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24 September 2014

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St Pancras International

You are in: London > Travel > St Pancras International > Here's one they made earlier...

St Pancras 1864

St Pancras 1864

Here's one they made earlier...

In mid-19th century London, it would be fair to say that St Pancras was not the most obvious spot to build a new railway station.

The parish was renowned for nothing more than its notorious slums, the church and a large graveyard. Topographical impediments included the Regent’s canal and a gas works.

But a new station was needed. The government, worried about the impact of so many stations already in the centre of London, decreed limits beyond which any new station had to be built. The location would have to be St Pancras.

The Midland Railway

The Midland Railway had been running services into London since 1840 and expanded services had led to chronic congestion and delays. In 1846 when Parliament approved the proposal of another route into London, the Great Northern Line, Midland Railway paid £20,000 for the rights to operate the service. Minds could now be concentrated on building the new station.

St Pancras 1865

St Pancras 1865

First, the site needed to be cleared. It was a brutal process. The landlords sold up and the dwellers were displaced for no compensation. The church was destroyed, although it was later re-erected piece by piece in Wanstead, East London where it still stands today. During the construction work, coffins and human remains from the graveyard would be frequently dug up.

Midland Railway's directors were determined to make their new station the best in London, but they knew it was going to be tough task. Impressive stations already existed at Euston, King's Cross, Brunel's Paddington and a single-span roof design was planned for Charing Cross. Something spectacular was needed.

William Barlow

William Henry Barlow was born in Charlton in 1812. The early years of his career as a civil engineer were spent working in Woolwich Dockyard’s machinery department, although he also ventured as far as Turkey to find work. In 1842, after he had already worked on the Manchester and Birmingham lines, he joined Midland Railway and rose to become their chief engineer.

St Pancras 1866

St Pancras 1866

Although Barlow was also responsible for sections of the new railway lines, it was the main terminal at the new St Pancras station that was to make his name. The Barlow train shed, measuring 698 feet in length, 240 feet wide and over 100 feet high, became the largest enclosed space in the world. The cast iron and glass roof would be the largest such structure in the world for the next 25 years.

Although the numbers are impressive, the inspiration for the design was rather more prosaic. A large single span roof was adopted to avoid the need for pillars, thereby making maximum use of the space to enable greater economic gain. To further enhance the profit potential, space was also left for a hotel at the front of the station.

Building Works

Construction started in 1864 with a temporary bridge over the canal, although work on the station's foundations would not begin for another two years. Progress was slow, due to the frequent digging up of human remains in the graveyard and was also interrupted by an outbreak of cholera. Despite the difficulties, St Pancras took 6,000 men, 1,000 horses and 100 steam cranes just four years to complete.

Because of a natural slope on the land, Barlow decided that trains should enter the station on the first floor, so 800 columns were erected to raise the train deck by 17 feet. This allowed the space below, the undercroft, to be rented out for storage – another revenue stream that could contribute to the costs of the station. Both beer and grain would be among the goods stored in the undercroft and legend has it that the columns were spaced exactly three beer barrels apart for this reason.

St Pancras 1900

St Pancras 1900

William Barlow's design genius did have limits. He originally painted the stunning single-span roof over the train deck in dark brown. However, this was overruled by Midland Railway's general manager, Sir James Allport, who demanded that it was re-painted a sky blue, to give the impression that the roof melted seamlessly into the sky.

The station itself cost £320,000 and the roof, which was tendered to a different firm, cost another £117,000. When the station opened for business on the 1st October 1888 there was no grand opening, perhaps because it was still unfinished. The first train to leave St Pancras, a service to Manchester, didn't make its first stop until it reached Leicester – at 97 miles it was the longest continual train run in the world.

The Hotel

The competition to design the hotel at the front of the station was won by George Gilbert Scott, an architect famed for being inspired by the gothic revival in Victorian buildings. Despite being the most expensive plan, Midland Railway's directors believed his grand design would help them to achieve their aim of having the greatest train station in London.

St Pancras Chambers

Gilbert Scott's hotel exterior, 2007

Work began on the Midland Grand Hotel in 1868 and the original cost of £315,000 quickly escalated. As a result, many ornamental finishes to the Hotel's exterior were left unfinished. To this day, visitors can see the empty plinths where statues were originally planned. Despite trimming costs, the final bill still rose to £438,000.

The first paying guests checked into the hotel on 5th May 1873 and the directors of Midland Railway finally had what they wanted: The grandest and most spectacular railway station in the country.

St Pancras International

Sadly, the 20th century did not prove to be kind to St Pancras. The Midland Grand Hotel, rundown and unprofitable, was closed in 1935 and the building, now renamed St Pancras Chambers, was used as office space.

St Pancras

St Pancras re-development 2007

Worse was to come. By the middle of the century it had been taken over by the nationalised British Railways, who announced plans in 1962 to demolish the building. This was met with great opposition, not least by the poet Sir John Betjeman who led a high-profile campaign to save Gilbert Scott's glorious design. Its future was only assured when it was given Grade 1-listed status in 1967.

British Railways moved out in 1985 and St Pancras Chambers fell vacant. Since then it has become more accustomed to film stars and singers, than to welcoming hotel guests or trains. It's now a popular location for film and TV productions including Harry Potter, Batman Begins and the first Spice Girls video.

In 1996, it was announced that St Pancras would be re-developed to become the home of the new high-speed Eurostar service and that St Pancras Chambers would be restored as a new 5-star hotel. More than a decade later those plans are finally coming to fruition.

St Pancras

Sir John Betjeman by artist Martin Jennings

A statue of Sir John Betjeman will stand on a platform at the £800m St Pancras International in recognition of his campaign to save the building. For William Barlow and George Gilbert Scott, however, it is the new station itself that is their lasting legacy.

last updated: 25/10/07

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