St Pancras station never ceases to amaze and inspire me, even in the doldrum 1970 years, and today it has risen, phoenix from the ashes, into a beauty of a building and destination station, showing the others how a station can become a top class shopping and eating centre too. It is an appropriate arrival hall for the Europeans who arrive into London by train.
What was it like in 1868?
The building itself probably looked much the same as it does today if you ignore the new extension at the far end beyond the glass shed, thanks to the meticulous detailed restoration, alongside the alterations to accommodate Eurostar in 2007. However, it would have been black and full of steam for the Victorians.
St Pancras was the third station to be built north of the Euston Road between 1837 and 1868. The other two being Euston (1837) and King’s Cross (1852). Each was owned by different railway companies.
So why were there three stations built?
It was the increase in population in Victorian England from 1 million in 1900 to 6.7 million in 1900. More people needed more food and, crucially, coal. Coal was needed for: fires for domestic heating; steam power for industry; making gas for gaslighting, both domestic and street. It was transportation of coal, milk vegetables and, in the case of St Pancras, beer, that led to the profits not passengers. Passengers were a side-line.
Whilst St Pancras opened in 1868, just four years after William Henry Barlow (Chief Engineer, Midland Railway) set out his plans, the Midland Railway company had been bringing goods into London from the 1850s using the Great Northern Line’s King’s Cross terminus. This proved difficult as competition increased and relations grew tense so the company decided to build their own line from Hitchin to London.
Barlow had a designer’s nightmare of a site to contend with: the lines were to be squeezed in-between the old St Pancras graveyards and the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company’s massive gas holder structures, and either under or over both the Metropolitan underground railway, opened in 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon, and the Regent’s Canal, opened in 1820. He opted to build his line over these obstacles, hence the height of the platforms.
His roof had the biggest single span arch and glass structure in the world. Barlow had worked on the steel and glass structure of Crystal Palace for Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition. This was based on the innovative conservatories and greenhouses built and designed by Joseph Paxton for Chatsworth House. Paxton was a Director of the Midland Railway company and had worked alongside both Barlow and Roland Mason Ordish on Crystal Palace. Barlow designed the railway shed and Ordish was the engineer who made it happen.
The station was built by man and horse power– 1,220 men, 110 horses and 22 steam hydraulic cranes.
There are 25 principal ribs each weighing a ton and costing £1000 each at the time.
They were made by Butterley company of Ripley, Derbyshire. It was the clear expectation of the Midland Railway company that, where possible, materials should be from the Midlands, to show-case Midlands industries.
Roll out the barrels
The white cast-iron arches 6 metres below the platforms were built 14 feet apart to create vaults of storage for barrels of Bass beer– 705 columns – 47 columns north to south, 15 east to west.
The lighter Bass Beer came from Burton-on-Trent and brought in to compete with London dark and heavy beers of Fullers and London Pride. Working men drank what was known as short beer ( not very high in alcohol) instead of water, probably just as well given what we now know about the link between contaminated water and cholera.
The beer barrels were lowered to the storage by hydraulic lifts.
Midland Grand Hotel
The ornate terracotta and cream brick and stone work which form the sides of the station are in fact the sides of the hotel. This becomes clear when exiting the station at the south end at the upper level by the statue.
The Midland Grand Hotel, now the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, was designed by George Gilbert Scott – the Norman Foster of his day.
Scott’s masterpiece Hogwarts-style spires and gargoyles are a reminder of Victorian self-confidence but were also intended as a message to the Great Northern Railway Company that the Midlands Railway Company was superior to the Great Northern Railway .
The hotel facade is 175 metres wide and the clock tower is 72 metres high. Together they form a cliff of red, dressed with stones of different colours.
The bricks were supplied by Edward Gripper of Nottinghamshire and George Tucker of Leicestershire and the slates at the front of the hotel were from the Groby and Swithland quarry, Leicestershire. Round the back, Welsh slates were allowed.
The entrance to what is now the Renaissance Hotel was actually the cab rank. The Booking Office beside it was always positioned there.
The main entrance to the hotel used to be on the road and it had three arches.
Decline and revival of station and hotel
So what happened to the station? After WW1 the railways were not allowed by government to return to their pre-war competitive positions – the Railway Act 1921 created four great railway companies – the London Midland and Scottish was the largest and this subsumed the Midland Railway company. Dramatically, in 1935 the Midland Grand Hotel closed because of poor profits. It was converted into offices for the railways and renamed St Pancras Chambers.
In 1964 the last beer was delivered by steam train into St Pancras station. From that point onwards the beer was delivered by road. The station was effectively mothballed. Between 1966 and 1968 an attempt was made to combine — ie, demolish — both Kings Cross and St Pancras; permission was denied thanks largely to the Betjeman campaign. A statue to commemorate the great Poet Laureate of 1972-84 sits on platform level. It is said that the sculptor Mark Jennings created his billowing coat to echo the curve of the roof! I certainly can’t resist stroking it every time I pass.
Despite becoming listed buildings the railway companies didn’t have the money to develop the stations. Salvation came in the shape of the plans for the Channel Tunnel, when St Pancras was selected in 1996 to be the terminal — Waterloo was an interim terminal. The opening was eleven years later in 2007. The hotel was also renovated externally and internally to create the fabulous building it now is.
Simon Bradley, St Pancras Station, Profile Books 2007
Featured image at top of page is of the entrance to St Pancras Station, Sylvia McNamara, 2021