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The shameful destruction of Euston Station’s great portico

Posted in Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Transport, Travel on Tuesday, 27 November 2012

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This edited article about Euston Railway Station originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 788 published on 19th February 1977.

Euston Station, picture, image, illustration

The classical portico of the old Euston Station by Harry Green

Travellers to and from London a century ago could have imagined that they were in Greece or Rome. For, to reach their trains, they had to pass through a magnificent Doric arch which stood at the entrance to one of the capital’s most famous stations.

This was Euston station; not the modernised version which was opened in 1968, but the original structure which, for over a century-and-a-quarter, was a familiar London landmark.

It was London’s first main-line terminus, and it was built for the London and Birmingham Railway. Two men who made their mark upon it were the engineer, Robert Stephenson, whose father was George Stephenson – the steam engine pioneer – and Philip Hardwick, the architect.

His Doric portico was a fitting monument to the abounding affluence of the railway age. This, together with portions of the interior, survived almost to 1961, when they were surrounded and overwhelmed by far less interesting buildings.

A number of areas were considered for the site, including Islington, Marble Arch and Maiden Lane. But, eventually, Euston Grove was chosen. This entailed a fairly steep slope out of the terminus. As the light locomotives then in use would encounter difficulties on the outward run, the trains were hauled to Camden by cable.

The station was opened in 1837, and the cables were dispensed with in 1844 although the steam engines still needed assistance from a pilot engine. When the London and Birmingham Railway was absorbed into the London and North Western Railway later, the second engine was stationed at the rear.

The railway accommodation was on the eastern part of the large site because the Great Western Railway was due to use part of it for its London terminus. But when, mainly because of its insistence upon using broad gauge, it had to pull out and build a station at Paddington instead, Euston presented a very lopsided appearance, with the tracks at one side behind the facade.

However, as the years passed and the traffic grew, more platforms were added to present a more balanced effect.

Approaching by road, one would have seen a breath-taking vista – the great Doric arch with its attendant lodges. In those days, these could have been viewed without obstruction from the Euston Road. And when the sun shone upon the Bramley Fall stone of which it was made, it fairly glittered against the distant background of Hampstead Heath.

Joined to each side of the archway was a lodge, with an additional lodge at each end. The arch, or portico, embodied four Doric columns and had been built at a cost of £35,000. Nothing but the best in classical architecture was good enough to commemorate the grandeur of the London and Birmingham Railway, and the portico was the fine outcome.

Nevertheless, it did not please everybody. One critic commented, “The architects have evidently considered it an opportunity for showing off what they could do instead of carrying out what was required. Hence the colossal Grecian portico . . . This piece of absurdity must have cost the company a sum which would have been sufficient for the building of a complete station.”

Two hotels were opened in 1839. By 1849 more platforms had been added on the old G.W.R. site, and a great hall and shareholders’ rooms had been opened, as well as suites for the company’s officers. There was also a suite for royalty.

No further major work took place until in 1874, stimulated by the arrival in London of its competitor – the Midland Railway – the L.N.W.R. set about adding a little grandeur and extra platforms. For, grand as the first class waiting rooms were, the second class ones were very squalid. Over the years, still more improvements were carried out.

In 1923, the L.N.W.R. was absorbed into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.

But changes were in the offing for Euston station. In 1935, the new company decided to tear the whole place down and build a new station in its place. Then came World War Two, and their plans had to be shelved. Although considerable damage was inflicted by the German air force, the Germans made a poor job of destroying the station.

When peace arrived, British Railways came into existence with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948. They could not afford to rebuild the station, but spent £500,000 on patching it up and improving it.

All this did little to alleviate the sooty condition of the platform areas. And in 1959 it was decided that the station would have to be rebuilt to make it worthy of the new trains that would use the electrified lines from Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool.

But trouble was brewing. It was decided that the portico would have to be removed. To have taken it down block by block and preserved it for re-erection would have cost £190,000. But to knock it down would require only £12,000. Despite strong arguments that it should be preserved, the axe fell and the portico came down.

In its place arose the new station which was completed in 1968 and opened by the Queen. It includes many shops and services as well as a large underground concourse reached by escalators.

Ironically, now that it has all been built – pleasing as it all is – it is abundantly clear that space could have been found for the famous portico which, cleaned and restored would, in the view of many, have enhanced the new station even more.

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