London, England; Part II: The Ghosts of Old St Pancras

“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’

Thomas Hardy
The Levelled Churchyard

The unsettled, restless silence around the old station is apt: conflicts run right to the heart of the ancient parish of Saint Pancras.

Arguably among the first places in England to be so brutally subjected to what we now know as ‘the tyranny of the new‘, the case of St. Pancras’ Old Church, its graveyard, and the International railway station that now bears its name is complicated by the fast pace of change, and rapidly-changing enemies. And by the ghosts that haunt the site itself.

… pitying Heav’n diffused a saving ray
And heathen darkness changed to Christian day…

The Borough of St Pancras takes its name from the tiny church whose origins as a place of Christian worship predate most others in Europe. The witness of so many changes in English history, the site is widely reputed to have been host to a Church of some form since the 4th Century AD. A little information post on a Victorian fence outside the Church relates that

“The church has stood here through good times and bad: it was ruinous in the 13th Century, rebuilt in the 14th Century, half abandoned in the 16th Century, restored in the 17th Century and again substantially rebuilt in the mid 19th Century…”

It was in the mid-1800s that the Church became a focus of a community once more, as waves of workers flocked to a booming, rapidly expanding London to aid the construction of the Regent’s Canal in the 1820s, the Imperial Company Gasworks in 1822, and the railways from the 1830s onwards. The Church itself was soon subsumed in the new urban sprawl, and the graveyard was, like so many others in London at that time, so full that it was closed in 1854. The dead of the parish were from then on transferred to the vast new municipal facilities on the then-outskirts of London (the focus of tomorrow’s final part in the series). In the years that followed, and in the first example of imposed ‘newness’ in the area, the Church itself was ‘improved’ according to standards of the time: improvements that took many years to rectify.

Although it was only recently closed, the agéd church was not immune from the rapid and amoral forces of change that were sweeping across London, itself now the administrative and culturally dominant centre of a rapidly expanding Empire. The Midland Railway had declared an interest in the site for the purposes of a huge and grand new London terminus for their venture. A public outcry rang out in vain: the project went ahead. Seven thousand of those interred in the graveyards of St Pancras Old Church, and neighbouring St. Giles-in-the-Fields, were unceremoniously removed and were equally unceremoniously reinterred in a deep burial pit underneath the railway. Poet Thomas Hardy, then an architecture student in Covent Garden, was in charge of the disinterrment of the bodies, and penned the verses above about the trauma of relocating so many bodies in so little time, and in such an unceremonious manner. A tree in the garden, around which tombstones from neighbouring St. Giles were piled, bears his name.

This fascinating series of images, courtesy of the National Railway Museum, aptly demonstrates the devastation of the local area that the new-fangled railway caused:

Here, where once there were ‘permanent resting places’, beer cellars take shape. An apt depiction of the consequences of progress.

Paradoxically, what it also demonstrates is one of the very best attributes of Victorian England. St Pancras was and is physical evidence of the scale of the Victorians’ unwavering ambition and dedication to an awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and enduring built legacy.

Out of the mist, St. Pancras rises.

The Midland Railway was determined to make its mark on London’s rising skyline, and in particular, provide an ambitious rival to neighbouring Euston and King’s Cross. William Barlow’s single-span arched roof, which at 243 feet high was the largest unsupported single-span arch in the world at the time, proved the answer. A competition was held to decide who would provide a suitably impressive frontage to the station, which was won by George Gilbert Scott, whose winning entry, was a breathtaking design grounded in the polychromatic Italian Gothic style. Initially estimated to cost £315,000, the winning contractor acquired the contract at £320,000, the building eventually cost £438,000.

