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Under the station clock

The story of the building of St Pancras and the churchyard alongside it . . . . . .

Old photographs again, this time showing the building of London’s St Pancras station, goods yard and hotel in 1867-8. Part of a portfolio of 101 images digitised by the NRM, they use one of the earliest forms of photography, albumen print, and show scenes, amazing to modern eyes. The actual means of constructing the vaults, passageways and that iconic train shed is interesting in itself but what I found extraordinary was to see 50 acres of cleared land in a spot which I now think of as the station, with much of Somers Town, Agar Town, Skinner Street, Kings Road and Brill Street all cleared away.

Good eyesight and a magnifying glass might also show you the comparatively tiny churchyard of St Pancras itself, to the west of the site. Pre-pandemic and on a seriously cold day, I took a walk to the churchyard which I had heard so much about. The first St Pancras is supposed to have been a 14 year old boy, beheaded for his faith, the patron saint of springs and possibly the river Fleet which, for centuries, flowed by the site until it was culverted. A village grew up there too but, by 1865, the churchyard was in the way of the new St Pancras (as it was again with the rebuilt St Pancras in 2002). The church wasn’t to be moved, then or since, but the graveyard could be ‘re-arranged’ and so an architect was chosen who, in turn, employed a promising surveyor and author to sort out the churchyard – Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s solution was to stack the gravestones, end on, around an ash tree in the churchyard, where they still are today. It was controversial, of course. Attending a public meeting on the subject, a friend told Hardy ‘the government will hang you for this’. They didn’t. The rest is history. ‘Hardy’s ash’ sits in the middle of its stone circle today, ‘stone pages of an open stone book, vertical files in a tight circle around an ash tree’ wrote the author, Anne Michaels, on her own walk in 2012.

It’s a strangely atmospheric place, (rather like Camley Street near Kings Cross - see ‘Remembering old Kings Cross’ on this page, 18th April 2022) and a surprisingly peaceful spot, framed by distant gantries and buildings, and echoing to the rumbling sound of trains. Nearby are housing projects of late Victorian and early twentieth century vintage, drawing a firm line on the boundary of the churchyard with its tiny church. One of these was Culross Buildings, originally erected by the Great Northern in the 1890’s for further expansion at Kings Cross. Culross Buildings housed both those displaced from their houses by demolition and those demolishing them, a strange and awkward combination of tenants.

Following in Michaels’ own footsteps I retraced the route back into St Pancras and what that 1865 building site has become. Some of the sculpture inside is not to everyone’s taste and includes an enormous man and woman embracing under the clock on the concourse. ‘All great train stations,’ Michaels wrote, ‘are monuments to the most personal rite of passage and huge historical events – every form of leave taking and arrival. Mass human displacements, waves of immigration, war, forced migration, exile, dispossession, exodus, deportation. And, for the fortunate, the station was a place of extraordinary, impossible reunions.’

I suppose she is right about all stations, particularly those like St Pancras where so many journeys have begun and ended. She might have been anticipating the Ukraine today, but certainly those wartime meetings and greetings: ‘Coffee on platform 17, under the full moon of the station clock. Under the bells, the glass roof, the ash tree.’

I couldn’t find a photograph of the clock being erected in the 1860s and, to be honest, I’m not sure if it was erected then. But I did spend hours poring over those old images of the construction and destruction. It would have been a colossal undertaking, even with today’s modern methods, laid bare by those unfinished arches, those piles of brick and wooden scaffolding. Now we can all marvel at the scenes thanks to that digitisation.

But, there’s that thought at the back of mind, that the Victorians created quite a station but I wonder how many of them realised they were creating such a place of meetings and departures, under the clock, - and then those trains, squeezing out towards Kentish Town, past the long dead, sleeping in the old churchyard.


John Swanwick

St Pancras station, view from the roof towards the platforms, 1868 Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

If you can find it, try reading ‘Railtracks’ by John Berger and Anne Michaels (2012), published by Counterpoint.

You can find out more about the story of St Pancras old church and its graveyard here

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