Published: 12 July, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
It would have put the new roof at Wimbledon to shame: a set of 15 tennis courts and a spectators’ gallery was planned for St Pancras train station, saving it from the wrecker’s ball.
This was one of the schemes drawn up by conservationists in 1968 when it seemed the station’s life as a terminus had come to an end, and is revealed in a new edition of a book by one of the greatest champions of listed St Pancras.
Rail historian Professor Jack Simmons, who died in 2000, wrote the definitive history of the Victorian masterpiece, St Pancras Station, when the future of the station and its attached hotel was still in doubt. His book became a key part of the battle to prevent the work of train shed designer William Barlow and hotel architect George Gilbert Scott from being demolished.
Despite being awarded listed status the year before, British Rail planned to divert traffic to Euston, Moorgate and King’s Cross.
A meeting chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace considered what the site could be used for once the last train had departed.
They proposed using the Barlow shed as an indoor tennis centre, or turning it into a museum of industrial archaeology.
But money spoke, and British Rail realised that diverting remaining services elsewhere wouldn’t make economic sense, and, although services were greatly reduced, the bottom line saved the rail services.
The book has been updated by historian and engineer Robert Thorne, who worked at the GLC (Greater London Council) in conservation and drew up a study of the King’s Cross Railway Lands for English Heritage. He met Jack when Mr Thorne was working on redeveloping Liverpool Street station in the 1980s.
“I knew he was the greatest railway historian of the time,” said Mr Thorne.
“I saw him in the Smirke Reading Room at the British Museum and so I told him I was a big admirer.”
Simmons did not earn his academic reputation at first through his study of industrial history; he was first known for his work on imperialism and colonial Africa.
But, as Mr Thorne explains, as well as telling the stories of the British abroad, he was equally interested in the minutiae of the social history of England.
In 1961, Professor Simmons wrote The Railways of Britain: An Historical Introduction, and later spent his retirement writing more on the same theme.
“He used artefacts and the landscape as evidence of the past,” said Mr Thorne.
“For railways it meant the physical evidence of locomotives, equipment, track and, above all, buildings. He was interested in topography and landscape, and he felt strongly that where railways were concerned, that its history had fallen into the hands of railway enthusiasts, and that it needed to be covered properly by mainstream historians.”
His book on St Pancras combined political, technical architectural and social history, pulling together threads to create a coherent picture of the building.
Mr Thorne’s firm Alan Baxter Associates worked on the first tranche of the hotel’s restoration, putting him in a unique position to continue the story that Mr Simmons left in 1968.
“It was deeply impractical as a modern building, because it was deeply impractical from day one,” he says of Scott’s soaring Gothic masterpiece.
“The layout wasn’t right – bedrooms lacked bathrooms, and there were other features that did not help.
“Long corridors meant housemaids had massive journeys to make to keep fireplaces stocked up with coal.”
The debate lasted 20 years after Professor Simmons’s book.
Mr Thorne describes how in June 1988 a Bill went before Parliament to make King’s Cross the terminus for the new Channel Tunnel.
Fosters Associates designed a station to be built beneath King’s Cross, reached by a tunnel from the south. But by 1992 this idea was dead, due to the high cost of the complicated engineering needed and the collapse in rental prices for offices – it had been envisaged the scheme would be paid for by property add-ons.
An alternative had been offered by Ove Arup’s engineering company, which would instead see a new line coming in from the east. With regenerating Docklands on the political agenda at the time, this seemed the likeliest solution.
Debates included whether it should be a purpose-built station in the King’s Cross Railway Lands – and whether it should use the semi-redundant St Pancras.
As Mr Thorne describes, “The hotel was still eking out an existence as railway offices, with some staff bedrooms in the garrets, thoughtlessly adapted to such uses.”
Eventually, St Pancras was given a new lease of life – and is again a celebrated landmark.
Mr Thorne writes: “The experience of leaving St Pancras, compared to the Gare du Nord or Brussels, is infinitely better. It is a wonderful space.”
• St Pancras Station. By Jack Simmons and Robert Thorne. Historical Publications, £22.50