One of the many curious things about the English is their love of destroying things that have been built with great thought and care.
I suppose this atavistic taste probably started with burning Roman villas and temples, but can also be observed in the Reformation and the smashing and whitewashing that followed it, then Cromwell and co, all the way down to the cultural revolution of the Sixties and the inevitable replacement of liberty with licence which followed it.
It can also be seen in modern architecture’s rampage through our cities.
After the Second World War the Germans carefully restored some of what the allied bombers had destroyed. On the other hand in England an emerging managerial class continued the work the Luftwaffe had begun during the conflict: the wrecking ball was put to evil work and many fine buildings were destroyed and replaced with dull modernism.
The bureaucrats’ biggest scalp was the old Euston Station, its famous arch, engine sheds and its less well known Great Hall, which has become one of my favourite Lost Things, a veritable cult item. In the old station’s dog days, The Times declared it ‘the greatest railway curiosity in the world’.
Named after Euston Hall, a house in Suffolk owned by the Grafton family who owned land in the area of the station, it was begun in the 1830s with designs by Charles Fox. The arch, more accurately Doric portico – or even propylaeum: ancient Grecian monumental gateway – was designed by Philip Hardwick and built in 1837, the year Queen Victoria was crowned, and cost £35,000. The arch symbolised what came to be the official Victorian view, which was big; big on expansion, industry, power, trade, science, morals, reform and certainty. Here’s a passage from Dickens’ Dombey & Son, said to be inspired by the author observing the construction of Euston: ‘…the yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.’
Hardwick’s son, also Philip, designed the Great Hall at the tender of age of 25. This he did with flair and his hat extravagantly tipped to Italian-flavoured classicism and with an eye to grandeur. The Great Hall’s construction was intended to symbolise an amalgamation of the London and Birmingham Railway, the Grand Junction Railway and Manchester and Birmingham Railway into the London and North Western Railway. Completed in 1849 and costing £150,000, the 125ft long and 61ft high hall went all out to impress: allegorical statues, ionic columns, dome-lit booking halls, a coffered ceiling, balconies and sweeping chateau-style steps leading to an ornate boardroom.
There has never been anything like it in British railway architecture. Its high blank walls were even supposed to feature murals. These never appeared but as the architect John Summerson wrote in 1961 when the building was still standing, ‘who in 1849 could have tilled this acreage of wall powerfully enough to relieve its inherent deadness?’
I like to think JMW Turner, then an old man, could have directed the hands of others to the task – the presence of designs by him may just have saved the building 110 years later. There again, I don’t object to those blank walls: I have been exposed so much uglier and deader expanses in contemporary London.
And so, a crazy English wonder was constructed, and might still be there to this day if the pen-pushers and pinstripe vandals had not fixed it in their crosshairs. The demise of the old station is a nicely instructive tale of British officialdom.
As far back as the Thirties, Euston was suffering from congestion and plans to rebuild were mooted. The war got in the way.
In the late Fifties British Railways decided it wanted to completely rebuild the station. London County Council agreed to the demolition as long as the arch was put back up elsewhere. At this remove it is hard to say if anyone on either side actually believed this would happen. However, as a journalist who has observed these machinations at local and national level I have a degree of cynicism. BR complained it would cost too much money. Another plan to jack the arch up on rollers and move it elsewhere was also discounted as being too expensive and uncertain.
The Great Hall was definitely doomed but the arch hung in the balance.
Architects, students, the Victorian Society, John Betjemen and others all protested. GH Slater, a student, said the demolition was ‘an act of vandalism by the government’.
In October 1961, a deputation led by Sir Charles Wheeler, the head of the Royal Academy, saw the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, to plead against demolition. Macmillan, who was mad on motorways, responded with the familiar two-faced waffle of the Tory moderniser. He said he was impressed by the arguments advanced in favour of the arch’s historical importance but it was standing in the way of progress. He also cited expense and the alleged lack of a location to put the arch. The Times opined that the arch was ‘not worth saving’ and the money better spent on ‘sensible town planning’. Well, we know how that turned out.
Demolition of the arch began in November 1961 and the Great Hall was knocked down soon after.
I dare say it was too small for the growing population, but I have no doubt it could have been accommodated into a new design if there had been the will to do it.
Sixty per cent of the stones from the arch were found at the bottom of the River Lea in east London in 1996.
There has long been a campaign to salvage them and rebuild the arch. Some stones were put on display in 2015:
A few other relics remain: the gates from the arch are in a museum, as is the statue of George Stephenson from the Great Hall. The lodges that stood beside the arch are now bars. It has been said that by the time the new station was finished the planners realised there was enough room for the arch after all.
The new Euston was an ugly low box designed by British Rail architects in what is known as the international style. Its dreariness is the only extraordinary thing about it.
The Times changed its tune in due course. Richard Morrison wrote in 2007 that “even by the bleak standards of Sixties architecture, Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London ... The design should never have left the drawing-board”.
The whole affair of Euston’s destruction is now considered one of the most grievous acts of official vandalism in Britain, and that is saying something.
I occasionally daydream that the Great Hall survived and imagine walking its precincts a bit drunk at a late hour under the blazing globular lamps of London stations. These reveries are aided by encounters in writing, such as in the memoirs of the Fitzrovian dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross, who wrote about spending the night there in Some Time I Shall Sleep Out. He describes entering the huge hall with a companion late at night to sleep, ‘where every cough raised a hollow echo, and where the benches, padded in scarlet leather, were almost all occupied by sleeping people: some huddled in pairs, others – fortunate to secure a bench to themselves – stretched out full length with their feet up…I started suddenly back in alarm. Towering above me was a gigantic figure, sightless and square-bearded, carved out of snuff-coloured stone and clutching a scroll.
“Stephenson,” the officer said. “The Rocket, you know. Gives one quite a turn, doesn’t he?”’
The moral of the story of Euston’s destruction has been but partially learned. Look about you. Pubs and houses vanish and horrors spring up in their place. London is once again in the grip of a fevered cycle of demolition and rebuilding. In England, the wrecking ball rarely sleeps.