St Pancras Station was opened in 1868 and is one of the wonders of Victorian engineering. Along with the former Midland Grand Hotel, it is a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic Architecture and one of the most elegant stations in the World. It has recently been refurbished to accommodate international train services; its history is a remarkable tale of decay, restoration and spectacular rebirth.
In these history pages you can find out why the Victorians chose this design for the station and how they built it. You can also learn about how the station was restored and transformed to become the new arrival point for Eurostar services, and how the surrounding area has become one of London’s newest destinations.
St Pancras Station was built by the Midland Railway Company (MRC) to connect London with some of England’s major cities. It was intended to make a grand statement about the Company with a display of physical magnificence. To assist them in this they appointed engineers William Henry Barlow, chief engineer (MRC) and Roland Mason Ordish who were responsible for the train shed and the overall layout of the site; and George Gilbert Scott, as architect for the hotel and station accommodation which was completed in 1876.
The train station design is a unique response to its geographic context but also reflects thinking of the day in respect of station design and operation; the platform deck was raised up on a grid of 688 cast-iron columns in order to allow steam engines to pass over the Regent’s canal just to the north. The space underneath, now called the Arcade, was designed and used to store beer produced by Burton Brewers, notably Bass and Thomas Salt.
Image: 1907 © National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
The roof is made up of a series of wrought iron ribs resulting in a space 100ft high, 240ft wide and 700ft long. It was the largest single spanned roof in the world when first built, and its design was copied across the world, including at Grand Central Station in New York. The roof trusses form a pointed arch which is complemented beautifully by the architecture of the hotel.
Image: The south elevation before the completion of the Midland Grand Hotel, 1868 © National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
The construction of the station itself was a huge undertaking. A large area of housing in Agar Town and Somers Town was cleared to make way for the new line and station. To the north St Pancras Church burial ground was partially cleared.
Image: Stanfords Map of London 1862 © Motco Enterprises Limited, www.motco.com
In the 19th century St Pancras was one of the most important gateways into London. On opening it provided services to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bradford and from 1876 the station offered services all the way up to Edinburgh. In June 1874 the first Pullman service in the UK with restaurant car and sleeping accommodation, left the station, running initially to Bedford and by 1878 all the way to Wick at the northern tip of Scotland. This was the first time ever that meals were served to passengers on a train.
Image: Midland Railway poster, 1900 © NRM Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Library
Throughout its history freight traffic was very important particularly goods and minerals. In 1862 the Midland Railway brought in 800,000 tons of coal, nearly 18% of the Capital’s total consumption. In addition to this, once St Pancras was built three beer trains a day from Burton on Trent came into the station with more in the brewing season. The wagons were lowered from platform level by hydraulic lift, on to tracks and through an ‘ale run’ into the main storage area of the undercroft. Other commodities brought to the capital were milk, fish and potatoes.
(See the timeline to hear about the rush to get milk to the station at Millers Dale in Derbyshire – about 160 miles from London – in the morning to meet the train to St Pancras; see Millers Dale as it was then and what it looks like now where it is an important stop on the Monsal Trail.)
Image: Milk being unloaded at Somers Town Dock, 1890 © National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
The herald of change for St Pancras came with the First World War. On the night of February 17th 1918 five bombs were dropped on or near the station and hotel. One fell on Midland Road, two on the forecourt and one on the western tower. None of these caused any casualties, but the fifth bomb fell on the glass covered cab road beside the booking office and killed twenty people, injuring a further thirty three. This was the greatest number of casualties suffered in any air raid on a London station during the war. The train services within the station were unaffected, however the roof to the Booking Office was lost and replaced by a plainer ceiling.
The war ended with the railway system very run down and a suggestion was made by the London Society in 1921 that St Pancras be closed. This came to nothing but what did happen was that, under the Railways Act 1921 four mainline railway companies were established and the Midland Railway passed under the control of the London Midland & Scottish Company (LM&S).
Image: The replacement Booking Hall roof under construction, supported by Belfast Trusses
The Hotel, once the talk of London when it opened in 1876, declined and finally closed in 1935. It was used thereafter as offices by the LM&S.
The Second World War intensified the changes brought about by the First World War. The station was damaged in many more air raids and its traffic was seriously dislocated. During the worst raid, in May 1941, 5 bombs fell on the station, one of them causing serious damage as it penetrated through the platform and the floor to the undercroft and exploded against the side wall of the tunnel connecting into the Metropolitan railway.
Image: Bomb damage to the trainshed following an air raid in 1941 © National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
After the war the station faced an uncertain future as road transport took over. In 1948 the LM&S was nationalised as part of the British Railway, and various plans to amalgamate the north London Stations – Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross became a real possibility.
In 1966 proposals to demolish both Kings Cross and St Pancras were put forward by British Rail. However, following the public response from figures such as architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner and poet John Betjeman, the station was listed Grade I in November 1967.
Following the listing of the station train services continued, and were even expanded in the 1980s through the establishment of Thameslink - a revival of the service from the Midland Main Line through the tunnel under the hotel and into the Metropolitan Railway. The hotel continued as office use until 1985 when it was declared unsafe due to its lack of fire escapes, and vacated.
A bright new future for the station emerged in 1993 when the Government decided to plan a high speed route for Channel Tunnel trains running from Dover to London via Stratford, and ending at St Pancras.
In order to convert the station for use by modern international trains the station had to be doubled in length, and an additional 6 new platforms were needed to serve both international and domestic trains at the same time. [image 70 aerial photo] To preserve Scott and Barlow’s original design a wholly separate extension was constructed in concrete, glass and steel. Perhaps the greatest change to the historic station was the reuse of the beer storage areas for station facilities. A series of light wells were cut through the platform deck into the undercroft to create a wonderful new space from which customers can now view the roof in all its glory.
Image: The newly restored trainshed © HS1 Ltd
The renewal of the Station took three years, from 2004 – 2007, and followed a rigorous and painstaking and process of conservation. The original designs for the station were examined at the National Archives at Kew and the original sources of brick and stone were identified for repair work.
The newly restored Station was opened by the Queen on 6th November 2007 at an opening concert performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.