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TRACKING 160 YEARS OF HISTORY: How King's Cross became a birthplace of multiculturalism

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King’s Cross station pictured between 1878 and 1883 IMAGE: the national archive

Published: 30 August, 2012
A birthplace of multiculturalism, King’s Cross station is 160 this year.
ALICE HUTTON reports

KING’S Cross station pictured between 1878 and 1883

Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station has gone down in literary history as the secret entrance used by Hogwarts students in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. What is less well known to the crowds of tourists snapping photos of the luggage cart half-buried between Platforms nine and 10 is that they are also (possibly) standing on the burial ground of Queen Boudicca.

Quite how the 2,000-year-old head of a warrior tribe who led a legendary bloody revolt against the Romans came to haunt such a specific spot in the iconic train station is frankly anyone’s guess.

But with little basis in fact it’s another colourful rumour to add to the epic history behind the six-storey Victorian monument to railways that celebrates its 160th anniversary this year.

Its chequered past is filled with the glamour of swirling steam, sleek, jet-black engines and the Industrial Revolution, whose railway lines extended 6,000 miles across the country in just 30 years, dragging rural Britain on its petticoat tails into the 20th century.

And at the top sat King’s Cross; an awe-inspiring gleaming steel and brick wonder designed by Lewis Cubitt.

But with less than a year to go until the final opening of its £400m redevelopment, it is worth remembering that the station’s walls are brimming with other stories too.

On October 14, 1852, women in hooped skirts and men in sack coats were the first passengers to alight from the steam-powered locomotives whose coal fires puffed out a black fug.

Named after a short-lived 60ft-high monument to King George IV built at the crossroads of Euston Road, York Way, Pentonville Road and Gray’s Inn Road, the station had only two platforms – one for arrivals and one for departures – but the structure and land still cost an eye-watering £250,000 (an estimated £20million today).

Ten years earlier it was virtually an industrial desert populated by gas works, small pox and fever hospitals and tenement houses.

“A decade on, the residents wouldn’t have even recognised their old street,” says Alan Dein, a social historian specialising in King’s Cross. “Well, for one thing rail tracks ran over them now.

“Once the Act of Parliament came through the homes of the tenants were torn down and the hospitals relocated just like that. Bang, out they went. The opening of the station was the start of the area as we know it today. It was the birth of our rail empire. The new epicentre of London.

“For the first time it was properly connected to the rest of the country – the industrial and commercial and political implications were huge.”
And so people started to arrive in their thousands, altering the cultural make-up of the capital for ever.

“King’s Cross was one of the places that started to make the city really multicultural,” explains Dein, a former Kentish Town resident.

“We use that word so much now but with so many people coming in and out of it every day it was very progressive and beautiful.

“As well as passengers you had hundreds of freight trains bringing in vast amounts of coal and food from the North and with them came workers and new residents from all over England. It was the great golden era of the railway.”

But that didn’t last.

“It went into economic decline during the Second World War and got lower and lower really,” Dein says.

In 1972, a single-storey extension was added to the front of the station, further obscuring the original facade that was already hidden by a terrace of shops in the 1860s.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the area sank further.

“Far from being this place of progress and industry, it was now associated with sleaze and vice and drugs and prostitution,” says Dein.

The opening of the new redevelopment next year is the latest in a long line of regeneration projects that hopes to finally knock that on the head.

The extension is being removed late this year and a new square created – exposing the original architecture of the front of the station for the first time in 150 years.  

“These changes are really exciting and a landmark move for the area. I think it is important to remember that King’s Cross station, no matter what state it is in – golden railway age or den of sin – has always been and will always be a marker of our city’s changing trends.”

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