Saturday , April 13 2024
An odd little book, mostly an architectural history, but with some great snippets of social anecdote about one of the great train stations of Europe.

Book Review: St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley

You might describe my reading interests as catholic (very definitely with a small “C”): I read history, science, politics, philosophy, and bits of fiction. I would have given you good money that railway station architecture was not particularly likely to feature on my reading list, but I’d have lost that money.

When I saw a little paperback entitled St Pancras’s Station in the lovely, small but select branch of Foyles that’s opened since the London international terminus’s refurbishment, I couldn’t resist. After all, I only live five minutes away and walk through the station several times a week. Although had I known how much there was about those roofing struts I might not have done – and that would have been a pity.

For although this is an odd little book — mostly an architectural history, something that isn’t terribly evident from the book’s furniture — there’s a huge number of fascinating snippets in this – and even those supporting struts are interesting.

The largest section, and the least involving, focuses on George Gilbert Scott, the architect of the great neo-Gothic frontage on the Euston Road that was built as the Midland Grand Hotel. He also built the Albert Memorial and was responsible for huge numbers of church and cathedral restorations. He was, on this account, hyperactive, arrogant, greedy, bewhiskered – the perfect Victorian male. (And his architecture to my mind doesn’t have a lot to recommend it, although St Pancras is far from the worst of it.)

Things warm up when you get to the train shed chapter, which begins by roaming across the history of this entirely new form of architecture and social space (before this the only vaguely comparable place was a coaching inn, a very different beast) – with many of the examples being within a stone’s throw of St Pancras, for easy comparison. Euston’s “ridge-and-furrow” shed was, Bradley tells us, “essentially a lightweight translation of a timber-framed system developed for greenhouses”, the prevailing type in the 1840s. “Thought readily extendable, their numerous uprights hindered flexible use of space, and their limited height coped poorly with smoke and steam generated by increasingly frequent and powerful trains.”

The French stuck with this system (pah, I was thinking when walking recently through Gare de Lyon – very basic), but just next door to St Pancras in King’s Cross (1852), the British started using “giant arched roofs, of which St Pancras is the culmination”. King’s Cross has two such arches, separated by a near-solid brick span wall.

But at St Pancras the engineer Barlow began by asking what he wanted and what problems he had to solve – and the design came from that, a very different approach to that of architects. The station had to be raised 6 metres above the streets around (because the trains had to cross the Regent’s Canal just to the north). He had to supply a sheltered enclosure covering the full width of the site, and leave space for the hotel at the southern end. He contemplated two arches, as at King’s Cross, but saw the advantages (much to the thrill of the recent redevelopers) of having a flexible single space, but no one had ever built such a wide span before.

The answer as to how to achieve it came oddly from the foundations, not the roof structure – and from a commercial possibility:

“There was growing demand in London for the fine ales of Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire… The soft water and improved brewing techniques there allowed the production of a clear and stable brew very different from the capital’s darker and cloudier stouts and porters, a change in taste that also contributed to the slow disappearance of pewter tankards from pubs in favour of drinking glasses…the huge void beneath the new station platforms, with its deep plan and stable temperature, was ideal for the purpose… to exploit the basement space to the maximum, Barlow therefore dispensed with the normal mid-Victorian structural system of brick piers and arches in favour of even ranks of some 800 uniform cast-iron columns… the spacing of just over 14 feet apart was calculated to match the plans of the beer warehouses of Burton -upon-Trent, where the same figure derived from a multiple of the standard local cask.”

This passage is Bradley at his best – and most interesting (and most relevant – when you’re leaving or joining the Eurostar now you’ll walk through that forest of columns). When he gets into the detail of the subject, the story really comes alive.

He’s also very good on the hotel – a structure spectacular if sad (it lasted in its originally form only until 1935 and was then tricked out inadequately and rather pointlessly as offices, until fire regulations finally closed it down). There’s a smattering of social history – the way the best rooms had furniture of oak or walnut, the second best oak or teak, the third mahogany, the fourth ash (with prices graded accordingly).

And Bradley explains the way that bills were incremental – and sneaky. To have a bath (with water and a hip-bath carried to your room) commonly cost 2 shillings. There was an “attendance charge” for the maid and the waiter at dinner (a shilling) and six pence to the boot black. Candles were a shillings and six pence, and a fire in the grate (no central heating) also cost extra. This, the writer explains, “contributed to the immediate success of Frederick Gordon’s new mid-priced hotels of the 1880s… where all-in bills were the custom from the outset”.

Bradley finds that accounts of the life of the large staff are thin on the ground, although PW Smith, who started at age 15 as a page in 1898 wrote a memoir, including a report on the tip he earned by demonstrating the new revolving door to the satisfaction of the local fire officer. And a report from the contemporary 1931 Railway Magazine of the porter at Leeds station identified as speaking seven languages “including Arabic and Hindi”, who was “promptly reassigned to the new Continental enquiry bureau at St Pancras”. And there’s an oral account of the tragedy of 17 February 1918, when 20 people sheltering near the departure arch were killed by a single bomb.

So if you’re a regular, or even one-off, visitor to St Pancras station, this really is a must-read – something that will allow you to look at this magnificent structure with new eyes. And please buy it there if can you, not just for the fittingness of it – I want to make sure that the shop stays open, since it’s now my local book shop. You can secure there your very own “signed by the author copy” – in fact when I bought it that was all you could buy. (Quite why there’s this current fashion I really don’t know – I thought Caxton solved the problem of identifying the author of a text with that thing called printing several centuries ago. But they might have unsigned ones by now…)

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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