By Christopher Howse
In Cousin Chatterbox’s Railway Alphabet it says: “A is the Arch, which you see when you start,/ That people pass under before they depart.” That was in 1845, seven years after the completion of the Doric arch (technically a propylaeum, we must concede) at Euston, shown in the picture accompanying this learning-tool for up-to-date children of the steam age. The 72ft Euston Arch was “the first example in the world of a railway company showing off”, says Christian Wolmar in his friendly survey of London’s railway termini.
In all, the capital has 598 stations and its dozen termini outnumber those of any city in the world. It implies a lot of changing trains. The Euston Arch cost £35,000 to build, to the bold classical design of Philip Hardwick, and it cost perhaps £12,000 to demolish in 1962. From a symbol of the triumph of steam, it became an emblem of the decline of rail travel into decay, desertion and destruction. It fell, despite the efforts of John Betjeman united with his sparring partner Nikolaus Pevsner. Harold Macmillan, the prime minister (himself a director of the Great Western Railway) was blamed. Demolition made way for “an unlovable terminus with not a single feature of architectural merit” in Wolmar’s view, and no seats for waiting passengers.
A worse loss at Euston was the Great Hall, built just over a decade after the Arch to designs by Hardwick’s son, as a booking office and waiting room. “Few other English buildings could offer anything to match the deeply coffered ceiling of the Great Hall,” wrote Alan Jackson in London’s Termini (1969). Double staircases led to the platforms. But like the Arch, it was in the wrong place to allow for the extension of platforms. As Samuel Sidney remarked in Rides on Railways, in 1854: “What London is to the world, Euston is to Great Britain.” That became a problem in the 20th century when property developers lost a metropolitan grandeur of vision and began exploiting the “air rights” allowing office blocks to be crammed above railway sites.
Not that the Victorians were sentimental about the coming and going of railway stations, before the cathedral termini blossomed. The second London Bridge station, built in 1844 by William Cubitt, was in a pleasing Italianate style (resembling Osborne House, built for Queen Victoria by his brother Thomas Cubitt) with a Florentine campanile not completed before the whole thing was pulled down for a new building in 1849. Queen Victoria made early use of soon superseded termini such as Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road or Bishop’s Bridge, near Paddington, from which she so disliked the speed of the train to Slough (for Windsor) at 44mph that she had a bell fitted to the royal carriage to signal to the driver to slow down.
It had taken a few years to understand that passengers wanted somewhere to gather or buy newspapers and oranges. When the London and Greenwich railway opened in 1836 there had been no shelter at all at the start of the railway’s elevated viaduct of 878 arches at London Bridge. Out of pity, the company directors spent £27 10 shillings on tarred canvas (an old sail) to serve as a storm shelter. Wolmar is good at deploying details that prevent his introduction to London termini becoming a generalised essay. It’s interesting to learn the price of a ticket from London to Birmingham when the railway opened in 1838: first class £1 10s (about £125 today); second class £1 (£83). Second class had no cover from wind and rain for the five-hour journey at 22mph. As Trollope and Surtees remind us, hunting men could send their mounts to the meet, at a cost of £2 10s (£208 now) on the London and Birmingham. The Victorians also tried out the equivalent of Motorail by allowing passengers with carriages to put them on flatbed wagons. Wolmar does not give the fare, but I think it was £3 15s (£315 today) for a four-wheeler. Competition brought fares down, but conveyance of carriages dwindled.
Seen as cathedral architecture, King’s Cross (opened 1854) has a Germanic Romanesque air and St Pancras (1868) a stupendous Gothic spaciousness to its single-span train shed, and a Gormenghast fantasy in Gilbert Scott’s hotel frontage. Paddington (1854), the most cathedral-like of all, though lacking a grand facade, boasts three iron spans, like a nave and aisles, with transepts running sideways, originally intended to allow for traversers – mechanisms for transferring locomotives from track to track. The paradox of the Victorians constructing the latest technology in the idiom of the Middle Ages has been often remarked. But Paddington was influenced even more by the iron structure of the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the 20th century, Neo-Gothic fell into disrepute and Victorian buildings were prey to demolition and redevelopment. Betjeman’s favourite terminus “cathedral” at Charing Cross, with its “enormous curved roof almost 100ft above the rails” was destroyed in favour of office development behind a tawdry post-Modern façade.
You’d have to have some idea what the stations are like before enjoying Wolmar’s book, but it fills that hard-to-find function of a book to get into a subject. Perhaps his next volume will be the termini at the other ends of the lines. On a mantelpiece at home is a lump of broken stone that I retrieved in 1983 by climbing over the hoarding of the demolition site of Broad Street station. They had planned to knock down neighbouring Liverpool Street, too, so we got off lightly. Like St Pancras and dear old Marylebone (resembling for Betjeman “a branch library in a Manchester suburb”) the survivors are cleaned of their London soot and kept in trim by a constant flow of passengers – outside lockdowns. Wolmar’s tutelary spirit, Betjeman, wrote a book on London termini in 1972, when they were in danger from a spiral of degradation. Now, even with the planned demolition of the current unloved Euston, there is light at the end of the train shed.