London’s first railway terminus was Euston. In fact, as Dan Cruikshank noted, it was the first railway terminus in any capital city in the world, opening in 1837 as the London gateway for the London to Birmingham Railway. Its rapid growth, and long-lost Doric Arch were emblematic of the railway age and Victorian progress. The ticket hall and waiting room, the largest in the world and later remodelled by Lutyens, were wonderful statements of the age. As London and Britain grew and thrived, so did Euston.
All of which may come as a surprise to anyone who has felt the shrinking feeling of ascending the escalator into the giant, airless and seatless concourse that is Euston today. The station is one of London’s most charmless buildings and there is no less fitting starting point for Britain’s greatest train journey, the Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William. Only after escaping the low-slung depths of the platforms and emerging up the Camden Bank does this and other journeys emerge into natural light. So how did we get here?
The clues are dotted around Britain. When the first railways into London were built they were forbidden to proceed, with the exception of the cut and cover (and therefore sub-surface) route to Farringdon, to stretch any further than what was then New Road, known today as Euston Road. At this thoroughfare the London to Birmingham Railway terminated, with only two platforms, opened in July 1837. Victoria had been Queen for a month. Had she popped up to Euston to see the train she would have seen trains being pulled in and out of the station using cables, which were used in lieu of locomotives until 1844, at the request of nimbyish Lord Southampton.
The station grew quickly as railway mania took hold, and in 1849 the Great Hall was built. Photos show a grand, classical building with sweeping staircases reminiscent of Grand Central Station, if smaller. Already in place was the Doric Arch – strictly a propylaeum – marking the entrance to the station. In those days the station was located a little further north than it is today, cut off from Euston Road by Drummond Street. The statue of George Stephenson, inventor of the Rocket (if not steam trains themselves) survives on the concourse today.
So far, so jolly nice, and Euston was the first of a fine triumvirate of stations on Euston Road, joined by Kings Cross in 1852 and St Pancras in 1868. But Euston didn’t last. The station was deemed too small and too inflexible to accommodate passengers, and too old-fashioned to do very much with.
Interestingly, efforts centred on saving the Euston Arch rather than the station building, which even to enthusiasts was a lost cause, too small and obsolete and not conducive to expansion. I wonder if a way might have been found today. The voices would surely have been louder.There are echoes of Penn Station in New York. After the Second World War got in the way of attempts to replace it in the 1930s, it finally fell in 1960 despite the best efforts of Sir John Betjeman and a host of other campaigners, and a group of young architects who scaled the arch and draped it with a banner demanding it be saved. The Euston Arch Trust article (sterling work boys, by the way) notes that even the demolition company tearing down the arch piece by piece – it was in too densely populated and built up an area to blow up, or else they would have done that – offered to store it somewhere to enable later reconstruction. It was to no avail. Down the road, St Pancras was saved from the wrecking ball but Euston and its arch was the one that got away.
And that, it seems, is that. No wonder Mancunians and Scousers are so snippy about London if this is their first impression.
There are plans for a new station to come with the high-speed line to Birmingham and beyond, one which rights some of these wrongs and even brings back, if not the booking hall and other fine rooms, the Doric Arch, now only otherwise referenced by the station pub which sold good real ale last time I visited. Remarkably, it was in part the decision to grant east London the 2012 Olympic Games which gave the cause some hope. Once these chunks of Yorkshire stone were torn down they were, in the main, chucked into a section of canal known as Prescott Channel, a flood relief flue near Three Mills Lock at Bromley-by-Bow. Take a bike ride down there sometime. Other bits ended up in the gardens and even walls of houses of those who demolished it. The Euston Arch Trust takes up the story.
Nothing remains of old Euston station building, but you can see two of the lodges at the entrance to the bus station in front of today’s Euston. A happy, geeky hour can be passed thumbing through a few books in the London Transport Museum‘s shop which has more pictures of old Euston and its demolition. Maybe a better memorial for a long-lost station is to visit some of Britain’s very fine stations that didn’t get torn to pieces as the car put the skids on our train network. Birmingham Moor Street, Newcastle and Huddersfield, as well as St Pancras, would be good places to start. In fact, that’s a recipe for an interesting tour of Britain.
Stop also at York, with its very fine curving trainshed, and stroll to the National Railway Museum. Here, on your left as you enter the main hall where the Mallard and other great engines live, are the magnificent wrought iron gates which once adorned the Doric Arch itself. It’s a long way from London, but a fitting resting place for a relic of the bold start of London’s railways.