On 14 October 1862 the Midland Board instructed its engineers to draw up plans for Parliamentary approval, showing a new fifty-one mile long line leaving the Leicester and Hitchin branch at Bedford and terminating at Euston Road, where the Metropolitan Railway was providing the world’s first underground railway under the road. The Midland was fortunate in retaining William Henry Barlow (1812-1902) as its consulting engineer. An Act of Parliament authorising the Midland’s southern extension, based on Barlow’s plans, was passed on 22 June 1863. However, various obstructions confronted Barlow as he planned the last mile of the Midland tracks before they could reach Euston Road.
The first of these obstructions was the North London Railway, which Barlow decided to burrow under and provide a steep incline to connect it to his new tracks. He then decided to pass over the Regent’s Canal and thus avoid the Great Northern’s mistake of tunnelling under it and creating a steep down-hill slope for trains emerging from the terminus. He was then faced with the choice of taking his tracks through a portion of the giant Imperial gas works or shaving-off part of the disused burial ground to the east of St Pancras Church. Unfortunately, as it transpired, he thought that the old graveyard would be the cheaper option, particularly as the tracks were already at a higher level. He then brought them over Pancras Road and into the terminal which, of necessity, would be at a high-level with steps and ramps connecting it to Euston Road, fifteen feet below. This was a masterly decision as its elevated siting would give the Midland’s terminus a powerful presence over little King’s Cross next door and Barlow was quick to point out, no doubt forestalling any argument over the increased costs arising from this massive basement, that it could be let out for storage to the lucrative beer trade.
In March 1864 the Midland Board set up a special committee to deal with the extension from Bedford. This became known as the Southern Extension Committee, with Lewis among its members, and dealt with all matters concerning the construction of St Pancras. Barlow’s plans for the station itself were accepted by the Committee at a series of meetings held in the spring of 1865. His proposal was quite radical and it is not surprising that it took some time for the Committee to assimilate his ideas, but they were a superb solution to the difficult engineering problems that the site had generated. He proposed to construct a huge iron roof spanning 243 feet over the whole station. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before in the world. St Pancras Station was undoubtedly Barlow’s finest structure. The big span removed the possibility that foundations to intermediate columns would interfere with a tunnel running under the station which the directors had insisted should connect to the Metropolitan Railway. It also allowed the tracks and platforms to be altered to suit operational requirements and with the tie beams for the roof running under the tracks, the small columns supporting the platforms could be arranged to suit the storage of beer barrels. The roof was not semi-circular like those at King’s Cross, but in the shape of a Gothic arch, which Barlow said would give it protection against the lateral action of wind, but it would also improve ‘the architectural effect’.
From the outset the Midland had intended to keep up with its rivals by providing a hotel at St Pancras and during the meetings over his design for the station, Barlow accepted the idea that this would be the work of an architect. On 3 May 1865, the Southern Extension Committee decided to embark on the architectural competition. The Midland was large, wealthy, and well-established. Its directors bitterly resented the efforts of the upstart Great Northern to frustrate their belated scheme to bring their railway to London. Clearly they wanted a spectacular architectural statement to announce the Company’s arrival in the capital and to overshadow the prosaic terminus of it’s arch-rival. Paxton’s enthusiasm for Scott’s Gothic Foreign Office perhaps influenced the thinking of the Board and, in spite of going through the motions of holding a competition, it intended to give the work to Sir George Gilbert Scott. Certainly, as the country’s leading architect, Scott’s name would give the company a special distinction. Scott recalled that, ‘I was persuaded (after more than once declining) by my excellent friend Mr. Joseph Lewis a leading Director of that Company, to enter into a limited competition for their new terminus’.
It is an indication of the importance that the company attached to Scott taking on the work, that even after he turned it down, Lewis persisted in trying to persuade him to enter the competition. Scott’s reluctance was understandable; apart from the commercialism of the project, he was still reeling from his family bereavements and it was only a few weeks after his brother’s death that the directors of the Midland finally sent out the invitations. Although Scott was wary of competitions, perhaps he had heard a whisper that he was the man for the job, and by August 1865 he must have agreed to enter when, along with Barry and Cockerell, he successfully applied for a one month extension to prepare his design. Barlow’s extraordinary train shed and its elevated position had been agreed. The architects were required to produce a plan which would incorporate a hotel on the station’s front to Euston Road, office accommodation so that the Company could move it headquarters from Derby to London and the usual facilities for passengers, such as a booking-office and waiting rooms. The provision of these facilities would have resulted in a warren of rooms; refreshment rooms and toilets for each of the three classes of ticket-holders with separate waiting rooms for gentlemen and ladies.
No sooner had Scott decided to enter the competition, when, in September 1865, his family was ‘threatened with another sorrow’:
We drove down to the Isle of Hayling near Portsmouth to witness the arrival of the French fleet. While there our next Son [after Albert], Alwyne, was suddenly seized with violent feaver. Caught, as we thought, from passing through the hospital of the French Ship Solferino. His attack was tremendous but by Gods mercy he recovered after a stay there of 6 weeks.
