Trackside Classic: St Pancras Station – Industrial Revolution Meets Gothic Revival

Britain has no shortage of wonderful railway stations large and small – London Paddington, York, Newcastle Central, Glasgow Central and Bristol Temple Meads all have their fans among the larger ones, but one station makes everyone’s list and stands out as a national, and now international, landmark – the 150 year old magnificence that is London St Pancras, now officially St Pancras International. And here’s why.

By 1860, railways fanned out from London across England in all directions. All were built by private companies, and all these companies (bar the Great Western, from Bristol) originated in London. All had terminals of varying grandeur, scattered around the edge of central London and eventually linked by the embryonic underground railways – this map is from 1899.

But one railway company, proud of its north of England origins and identity, had ambitions to reach the capital too – the Midland Railway. Centred on the important junction of Derby, 130 miles north of London and right in the heart of the new industrial England, and with a network already spreading northwards to Sheffield, Leeds, York, Manchester and Liverpool (and soon, via the Settle to Carlisle line, to the Scottish border) and through Birmingham to Bristol in the south west, access to London would complete its network.

The Midland, even among British railway companies, was a proud and self-confident organisation. Accessing London over the tracks of the competing Great Northern to King’s Cross from 1857 was only ever a stopgap – the Midland wanted its own route to the capital. And the Midland, rich on the profits of hauling coal from the collieries to the cities of the North and Midlands of England, was not going to creep into some mundane little station. Instead, its new terminal would really be two remarkable building interacting together, costing, say some sources, £4m in 1860s money.

The first of these buildings is the trainshed. Most major British stations had one, but that at St Pancras station would be the most audacious and dramatic yet– a single span iron and glass arched roof, nearly 700 ft long, over 240 ft wide and 110ft high, designed by William Henry Barlow (1812-1902), the Midland’s consultant engineer. When built, it was, by some distance, the largest ironwork structure of its kind in the world, and the largest uninterrupted covered space in the world.

The arch is supported by horizontal cast iron girders under the rail level acting as crossties, so, as well as the dramatic presentation, it allowed the station to be built without extensive supporting structures. This, and an elevated site above the surrounding roads, left both the rail and undercroft levels as open and flexible spaces – unlike neighbouring King’s Cross, which has two narrower and lower arched spans supported by heavy brick walls, including one down the centre of the station which divides it in two, or Paddington, where the intricate roof designed by Brunel needs 3 spans to cover the station.

The roof of St Pancras was the work of the Butterley Company, created at its ironworks in the town of the same name between Derby and Sheffield, right in the heart of Midland Railway territory. At the time, it operated the largest iron rolling mill in the world. To this day, the piers of the roof spans proudly bear the company’s name. But construction was not without controversy – 7 streets of workers’ housing were compulsorily acquired and demolished, and 10,000 people forced to seek new homes, to clear the way for Barlow’s masterpiece.

As well as flexibility in the station layout, the design of the trainshed created an undercroft level. The rail deck is supported by 800 cast iron columns, approximately 20 ft high, which are spaced to the same standard as the beer warehouses in Burton on Trent – then the centre of English brewing and a major source of traffic for the Midland (Burton ale tastes better than London water to this day, even if the latter is now reliably free of cholera and typhoid). By using that standard and by not needing piers to support the roof across the space, the undercroft could be used to store beer shipped to London, avoiding the need for expensive warehousing elsewhere. Barlow wrote that “the length of a beer barrel became the unit of measure, upon which all the arrangements of this floor were based”.

These pictures, from 1957 and 2007, shows the difference in size and elevation from King’s Cross. On the right, the plain parallel arched sheds of King’s Cross; on the left, the soaring majesty of the single arch of St Pancras. Notice that St Pancras’ platforms are 25 ft above King’s Cross’ – at the top of the shot is the Regent’s Canal (1820); the Great Northern went under it to King’s Cross (1851, and the tunnels at the station throat are a bottleneck to this day), but the Midland went over it.

The second part of St Pancras was perhaps even more remarkable – a 300 room, 5 storey hotel wrapping round the front and side of the trainshed and incorporating the passenger facilities. Nothing odd about a railway hotel, of course; most London and many provincial stations had them, owned and operated by the railway companies, and several notable ones survive even now, like the North British (now Balmoral) and Caledonian in Edinburgh, the Royal Station in York and the Adelphi in Liverpool. But only the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras is a Gothic revival masterpiece of unparalleled flourish and imagination.

Following a competition, the Midland commissioned the architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) for the hotel. Scott was a prolific architect who had travelled and worked across Europe and become an enthusiast for the revival of the Gothic style more commonly associated with medieval cathedrals (Chartres, Lincoln, Milan) and public buildings (the Cloth Hall at Ypres, in Flanders, in particular – which is now the wonderful In Flanders Fields museum of the Great War) rather than railway stations. The style may have been familiar to some of the Midland’s passengers – several northern cities served by the Midland, including Bradford, Manchester and Sheffield, had contemporary Town Halls of neo Gothic, but not on the scale of St Pancras.

Beyond cathedrals, the hotel was not a building inspired by any British tradition – the inspiration is European – but the chosen building material couldn’t be any more English. Not for the Midland the classical Portland stone used for much of nineteenth century London, but red brick (60 million of them, reputedly) from Nottinghamshire – another product of the Midland’s territory, and the pre-eminent building material of the midlands and the north to this day. Even the mortar was specially imported from the Midlands.