Whilst St. Pancras stood as the most impressive railway station of its time, and as a physical embodiment of the glory years of Victorian England and the heydays of the railway, the 20th Century was a struggle for the station. After the railway grouping of 1923, the station’s forebearers at Euston and King’s Cross seized the initiative as the key hubs of their respective companies. By 1935, the Midland Grand Hotel was near-abandoned. Despite the Hotel miraculously avoiding serious damage in the Blitz, Barlow’s roof suffered damage that was not properly repaired until after the new millennium.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, it was only inevitable that the needlessly and wantonly destructive authorities of the time had earmarked St. Pancras for a radical revamp. Plans were supposedly afoot at one point to turn Barlow’s magnificent shed into a sports centre or conference centre. (A fate later suffered by the Midland Railway’s very similar Manchester terminus.) Worse still, Scott’s Hotel was almost certain to be demolished. Many proponents of change argued that a better use for railway land would, ironically, be as housing. Fate it seemed, was not without a sense of humour: the wave of change was to wreak similar devastation on the structure that had decimated the old burying ground.

Until the entrance of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and Sir John Betjeman’s Victorian Society, that is. Betjeman’s bluster, affable public persona, and above all his gift of language, was inspiring, as he conjured an image of the old station as “that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of the train shed, gaping to devour the incoming engines”. Their tireless work and persuasion of a growing pro-Victorian lobby, and a growing public affection for such buildings, resulted in St. Pancras being granted Grade I status in November 1967. However, unsatisfied with this outcome, time continued to be unkind to the station. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the station seemed a sad microcosm of a wider decay of Britain itself.

However, the station and the area was to feel the sharp double-edged sword of progress once more. As a North London Eurostar terminus became increasingly desirable to support the booming City of London, St Pancras came to be viewed as the logical terminus for substantial renovation and restoration. Much rejoicing ensued, and relief was expressed that St. Pancras might finally live up to its original intention: as a beacon of beauty and of British ingenuity at the end, or the outset, of a long journey.

But it came at a price.

To accommodate the new and extravagantly long Eurostar trains, some of the platforms would have to be lengthened, and the only place they could intrude into was… the churchyard. Another 83 persons would have to be exhumed before the extension work could go on, though this time, under much improved circumstances.

These days, the counterpoint between progress and the ancient has probably never been more confused in St. Pancras. The station itself is a monumentally beautiful undertaking, the scale of which has to be seen with the eyes to be believed…

… and it is now possible to see that we have been handed a legacy that harks back to the ambition and sophisticated glamour of the Victorian age that translates perfectly into a contemporary context. Here, progress and the ancient combine seamlessly.

But in the little old graveyard, there is an unsettling sense of amputation. Aerial photos of the site demonstrate that amply: see the stunted little churchyard next to the church at the bottom of this picture. Even on a first visit, there is a sense that there is space deprived, space that has been unceremoniously removed and denied.

Removed and compiled headstones in a corner of St Pancras Old Church gardens.

The dead of St Pancras, so often disturbed, could not possibly have imagined the sort of spectacle that their tiny parish would be witness to over the course of the 150 years after their deaths. Modern visitors cannot possibly quantify the turmoil and change that the parish has seen. It is in this compromise, and the jarring contrast between permanent resting place and place of constant movement and travel, that St Pancras has found its identity.

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About Byrnsweord

I am an Englishman. Constantly striving for the truth and to conserve what is good about England. You can find my on flickr at http://www.flickr.com/people/byrnsweord/ my blog over at byrnsweord.wordpress.com/ and my Twitter account at twitter.com/byrnsweord Byrnsweord is min nama.
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One Response to London, England; Part II: The Ghosts of Old St Pancras

  1. The idea that the dead are overlooked and the victims of progress is a rich one. London is still busy clearing its vaults and burial grounds, and exhaustive analysis of the remains is the only justification for the loss of the precious presence of the dead in our midst (Q: how many ricketty skellingtons do we need?). St Pancras churchyard is a multi-layered place (rather like ‘Hardy’s Tree’) which abuts the C21 shiny tracks – a juxtaposition which doesn’t negate the allure of a once-remote churchyard. I’m doing a walk around the tombs on Saturday May 11th at 5, if anyone is interested! Thanks for your interesting piece – RHB

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