Book reviews — October 2018
‘An Immense & Exceedingly Commodious Goods Station: The Archaeology and History of the Great Northern Railway’s Goods Yard at King’s Cross, 1849 to the Present Day’, by Rebecca Haslam and Guy Thompson
xxii + 356 pages, 225 figures. Published by Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited as Monograph 19, 2016, £30.00, ISBN 978-0-9926672-6-9
At King’s Cross was the last British railway goods yard of any size to survive relatively intact after the collapse of rail freight, for years partly derelict and partly given over to other uses. Various ideas for regenerating this large tract of urban land culminated in some of it accommodating tracks of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link out of St Pancras, while the remainder — with the between-stations land south of the Regent’s Canal — is now the King’s Cross Central redevelopment, a mix of new building and the adaptive re-use of most of the former railway buildings. Most prominent among these is the re-located Central St Martins, a major campus of the University of the Arts in London, housed in the majestic Granary of 1850-1 and its flanking offices, with new construction sitting within the original walls of the former Train Assembly and Transit Sheds behind. The guide frames of the ‘Siamese triplet’ and No 8 gasholders, removed from their original locations further south, now stand on the north bank of the canal here (Newsletters passim), while the two large Coal Drops buildings and their viaducts, refurbished and (somewhat controversially) enlarged, will open shortly as a shopping area.
Both English Heritage (now Historic England) and Camden Council were very conscious of the historical significance of the Goods Yard and the good fortune of its survival, and pressed for heritage considerations to have a key role in the regeneration masterplan. Developer Argent submitted this for planning permission in 2004, which was received in 2006. Essential conditions in this permission were that both the standing buildings and the buried evidence of the site’s use were to be thoroughly recorded. At this point I must declare that I was involved with the specification and overseeing of this recording, acting with colleagues (initially including Malcolm Tucker, and later Tim Smith) as heritage advisers to the developer. Argent accepted our advice that the importance of the site warranted building recording to the most detailed level described in the recording specification of the Royal Commission for Historical Monuments in England, now Historic England.
This hardback book, the first of three promised, covers the Eastern Goods Yard site, recorded by Pre-Construct Archaeology. The other two volumes will, I trust, cover the recording of the area south of the canal (also by PCA), and of the Western Goods Yard and earlier work on the CTRL route (by others, and in which I had no part).
Buildings, once erected, rarely escape alteration throughout their lives. Railway buildings invariably have had to respond to changing traffic patterns and technology: the Granary group is a good example. It was built as a true transport ‘hub’, with four tunnelled inlets entering it from a canal basin in what is now Granary Square, so that grain brought from Eastern England by the railway could be transhipped onto barges, as also onto carts, for onward delivery. The horse was originally the essential prime mover for goods by road, and so underground stables were built under the two Transit Sheds. Arriving goods wagons were unloaded in these sheds, and then shifted sideways using wagon turntables into the Train Assembly Shed, to be returned north as empties. Sacks of grain were stored on upper floors, lifted from wagons by early use of Armstrong’s recently-invented hydraulic cranes and then carried upwards by hydraulic sack hoists, later to be loaded onto carts through chutes.
Tim Smith contributes an informative chapter on hydraulic power in the Goods Yard, including also its use for the capstan-shunting of wagons. Documentary information, and both standing and excavated evidence, record a long-demolished hydraulic power station on the site, originally steam-powered but later converted to electricity. Electrical power also drove new traversers in the Train Assembly Shed, which had been reconfigured between the Wars for changed traffic needs, just as the horse was to be displaced by the motor lorry. Ironically, a Road Motor Engineering Garage and repair shop was erected on the site of the Granary Canal Basin (infilled from 1915 after the decline in waterborne traffic), with the remainder of the basin area being used for road vehicle parking.
This is only a brief summary of the changing fortunes and use of one building on this unique site. I must make it clear that I took no part in the preparation of this book; but, having been closely involved with its subject, I can vouch that it makes full use of both the documentary and the physical evidence to provide an outstanding contribution to the history and archaeology of London’s railways and, in broader terms, to the capital’s industrial development. The copious figures — historical illustrations, photographs, and line drawings extensively using colour to distinguish differing phases, elements, and materials — complement a narrative that is painstakingly detailed, but also readable, being helpfully organised by periods and individual buildings. A complex story, well told, and at a reasonable price for what it is. Michael Bussell
I did not draw attention to this book in the GLIAS Newsletter when it appeared in 2016, as my involvement in the Goods Yard work was recorded in its Acknowledgements. Two years on, and with no mention of it here by anyone else, I think it is timely to spread the word to those as yet unaware who might be interested in seeing it. The book should be available by order from any good bookshop, or by post with an additional charge for post and packing from PCA (Unit 54, Brockley Cross Business Centre, 96 Endwell Road, Brockley, London SE4 2PD, tel. 020 7732 3925, firstname.lastname@example.org), or Oxbow Books (www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/an-immense-and-exceedingly-commodious-goods-station.html).
© GLIAS, 2018