Tried, Tested, Trailblazing
Euston Station’s history is intriguing. It has been involved in controversies over issues ranging from its original location to its role as London’s HS2 terminus. It has also, however, proved remarkably innovative in such different fields as architecture and race relations. So it has had its trials and been put to the test but deserves to be called a trailblazer. Before looking at its contrasting histories, let us consider the name Euston.
The station was built on land north of the New Road, laid out in 1756. Originally for farming, this land once belonged to William Rhodes, an ancestor of Cecil, who is said to have endeavoured to keep 1000 cows on it. The station was planned as from the autumn of 1830, at a cost of £3m. Construction was authorised by law in 1833. By then the land belonged to George Henry Fitzroy, 4th Duke of Grafton; that dukedom still exists and the family seat is Euston Hall, in a small Suffolk village. Certain streets in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia bear the names Fitzroy and Grafton. There’s no railway station at Euston in Suffolk.
Euston, you’ve had some problems
The station had a difficult birth. Built by William Cubitt, it opened on 20 July 1837 with Robert Stephenson as the engineer-in-chief; he planned it with his father George. It was first known as Euston Square Station. The proprietors of the London & Birmingham Railway (L&BR) envisaged that it would be used for freight transport but in 1835 Robert Stephenson suggested making it a London passenger terminal. This initially had to be located at Chalk Farm, where the landowner Lord Southampton, an opponent of the railways, resisted it. Another problem arose after the terminal, at Euston Grove, opened: the earliest engines were not powerful enough to get over an average gradient of 1 in 85 towards Chalk Farm and had to be hauled up with a cable over 3,000 yards long. This system was only abandoned in 1844.
The most heated controversy concerned the Euston Arch – more correctly, a propylaeum (monumental gateway) 72½ ft high with 44-ft columns. Its design was Doric, based on the oldest order of Greek architecture. Even at first, it divided opinion: the great Gothic architect Pugin, for instance, mocked its “Brobdignagian absurdity”. Most controversial, though, was a plan to demolish it. This was approved in 1961 by the Minister of Transport Ernest Marples, who commissioned the report by (non-medical) Dr Richard Beeching which recommended the closure of 2,300 smaller stations. Despite protests from John Betjeman, Nikolaus Pevsner and Woodrow Wyatt MP, and others including architects, the Arch was demolished by 1962, just leaving the two lodges which flanked it. Its demolition has been called “Britain’s worst act of corporate vandalism”. At £12,000 demolition was clearly cheaper than removal and re-siting, at £190,000. It seems that Marples opted for price over value.
Making it new (or not)
In the 1930s a new station building, somewhat resembling a cinema, was planned. The Arch was spared when the plan was dropped owing to lack of funds and then the war. A new station remained essential, however. Even by 1860, according to the historian Jack Simmons, “Euston was suffering the common penalties of the pioneer in technological development”: having become “static in its achievement”, it “fell back into obsolescence.”
The present station, designed by R L Moorcroft, was unveiled on 14 October 1968. This too has divided opinion, being described as unattractive, cluttered and dirty but also light, elegantly designed and efficient.
A trailblazing track record
Despite those problems, Euston has a noble record of pioneering acts. It was London’s first inter-city station and Philip Hardwick, its original designer, was the world’s first in-house railway architect; his son, Philip Charles Hardwick, designed the Great Hall (1846-49), which served as the concourse and waiting room – regrettably its demolition was unlamented. Similarly, the train sheds were the first work of civil engineer Charles Fox and are believed to have had the first all-iron truss roof (similar structures still exist at William Henry Barlow’s St Pancras). Euston also pioneered railway bookstalls; the first one, run by W H Smith, opened on 1 November 1848. The modern building was the country’s first all-electric station.
Euston is notable for a pioneering train, The Royal Scot (1927), serving the London Midland & Scottish Railway (formerly London & North-Western Railway and L&BR). It was “the first in a new breed of steam locomotives” and the fastest service to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. It was retired in October 1962 and purchased by Billy Butlin.
