The history of London St Pancras International station

St Pancras is a 19th century station that delivers a 21st century regional, intercity, continental and high speed railway to London

Owned by HS1 Limited and managed by Network Rail, today it is a key London interchange and the very definition of a ‘destination station’.

engineering drawing of St Pancras station roof

A new grand terminus for London

By the mid 19th century, the Midland Railway was hurting from agreements entered into with the Great Northern Railway that enabled it to reach London with goods and passenger traffic. They wished to extend its line from Bedford to London in order to compete with the London & North Western and Great Northern railway companies for the Yorkshire railway traffic. St Pancras was to be a suitably grand terminus for their rail services.

The station was designed and constructed in two parts; the train shed and the hotel frontage. William Henry Barlow, the Midland’s consultant engineer, designed the extension route and station layout, including the single span arched train shed constructed of iron and glass. At 243ft by 110ft high at its apex, it was at the time the largest ironwork structure of its kind. As the 6 platforms were tied to the ribs, the train shed area was clear and spacious compared to other termini, making the structure much more flexible and allowing for future changes.

Barrels of beer

As the line had to bridge the Regents Canal to the north of the station, the platforms at St Pancras were built at a high level which made it much more imposing than its Euston Road neighbours. Resting on 850 cast iron pillars, this gave the station space underneath for storage of goods. The distance between the columns was measured using one of the Midland Railway’s most lucrative goods traffic; barrels of beer from Burton on Trent.

Victorian Gothic

In 1865, a competition was held to design the front façade of the station including a new hotel. George Gilbert Scott, the most celebrated gothic architect of his day, won the competition even though his design was larger than the rules allowed. Construction of the hotel started in 1868 however the economic downturn of the late 1860s meant that the hotel, named the Midland Grand, was only completed in 1876. Striking and self confident, the station and hotel completely dominated its Great Northern neighbours.

The station’s decline

In 1923 St Pancras was transferred to the management of the London Midland & Scottish Railway; the LMS focused its activities on Euston, and so began the decline of St Pancras over the next 60 years. In 1935 the Midland Grand was closed as a hotel due to falling bookings and profit, blamed on the lack of en suite facilities in the bedrooms. It was used instead as office accommodation for railway staff and renamed St Pancras Chambers.

During WWII, the station played an important role for troops departing for war and children being evacuated from London. Although the station was hit hard during the blitz, there was only superficial damage and the station was quickly up and running.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the decline of St Pancras continued and British Railways tried to close and demolish the station a number of times. John Betjeman spearheaded a campaign to save the station and hotel, and in November 1967 was successful in getting the buildings declared Grade 1 listed just days before demolition was due to begin.

Although the buildings were saved, their decline was allowed to continue; the hotel building was mothballed in 1985 and the train shed roof fell into a state of serious disrepair.

A destination station

The 1990s saw the start of St Pancras’ revival. The Channel Tunnel opened in May 1994, but high speed trains were only able to reach their maximum speeds on the French side of the Channel. In 1996 Government passed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act authorising the construction of a high speed line from the tunnel to a redeveloped St Pancras International.

In consultation with English Heritage and with painstaking reference to original detail, Barlow’s original train shed roof was restored to its Victorian glory with 18k panes of self cleaning glass, 300k welsh slates and the iron girders stripped and repainted in their original pale blue. New oak doors for the main entrances were made, the brass furniture copied exactly from original drawings.

To extend platforms to accept Eurostar trains, an additional train shed to the rear of Barlow’s original was designed by Foster & Partners. The west wall of the station was rebuilt using 16 million bricks manufactured identically to the original. New public works of art include the statue of the station’s saviour John Betjeman and the 30ft tall bronze sculpture ‘The Meeting Place’, positioned under the station clock.

Opening up the station undercroft allowed developers to let in the light from the roof and the building to be seen from the new Eurostar check-in lounge, shops, restaurants and food halls, created in the space Barlow had originally designed for beer barrels.

The new St Pancras International station was officially opened on in November 2007 with Eurostar and East Midland services, and with Thameslink services joining that December. At the end of 2009 high speed domestic services began between St Pancras and Kent. In 2012 this high speed line transports spectators to the London Olympic Park at Stratford International in just seven minutes.

Did you know?

The construction of the line and station at St Pancras required the demolition and clearance of many properties, including the old St Pancras burial ground. A young Thomas Hardy, before finding fame as an author was employed to oversee the excavation and re-internment of the bodies.

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London St Pancras International station