So, elevated above the neighbours, Derbyshire iron arch and a Gothic fantasy in Nottingham redbrick – the Midland was clearly making a statement!  Essentially, its new station at St Pancras represents the industrial heart of England, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, rocking up in the capital of the Empire, and saying ‘yes, but look what we can do.’

The station opened in 1868, with Midland trains serving the route north to Leicester, Nottingham and Derby, and then north west to Manchester and north to Sheffield and Leeds, and, from 1876, to Carlisle and through to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It was an impressive network, with smartly presented trains in maroon livery that lived on in various guises to the 1960s, but the Midland was always the third choice for the Anglo-Scottish passenger behind the East and West Coast Main Lines from Euston and King’s Cross respectively – the 3 terminals are within 5 minutes’ walk along the Euston Road.

The Midland instead strove to compete on quality. It had the first dining cars and then the first Pullman cars in Britain, operated by the American Pullman company and derived very closely from American practice.

The hotel was not finally complete until 1877, and the interior was as flamboyant as the exterior, with soaring arched ceilings, galleried staircases and very ornate decoration (gold leaf in places, here decorating the Midland’s coat of arms), alongside conveniences such as early hydraulic lifts and the first revolving doors in Britain. It was also structurally robust, with concrete floors and fireproof compartmentation. But, crucially and inexplicably, no en-suite bathrooms; each floor had a communal bathroom and that was it.

As you might expect, that anachronism plus the cost and the difficulty of correcting it in such a complex building, meant the Midland Grand Hotel always struggled, however opulent its public spaces. It closed in 1935, and became railway offices, with haphazard partitioning and crude lighting installed alongside neglect of the architecture and ultimately the structure. By the 1960s, it was in a sorry state

And, from 1923, the Midland was part of the larger London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and St Pancras began a long slide to second rate status behind the more important West Coast route from Euston.

As early as 1949, the poet John Betjeman (1906-84, and later Poet Laureate) had written “I have no doubt that British Railways will do away with St Pancras altogether. It is too beautiful and romantic to survive. It is not of this age.” And in the straitened circumstances of British Railways in the 1960s and 1970s, his prophecy came close to realisation. Traffic at St Pancras reduced, and the historic parts of Euston were demolished to allow electrification and renewal in the 1960s; given that precedent, it was widely expected (and even planned) that the Midland route’s trains would once again head to King’s Cross so the valuable St Pancras site could be sold for redevelopment.

By the late 1960s, Betjeman was leading a rearguard campaign to save St Pancras, and, in 1967, he succeeded in getting St Pancras ‘listed’ by government as of architectural and historic interest. That prevents demolition, but does not prevent neglect!

So St Pancras struggled on. Suburban trains were electrified, and the wonderful HSTs took over mainline duties (but now cut back to Sheffield), while the station received only essential maintenance and the hotel was effectively abandoned.

Until 1996, when a new home was needed for the 300 km/h trains to and from the Continent.

The 31 mile long Channel Tunnel, linking the Continent to Britain (as we put it – the French may see things differently), required a new high speed line from the tunnel at Folkestone to London. Construction of the tunnel began in 1988, and it opened in 1994 – but until 2007, Eurostar high speed trains from Paris travelled on the Victorian railways of Kent to London Waterloo, at conventional train speeds, and mixed in with ordinary trains.

Eventually, the new High Speed 1 (or HS1) line from the tunnel, through Kent and then across the Thames to approach London from the east rather than the south was complete – and St Pancras was reborn as an international station, with direct high speed trains to Paris and Brussels.

The station was transformed, with around £1billion spent. Domestic trains were removed from the trainshed to an extension at the north end, under a modern concrete roof, and the trainshed was dedicated to the international Eurostar services. New platforms were built, long enough for trains 300m long, linking to a new approach line which soars above the lines into Kings Cross before plunging into tunnels under east London, with a station at Stratford, close to the 2012 Olympic Park. Domestic high speed trains now serve Kent along HS1 from St Pancras at up to 140mph too, under the Olympic inspired ‘Javelin’ brand and with trains named after great British Olympians

The roof was fully refurbished, with 18,000 panes of self-cleaning glass. And the undercroft, in final proof of the brilliance of Barlow’s design, became the Eurostar departure and arrival halls, with Customs and passport control, and upmarket shopping and lounges to rival any airport. All accessed by escalators cut through the station floor – the piers designed around storing beer barrels are now, for the first time, visible to travellers.

And people queue to have their picture taken with John Betjeman, without whom this miracle would not have happened

Even better perhaps, the hotel has been restored, to be one of the  most magnificent and ornate in the world. The original hotel was turned into suites, with penthouses on the upper floors. A new block of hotel rooms was built, on the west side – a modern steel framed structure, but finished in proper northern red brick, and all 207 rooms now have bathrooms – very nice ones. The link to the station remains – passengers (and visitors) can wander freely through the hotel’s public areas, and the former booking office is now a restaurant, spilling onto the platforms.

The interior of the hotel has been restored to how Scott imagined it. Pictures can’t do it justice, but even so….

And, next time your niece turns 20, you can take her to the longest champagne bar in the world, overlooking the Eurostar platform. (Well, that was my excuse)

At the royal (re)opening of St Pancras International, the chairman of SNCF (French railways, and partners in the Eurostar consortium) described the new station as the finest in Europe. He wasn’t wrong; he was underselling the stunning transformation of two remarkable buildings.

It comes from the North. In case you forgot.