The station’s pioneering even has social and political dimensions. A plaque there commemorates Asquith Xavier (1920-80), part of the Windrush generation. In 1966, laid off as a guard at Marylebone Station where a line was closed following Beeching’s cuts, he applied for a promotion at Euston; guards there were paid an extra £10 a week. His application was rejected and it emerged that the station had a policy excluding black people from roles assisting the public. He demanded change and his story reached Parliament and Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Transport. Consequently, on 15 July 1966 British Railways announced the end of its racist recruitment policy. One month later he became the first non-white guard employed at Euston.
Asquith’s campaign led to the strengthening of the Race Relations Act in 1968 and it became illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people because of their ethnic background. The then Home Secretary James Callaghan told Parliament: “The House has rarely faced an issue of greater social significance for our country and our children.” Sadly, both during and after his campaign Asquith faced racist abuse and even death threats, and needed police protection. He is a heroic figure in terms of race relations.
The station witnessed an outstanding initiative on Christmas Day 2017, when it was turned into a shelter for the homeless. This was the idea of Steve Naybour of Network Rail and some of his colleagues. Two hundred rough sleepers were invited and some 30 volunteers from Network Rail worked alongside the housing charity St Mungo’s and the voluntary movement Streets Kitchen. The concourse was filled with decorations and a festive dinner was served. Everything was donated. Euston may have started a new tradition. It couldn’t have been marked in 2020, but fingers crossed for Christmas 2021.
Euston’s innovations are a tribute to their creators, who sometimes faced major challenges.
HS2: trial or trailblazer?
High Speed 2 was the brainchild of Andrew Adonis, whose title as Baron Adonis of Camden Town has been rather controversial. HS2 itself, estimated at £107.7bn (June 2021), has been controversial ever since its inception in 2009. Positively, it is designed to serve over 25 stations from Euston, connect some 30 million people and cut journey times by 29 minutes. Also, Euston Station is due to be rebuilt again, including eleven new 400-metre platforms (perhaps reduced to ten?); in 1837 there were two platforms. HS2, according to its Facebook page, “takes fast trains off existing lines and puts them on their own tracks. This better connects major towns and cities.”
The Arch might also be rebuilt as part of the HS2 project, with original stones discovered in the River Lea, east London, by the art historian Dan Cruickshank in 1994.
Charles Dickens’s great novel Dombey and Son (1848) features the building of the railway towards Camden Town; in Chapter 6 he likens it to “a great earthquake”. HS2’s effects on the Euston area (to go no farther) may not be seismic but it has caused noise, air pollution and demolition of high-rise blocks with extensive rehousing. Graves and monuments have been uprooted from the nearby St James Gardens (40,000 burials); the remains of the explorer Captain Matthew Flinders, whose statue is on the station forecourt, were discovered there in 2019. In Euston Square Gardens there have been impassioned protests by environmental activists. Euston might not in fact be the main London terminus for HS2’s first three years; a new interchange at Old Oak Common, north-west of Shepherd’s Bush, has been officially recommended instead.
HS2 is due for completion in 2036. Whether it’s ultimately a trial, not just for Euston, or a trailblazer must remain to be seen.
Tailpiece: working at Euston
I once worked at a shop, chiefly a newsagent’s (not WHS), on the eastern side of the concourse. Though the station was barely three years old, it seemed quite bleak. I think it’s much brighter and smarter now. In those days canned music blared out – I particularly recall Men of Harlech, without words (there are direct services from Euston to Holyhead).
After a few months I moved to a bookshop in Bloomsbury. That was a very marked improvement, but of course I didn’t know I was crossing the site of the New Road.
- Camden History Society, Streets of St Pancras: King’s Cross Central, Somers Town, Euston
- John Richardson, A History of Camden: Hampstead, Holborn and St Pancras
- Jack Simmons and Robert Thorne, St Pancras Station (pp. 29-30)
- https://aehistory.wordpress.com/1837/10/08/1837-euston-station/ (re. iron truss roof)
Featured image at the top of this page is Euston Station, western side, (c) Paul Guest, 2021