time there were constant arguments between the Midland Railway and Scott. The railway company wanted to reduce costs wherever it could, Scott meanwhile insisting that only the very best materials should be used.

If you look carefully at the hotel you will see that there are empty plinths all over the structure. These look as if they should have statutes atop them. It was a part of Scott’s plan that there should be statues on the plinths but the Midland refused to finance them saying that they were never a part of the plan. In the end only one statue was placed on a plinth, that of a 16ft high statue of Britannia, imperiously towering over Kings Cross station and looking disdainfully down on that miniscule structure. The Midland Grand Hotel dwarfed all of the buildings around it, and it was three stories lower than originally intended!

The hotel was full of innovations; it boasted the first electric bells in a London hotel. The floors were supported on iron, not wood, and made the building very strong. This also helped to fireproof the structure. The building was the second hotel in London to have electric lifts. It also boasted an ornate revolving door at the entrance but this proved unpopular with the public and was removed after a very short while. Another first was the provision of a ladies smoking room, no other hotel in London could boast of such an amenity. There was also a gadget called the Electrophone that enabled residents to listen, via headphones, to concerts and other public performances that were taking place in the capital.

However, there were other aspects of the hotels construction that left a lot to be desired. One major problem had been that there was very little internal pipe-work inside the building. This was an area where cost-cutting measures had been made and the result was disastrous. There were approximately 110 bedrooms on each floor but only three bathrooms. Because the building had been so well constructed the cost of installing pipe-work later would have been prohibitive. The Savoy Hotel was opened a few years later in the capital and boasted a far higher ratio of bedrooms to bathrooms. Even so, the Midland Grand Hotel boasted of an excellent reputation for service to its customers. The hotel continued to operate until 1935 when it was closed. By then the Midland Railway had been absorbed into the London, Midland & Scottish Railway in 1922. Since then it has been a largely neglected building. The LMS use it for offices but when the railways were nationalized in 1947 the new owners, British Railways, had no practical us for the building. In 1985 the building failed its fire-certificate and since that date the only use that the building has been put to is for filming purposes. Batman and Harry Potter films have used the building. Because the building could not be used British Rail decided, in 1988, to sell off all of the original hotel furniture, crockery, and fixtures and fittings. Finally, when British Rail was privatized, and the system was sold off piece-meal the station was, quite literally, given away as an inducement to buy the railway attached to it!

Today the future of the site is secure thanks to the re-siting of the Eurostar terminal from Waterloo. This involved a massive extension being added onto the front of the original train shed. The new, extended station is an engineering masterpiece. All of the old train shed was completely renovated and the new extension a most sympathetic addition to the old one. The old hotel is also being renovated and converted into flats, the cheapest of which will cost £2,250,000! The most expensive is over £10,000,000. One really nice touch that is to be found at the redeveloped station is a statue of the poet Sir John Betjeman, without whose efforts the station may have been lost altogether. The future of the station is now secure for the foreseeable future and a truly amazing Victorian masterpiece will now survive well into the 21st Century at least. Many thanks to Nigel for giving such an excellent, interesting and informative talk on one of London’s most celebrated buildings.