St Pancras Station is a combination of ingenious design and stylistic accomplishment. Find out about the challenges which faced engineers Barlow and Ordish in designing the building, and the background of architect George Gilbert Scott.
Before the 1860s the Midland Railway Company (MRC) had no direct line into London, routing its traffic via the London and North Western railway to Euston, and from 1858 via a route into Kings Cross station, operated by another rival, the Great Northern Railway. This latter arrangement allowed the MRC to build a goods depot on land north of the Regents Canal. Following disputes in 1862 the Midland Railway put to Parliament a bill for a route from its line at Bedford via Luton, St Albans and Hendon into St Pancras.
Image: Kellys Post Office Directory Map 1857 © Motco Enterprises Limited,www.motco.com
The site chosen by the MRC for its London terminus was unusually complicated. It was constrained on three sides; to the south by Euston Road which demarcated the southern most line at which new rail termini could be built (Metropolitan Railway Commissioners 1846) but which also had the Metropolitan Railway running beneath it; by the Regents Canal to the north; and by the River Fleet to the east. Furthermore the north approach to the site was occupied by a gas works and a burial ground.
Image: Stanfords Map of London 1862 © Motco Enterprises Limited,www.motco.com
To make way for the lines and Station large parts of the existing neighbourhoods of Somerstown and Agar Town were demolished. Agar Town, a small estate developed from 1840 to the north and east of Pancras Old Church had a reputation perpetuated by contemporary writers as being a squalid slum housing many poor, drunken Irish. Recent research, studying deeds, Vestry minutes, census and poor law records, suggests this has been exaggerated. However, falsely portrayed as a foul slum housing a depraved population Agar Town fell easy prey to the MRC, who without difficulty obtained Parliamentary powers and in 1868 demolished the area, leaving the inhabitants to find other accommodation wherever they could. Somerstown was known as an area where refugees settled and during the late 18th and early 19th centuries housed a large population of French Catholics who came there as refugees from the French Revolution.
St Pancras churchyard had been the primary burial ground for the whole of north London and by the 1840s was seriously overcrowded which led to dramatic expediencies in the use of available space. This included the group burial of paupers in mass graves and the multiple use of coffins. The burial grounds were closed in 1855 and all subsequent interments took place in the St Pancras Burial Board’s new parish cemetery at East Finchley, the first to be established under the Metropolitan Burials Act of 1852.
In order to construct the railway lines and station parts of the burial ground had to be cleared. Author and poet, Thomas Hardy, while a pupil architect, was delegated to ensure the exhumations were carried out with respect and later wrote, possibly about his experience, the poem The Levelled Churchyard 1881.
Image: Hardy’s Tree, Old St Pancras churchyard © HS1 Ltd
O Passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear.
‘I know not which I am!’
Running the line under the Regents Canal from ground level at Euston Road would have required a challenging gradient for a four mile stretch northwards out of the station and unsuitable levels for stations at Camden Road, Kentish Town and Haverstock Hill. Therefore the decision was taken to raise the platforms on a deck, some 12 feet to 17 feet higher than the adjoining roads.
As well as building a London Terminus the Midland Railway Company proposed to connect into the Metropolitan railway to gain access to markets south of London. This was called the St Pancras Branch and required a tunnel under the Regents Canal and the station itself.
A consequence of the elevated platform was the availability of a large space at ground level extending over the whole area beneath the station. The original intention was to fill this with material excavated from the tunnel but as the station was bounded by roads the space was deemed so valuable that it was devoted entirely to commercial purposes. This being the storage of Burton Beer, much admired in London for its lightness and taste and supplied in the main by Bass Brewery and Thomas Salt. Instead of building up an enormous embankment to support the platforms and roof an alternative structure was constructed, comprising columns and girders, with the distances between the columns the same as those of the beer warehouses.. This was serviced by a hydraulic lift at the north end of the train shed (now midway along platform 7-8). Barlow famously wrote that “…the length of a beer barrel became the unit of measure, upon which all the arrangements of this floor were based”.
Image: Hydraulic lift for the transfer of beer to the undercroft
The storage and distribution of ale under the station platforms continued right up until 1964 with the arrival of the last steam train from the Bass Brewery; the demise brought about by the transfer from rail to road distribution.
