Euston Arch

On Monday, Sir David Higgins, produced his review of the high-speed train project, HS2, which included the ambitious proposal to completely rebuild Euston railway station in London, and at the same time maximising the commercial opportunities. The original redevelopment plans for the station had been downgraded last year, but in February this year, Chancellor George Osborne came out in favour of the complete redevelopment of the station and surrounding area which would lead to the creation of more jobs, and more houses being built.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin in responding to the Higgins report agreed, saying that he will ask HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to work up ‘more comprehensive proposals for the development of Euston’, but added that ‘this work should include proposals for the Euston arch which should never have been knocked down and which I would like to see rebuilt’.

What was the Euston Arch?

Euston Station, when it opened on 20 July 1837 as the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, was the first mainline terminus station in a capital city anywhere in the world. The architect was Philip Hardwick, who worked with structural engineer Charles Fox. Although at first the station only had two platforms, one for departures and one for arrivals, the directors of the railway thought that:

The Entrance to the London Passenger Station opening immediately upon what will necessarily become the Grand Avenue for travelling between the Metropolis and the midland and northern parts of the Kingdom … should receive some architectural embellishment. They adopted accordingly a design of Mr Hardwick’s for a grand but simple portico, which they considered well adapted to the national character of the undertaking.

The construction of the London & Birmingham Railway was the subject of many paintings by John Cooke Bourne. This one of the Euston Arch likely dates from 1938 not long after the arch was completed. The arch was not admired by everyone in its early years. Augustus Pugin, designer of the new Palace of Westminster, said in 1843 that it was ‘a Brobdignaggian absurdity’, and a guide to the Great Exhibition in 1951 described it as ‘gigantic and very absurd’. Courtesy of EAT

Hardwick’s arch, completed in May 1837 at a cost of £35,000, was huge, 70 feet high, and was the first great building of the railway age. It was built using Yorkshire gritstone, in the Doric style with the arch also supported by four 8 foot 6 inch-diameter columns and four piers, with bronze gates placed behind them. Gatehouses were also built on either side. The arch, which architects would call a propylaeum (‘the entrance before the gate’ to a sacred place in Ancient Greece), complemented the Ionic entrance, which still stands, to the Curzon Street Station in Birmingham at the other end of the new railway line.

The Great Hall in Euston Station completed in 1846, served as a very grand waiting room. This photo was taken in 1960 and being a Sunday there are relatively few people around. The staircase leads to the gallery and shareholders’ room, past the 1852 statue of George Stephenson. Tickets were bought from hatches in nearby passageways.
© Ben Brooksbank/Creative Commons Licence

In 1849, in order to cope with the increasing number of passengers, Hardwick’s son, Philip Charles Hardwick designed a magnificent waiting room, the Great Hall. This was built in the Italianate Renaissance style, and was 126 feet long, 61 feet wide and 64 feet high, with a coffered ceiling and a sweeping double flight of stairs leading to offices at the northern end of the hall.

The early station was set a long way back from Euston Road and the arch faced Drummond Street that ran east-west through the area, though only the western end of the street going towards Hampstead Road remains today. For many years there was nothing on the arch to say that it was the entrance to the station, but in 1870 the London and North Western Railway Company inscribed ‘EUSTON’ on the architrave in letters of gold. A road was also created for the first time from Euston Road to the portico.

By the end of the 1950s, the station was considered to be poorly located and impracticably small, and at odds with the British Transport Commission’s (BTC) plans to upgrade and electrify the main line between Euston and Scotland as part of its Modernisation Programme. In January 1960 the BTC served notice on London County Council (LCC) as planning authority that it intended to demolish the entire station, including the arch and the Great Hall, which were both Grade II listed buildings. To allow for longer platforms and a  much larger station concourse, the station was to be extended southwards over Drummond Street and Euston Square towards Euston Road. This led to an almost two-year long battle to save the Great Hall and the arch.

Euston Arch in 1960 at about the time when the British Transport Commission announced its intention to demolish the whole of Euston Station, including the Arch and the Great Hall.

The imminent demolition sparked a preservation protest in which the Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt, John Betjeman, vice-chairman of the Victorian Society, and Nikolaus Pevsner of The Architectural Review, figured prominently, as well as many conservation and historical bodies. It also prompted a wider debate about the modernisation of central London. There was considerable resistance and time wasting by government departments, but this ended with the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples in July 1961 confirming that he had given approval to the early reconstruction of Euston station adding:

The possibility of moving the Doric arch to another part of the site has also been examined by the [BTC] and by the expert advisers to the Minister of Works. They estimate that the cost of dismantling and re-erecting the arch alone without its flanking lodges, would be about £190,000, compared with £12,000 for simple demolition. The arch weighs about 4,500 tons, and to brace it and remove it on rollers would cost even more.

The Victorian Society attempted to raise money to pay for the relocation of the arch, and pleaded for a stay of execution for the arch until this had been done. A Canadian firm, Nicholas Brothers, had offered to move the portico on rollers to a site 200 yards nearer the Euston Road. On 24 October 1961, a group of campaigners including J M Richards, the editor of The Architectural Review, went to see Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister, to plead for the preservation of the arch, arguing that if it really had to be moved, that it should be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. As J M Richards recalled, ‘Macmillan listened, or I suppose he listened … he sat without moving with his eyes apparently closed. He asked no questions; in fact he said nothing except that he would consider the matter.’