Scott decided to stay with Caroline and Alwyne at ‘a small seaside hotel’, while Alwyne was nursed back to health. However, Scott was incapable of forgetting about work and this enforced stay, in the comparative isolation of Hayling Island, was an ideal opportunity for him to throw himself into designing St Pancras. He said that:
I completely worked out the whole design then making elevations etc to a large scale with details. It was in the same style wh. [sic] I had almost originated several years earlier for the Government offices but divested of the Italian element. The great shed roof had been already designed by the Engineer Mr Barlow & as if by anticipation its section was a pointed arch.
Scott was still sore from the Government Offices affair, and ‘having been disappointed through Lord Palmerston of my ardent hope of carrying out My style in the Government offices’, he was glad to be able ‘to erect one building in that style in London’. In July 1865, Palmerston won another General Election, and Scott may have hoped to confront the old Premier with a building in the style that he had rejected, but as Scott was finalising his design, Palmerston died on 18 October 1865, two days short of his eighty-first birthday.
Scott’s isolation at Hayling is convincing evidence that St Pancras was his personal design. It shows a masterly ability to plan a functional building exploiting given restraints for architectural effect. The site was little more than two wedge-shaped spaces at right angles to each other, at the front and side of Barlow’s shed, and within these spaces he had to provide the means of raising vehicles and pedestrians fifteen feet from road level on to the raised platform. He decided to hide the great shed behind the main facade of his building, which he set back from Euston Road and in the space between the building and the road he accommodated a system of ramps and roads to provide vehicular access on to the raised platform. At the west end a quadrant-shaped ramp runs up to the departure carriageway arch and then runs as a level road across the front of the building to connect with the arrival arch, where there is a hair-pin bend on to another ramp, which then descends to Euston Road. Scott placed the station offices in the other wedge-shaped space on the west side of the shed, but at the southern end of this block, on Euston Road, he provided the main entrance to the hotel at road level. Here he produced a great architectural display with a portico, turrets and an elaborate stepped gable to off-set the marginal situation of the entrance. This entrance facade is parallel to Euston Road and he linked it to the main facade with a quadrant-shaped range which cunningly disguises the fact that the two facades are not parallel. Where the quadrant-shaped range joins the main facade Scott provided a squat tower over the departure carriageway arch and at the east end of the facade he placed a thinner and taller clock tower to counteract the excess of architectural display at the west end.
The style of architecture that Scott adopted is the High Victorian secular Gothic that he had been perfecting ever since the Hamburg Rathaus competition. The popular story that he reused his rejected Foreign Office design is nonsense; the site, function and materials are completely different, and even his style is much more ornate than that used in his final Gothic Foreign Office design. From the outset it was intended that St Pancras would be built of brick with stone dressings and Scott was able to exploit the contrast between the pale Ketton stone and the hard red Nottinghamshire bricks to the full. Crow stepped gables reappear from Broad Sanctuary, which along with rows of dormers suggest that Scott was again thinking of the Gothic town halls of Belgium. The familiar Scott features are reassembled; the clock tower, the great cornice to unite the facade, the grouped arcades of windows with the alternating voussoirs, the polished granite shafts framing the windows. All the openings were pointed and there is lavish use of decorative carving and ironwork. In fact he seems to have abandoned all restraint and used his whole repertoire to produce a dazzling architectural display which culminates in a fantastic roof-line of turrets, towers, chimneys and pinnacles over an impressive five-storey high facade. The whole composition completely out-classes his earlier picturesque attempts at Kelham and Hafodunos.
The directors of the Midland certainly knew what Scott was capable of creating and he must have completely fulfilled their expectations by producing a design for the competition which would fittingly announce the arrival of Britain’s wealthiest railway in the nation’s capital and overwhelm the utilitarian structure of its rival next door. All eleven competing architects sent in designs. In December 1865, they were exhibited at the Midland Shareholders Room in Derby and on 31 January 1866, The Builder announced that the awards had been made. Somers Clarke had come second and was awarded a prize of £200, Barry had come third with £100, and Sorby was fourth with £50, while Scott’s prize as the winner of the competition was the erection of the building. Each of the competitors, apart from Darbishire, had submitted an estimate of the cost of their building; these varied between Lockwood’s £135,792 and Hine’s £255,000, except for Scott, who said that his building would cost £316,000, more than twice that of Lockwood. Scott knew exactly what the Midland Board required; cost was not the main consideration, but it wanted an impressive building of the type that he could produce. It is perhaps a measure of Scott’s status in the architectural profession at the time that there was not an outcry over the way that the competition had been handled. However, Somers Clarke did write to The Builder on 10 February 1866, saying that the conditions of the competition stated that 150 bedrooms would be required ‘with a proportionate number of servants’ and officials’ rooms in addition’, and although an exact adherence to the instructions could ‘fetter too much’, in the plan chosen by the Board: ‘It is manifest that the addition of two extra stories of bed-rooms to a building of 600 ft. frontage must necessarily give it a vast advantage in dignity and importance of effect over one of less altitude, providing less accommodation’. But ‘dignity and importance of effect’ was exactly what the Board wanted, and Scott wrote expressing the ‘high sense of honour’ that the Board had given him in accepting his designs, and ‘the importance of the trust committed to him’.