Image: Beer being stored within the undercroft © HS1 Ltd
The height of the platforms however posed problems for traffic accessing the station due to the angle of the slope from the adjoining roads. To minimise this impact Barlow brought the lines into the station at a gradient of 1:217 at the canal bridge and 1:440 along the platforms. The result of this is that the buffer stops were 3ft 3ins lower than they would have been if the tracks had been brought in level from the canal bridge. While it assisted passengers arriving by cab it was not helpful to train drivers who didn't apply the brakes soon enough and hit the buffers, 4 such incidents being recorded.
The configuration of the station and the hotel reflects the thinking of the day, in particular the arrangement of entrances, booking offices and hotel. The placement of the hotel transversely across the head of the station was first established at Paddington by Brunel and its implementation at St Pancras met the business objectives of MRC to have a hotel integral to the station. As a result of the elevated podium the station hotel towers over Euston Road, enhancing its vertical proportions which underpin its architectural character.
The competition to design the hotel was won by George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) the leading gothic architect of the time. Before working on St Pancras Station Scott had built and restored a large number of Churches and several Cathedrals, although he started his career as a leading designer of workhouses. His designs were based on a careful study of English Medieval Gothic architecture, and he was inspired by and worked with leading figures such as Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin. Another notable building by Scott is the Albert Memorial, completed in 1872.
Image: Portrait of Sir George Gilbert Scott © RIBA Collections
At St Pancras Scott infused gothic architectural influences from all over Europe to create a design which would suit the site’s particular constraints and opportunities. He took a particular interest in the detailing of the building, specifying the use of Gripper’s patent bricks from Nottingham, and hand drawing the designs for the column capitals himself.
The Booking hall, was a particularly grand feature of the Station, originally designed with a great braced roof lantern and linenfold panelling, though the roof was replaced with simpler structure following damage during both World War I and II. The panelling has survived and can still be seen in what is now the Booking Office Bar.
Image: The St Pancras Station Booking Office in 1900, showing the original roof © National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
William Henry Barlow (1812-1902) left school at 16 and commenced his engineering studies, first with his father and then as an engineering pupil at both Woolwich and London Docks. He sent time working in Turkey returning to England in 1838 where he joined the railways. From 1842 he was appointed Resident Engineer with the Midland Railway progressing to Consulting Engineer in 1857.
Image: Portrait of William Barlow © By Photograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was held in high esteem and was appointed to a Special Court of Enquiry investigating the failure of the Old Tay Bridge in December 1879. Following this he advised on the reconstruction of the Tay Bridge and recommended the construction of a new independent structure adjacent to the old.
In addition to his railway and bridge work, Barlow was consulted on a range of cases, including subsidence at Ely CathedralRowland Mason Ordish (1824-1886) was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire. He was the son of a land agent and surveyor and as a youth he worked in both engineering and architectural offices having great skill as a draughtsman with a creative approach to problem solving.
Ordish worked on and designed a number of significant buildings: Joseph Paxtons Hall for the Great Exhibition in 1851; Wastons Hotel in Mumbai (1867-69); Amsterdam Station (1863) with W.H LeFeuvre; Derby Market Hall (1866); Winter Garden, Leeds Infirmary with George Gilbert Scott (1868); Albert Bridge, London (1872).
He is described thus: Mr Ordish, was, as it were, born to his profession. With a marvellous feeling for strength and proportion in the materials he handled, he was a man of fertile resource, hardly ever repeating himself, and able to solve difficult engineering problems where no one else could see a way of doing so (Obituary The Engineer 17 September 1886).
With regard to St Pancras there can be no doubt that Ordish played a very important part of its design as indicated by Barlow in his paper to the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1870: For the details of the roof I am indebted to Mr Ordish, who practical knowledge and excellent suggestions enabled me, while adhering to the form, depth and general design, to effect many improvements in its construction.
Denford, Steven. 1995. Agar Town: The Life & Death of a Victorian ‘slum.’ Occasional Paper of the Camden History Society.
Emery, Philip & Wooldridge K. 2011. St Pancras Burial Ground. Excavations for St Pancras International, the London terminus of High Speed 1, 2002-3. Gifford / Museum of London Archaeology