Two weeks later Macmillan responded saying that every possible way of preserving the arch had been investigated, but the lack of available land and the removal costs made the project infeasible. He said that the only place the arch could be put where it would not look ‘incongruous’ was the traffic roundabout on the Euston Road, a possibility which had been considered unsuitable by the LCC. He refused to allow any further delay or to allow the Victorian Society time to raise funds as that would delay the reconstruction of the station and involve extra expenditure.

The demolition of Euston Arch, started in December 1961 and completed in February 1962, was carried out by Leonard Fairclough Limited based in Lancashire. Ironically in the 1960s the company built many of the bridges on the new M6 and M62 motorways.

Leonard Fairclough Limited of Adlington in Lancashire were appointed as demolition contractors, and work began in December 1961. The demolition was speedy and brutal with stones damaged as the arch was cleared away. A group of young architects unsuccessfully attempted to delay the demolition by climbing the scaffolding around the arch and erecting a 50 ft long banner with ‘save the arch’ on it.

In The Architectural Review in April 1962, J M Richards criticised the cynical means employed to achieve the demolition which he dubbed the ‘Euston Murder’.

Its destruction is wanton and unnecessary – connived at by the British Transport Commission, its guardians, and by the London County Council and the Government, who are jointly responsible for safeguarding London’s major architectural monuments, of which this is undoubtedly one. In spite of it being one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early nineteenth century and the most important – and visually satisfying – monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered, the united efforts of many organisations and individuals failed to save it in the face of official apathy and philistinism.

Frank Valori, a representative of Leonard Fairclough, later said that he had undertaken the demolition ‘without pleasure’ and claimed that he had offered to provide the Government with an alternative site at his own expense at which he would store the numbered stones of the portico with a view to re-erecting it elsewhere. This offer was ‘disdainfully rejected by the Government on the flimsy pretext that no place could ever be found.’ Whatever the case, some of the stones from the arch were used by Valori himself in the construction of his own house, Paradise Villa in Sundridge Avenue, Bromley, Kent. The ornamental iron gates from the arch were saved at the time of demolition and are now in the National Railway Museum in York.

In 1994 the historian Dan Cruickshank discovered that at least 60% of the stone from the arch was buried in the bed of the River Lea at the Prescott Channel in the East End of London. The location of the stones, for which he had been searching for 15 years, had been revealed by Bob Cotton, a retired British Waterways engineer, who had acquired the material in 1962 from Valori to fill a hole that had been scoured in the bed of the channel. In a subsequent television programme in June 1994, One Foot in the Past, Cruickshank revealed that the stone had barely weathered at all saying ‘this makes the reconstruction of the arch a tangible reality … the arch is made of stone from the Bramley Fall quarry in Yorkshire which is incredibly hard, almost like granite.’

As part of the dredging of the River Lea in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, British Waterways recovered more of the lost stones from the Euston Arch. Here Dan Cruickshank, founder of the Euston Arch Trust, examines a segment from one of the columns. 30 stones have been recovered so far and these are now in the care of the Trust.

In 1996 Dan Cruickshank launched the Euston Arch Trust (EAT), an organisation dedicated to the rebuilding of the arch and of putting right a historical wrong whilst at the same time addressing the fragmented townscape around Euston, including possibly the restoration of Euston Square that fell victim to the re-development of Euston Station in the 1960s. And in September 2009 the EAT revealed detailed plans to rebuild the Arch in front of Euston Station, between the pair of existing lodges on Euston Road. In May 2009 British Waterways raised many more stones from the Prescott Channel, as part of dredging work on the waterways serving the 2012 Olympic Park.

I can recall walking through the massive and grimy Euston Arch in the 1950s with my father. Taxis would rush through the arch though I’m not sure that it was wide enough for two taxis travelling in opposite directions to go through at the same time. We walked through the Great Hall before going to look at the steam engines, but I can’t remember if you could have a cup of tea there, or in my case, orange squash. I didn’t appreciate the architecture of the buildings, but I loved the grand scale of the buildings, and was fascinated by the bustle of people travelling to places a long way away. If anything, because of its spectacular architecture, the destruction of the Great Hall was a worse crime than the demolition of the Arch.

A more complete history of the Euston Arch and of the campaign to rebuild it can be read on the Euston Trust’s website here. The story of the political fight to save the arch from demolition can be seen on the London Reconnections blog here, and the article ends:

Ultimately it was apathy – not action – that doomed the Euston Arch. But even though its physical form no longer existed, the powerful image of its final fate, and the lessons that Betjeman and the rest of its defenders learnt trying to save it, would prove a powerful legacy.

But is there universal support for the rebuilding of Euston? In a not entirely serious survey the Londonist blog suggests otherwise.

If you ever take the train north from Euston, perhaps to Llandudno, Newton-le-Willows or Oxenholme, or take the sleeper to Mallaig in the Scottish Highlands, you might walk over the spot where the Arch used to stand. It’s just before the start of platforms 9 and 10.

Postscript

The Euston Arch stones, and the display, on the grass to the south-west of Euston station entrance, with Euston Road in the background.

Four of the original stones recovered from the bed of the River Lea are on display until 9 May 2015 in the gardens outside Euston station. It’s part of the campaign to have the arch re-built when the planned rebuilding of the station to accommodate the High Speed Two (HS2) rail line starts in early 2020s. The current exhibition tells the history of the site, and sets out the plans by the Euston Arch Trust for reconstructing the arch.

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