Its destruction is wanton and unnecessary – connived at by the British Transport Commission, its guardians, and by the London County Council and the Government, who are jointly responsible for safeguarding London’s major architectural monuments, of which this is undoubtedly one. In spite of [...] being one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early nineteenth century and the most important – and visually satisfying – monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered, the united efforts of many organisations and individuals failed to save it in the face of official apathy and philistinism.
By the 1930s, the Euston Arch had presided over the ever-changing area that surrounded it for over a hundred years. Erected by the London and Birmingham Railway as a testament to their railway-building prowess, it had long outlasted the company itself. But although outwardly the Arch seemed as robust a symbol of Britain’s railway heritage as ever, behind the scenes at the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) its future was looking far less secure.
LMS was to the 1930s everything that L&BR had been to the 1830s and more. Formed as a result of the 1921 Railways Act (which sort to consolidate Britain’s 300 disparate railway companies down into 4) LMS was a behemoth. The company controlled over six thousand miles of track (excluding its interests in Northern Ireland) and was the largest commercial undertaking in the Empire. It was the second largest employer in the UK – beaten only by the Post Office – and the largest joint-stock company in the world.
It was also responsible for the station at Euston and, as with the L&BR before it, it was at Euston that the company sought to make an impact.
For by the late thirties, Euston was a station fast approaching its point of failure – something of which LMS was acutely aware. Since virtually its incorporation, the company had realised the need to address the limited space and general disorganisation of the site, but had lacked the funds to do so. As the thirties dawned, however, the promise of a government loan finally enabled the firm to begin seriously thinking about the station’s future. By 1939, LMS had a plan in place.
Understanding the need for wholesale reinvention on the site and, it is tempting to suspect, with one eye on the grandiose activities of their corporate ancestor, LMS turned to Welsh architect Percy Thomas for inspiration.
Whereas Hardwick, creator of the Euston Arch, had looked to Italy for his influences, Thomas’ eyes were cast firmly to the west. It was to the majestic architecture of railway stations in the US that Thomas looked for inspiration in his design for a new Euston, and the result – encapsulated in a never-exhibited painting he commissioned from his favourite artist William Walcot – was a rather awe-inspiring design once again mixing classical design with modern architectural methods.
As can be seen from Walcot’s painting above, which is now safely ensconced in the Railway museum at York, there was, however, one key feature missing from Percy’s design – the Arch.
When it came to the Arch, the argument Percy made to LMS’ Chairman, Lord Stamp was simple and uncompromising – it was in the way, and it was impossible to move.
For a short while, the Arch’s days seemed numbered. Luckily, however, it soon received a reprieve. Gerald Wellesley and Albert Richardson, acting on behalf of London’s Georgian Group, managed to persuade Lord Stamp that Percy’s expertise lay more in the world of architecture than in the world of practical engineering, and it was agreed that the Arch would be re-sited instead.
Before plans for Euston’s future could advance further, however, history intervened – and the outbreak of World War Two left any talk of station improvements very much on the back burner.
The situation at Euston was to remain unchanged for almost twenty years, but by the late fifties the prospect of a complete rebuild of the station, courtesy of the British Transport Commission, was on the cards once again.
As is often the case, in hindsight it is easy to see that – despite noises to the contrary – the Commission were less-than-committed to the preservation of the Arch (and indeed the various architecturally impressive buildings on the station site) from the very start. In 1959, for example, a small book entitled “The Architectural History of Euston Station” was suppressed by the Commission – providing your prospective opponents with intellectual ammunition is never a wise thing to do.
(As a side note, this is a practice that continues on the railways to this day – last year Network Rail, who are currently looking to undertake extensive reconstruction work at Waterloo, amended their website to remove several references to the architectural heritage and value of the station)
In 1960, the Commission’s full intentions became clear – they served notice that, as part of their ongoing Modernisation Programme, which included the electrification of the West Coast Mainline between Euston and Glasgow, they intended to demolish the existing station, the Euston Arch and the Great Hall entirely.
Whilst the Commission’s plans seemed to condemn a considerable amount of important architecture to the grave, for the Arch their remained some hope. It was a grade II listed building, and the Commission could not, therefore, simply destroy it without approval – approval that, it seemed, might not be forthcoming.
Permission to demolish the arch would have to be granted by the London County Council, who commissioned a report on the issue. The report took time to put together and, with the potential destruction of the arch now public knowledge, those who wished to see it saved began to rally to its defence.
Foremost amongst the Arch’s defenders was one of Britain’s greatest poets – John Betjeman.
Betjeman, who had long been fascinated with both architecture and the relationship between Britain (and London’s) railways and its culture, regarded the Arch as one of the greatest monuments to Britain’s railway heritage. It was around Betjeman and the Georgian and Victorian Societies of which Betjeman was a member that opposition to the Commission’s plans was to coalesce. The Arch’s defenders also soon found a useful and vocal ally in the form of Woodrow Wyatt, then a Labour MP. It was he who would provide the defenders with their loudest voice in Parliament as the fight unfolded.
As the voices in defence of the Arch began to grow louder, the results of the Council’s report were revealed – in January 1960 the LCC granted the Commission permission to go ahead with their plan, but insisted that the Euston Arch could only be removed on the condition that it (and its lodges) were re-erected elsewhere.
At first it seemed as if the Arch’s defenders had won the battle to preserve it, but once again the warning signs were there that worse was to come – the Commission had estimated the cost of moving the Arch at approximately £180,000. A cost that they refused, point blank, to pay.
For the rest of the year, the battle raged on. The Commission continued to march forward with their plans with ruthless efficiency and resolve. The station needed rebuilding, they insisted, and quickly. Their plan was the only viable way forward, and the cost of saving the Arch was not only prohibitive, but also a cost that they would not pay out of their own pocket.
It quickly became clear to the defenders that it was essential that the Arch be granted a preservation order to guarantee its survival. The planning permission that had been granted by the LCC to the Commission was temporally limited – if no solution to the issue of funding the Arch’s preservation presented itself by April, then the Commission was no longer obliged to guarantee the Arch’s future. A preservation order would allow the LCC to insist that the preservation clause be enforced – and that needed to come from the Ministry for Housing and Local Development.
On February 9th, Wyatt began to pile on the pressure. Standing up in Parliament, he put the issue before Keith Joseph, representing the Minister for Housing, Henry Brooke:
Will the Parliamentary Secretary agree that it would be an act of vandalism to destroy the Great Hall and Shareholders’ Room at Euston Station, which was the first railway station to be built in any capital city of the world and is designated as an historic monument? Having agreed that, will he see to it that the British Transport Commission is made to produce an alternative scheme for lengthening the railway line, with the platforms and other improvements at Euston Station, so that it does not have to destroy the Great Hall and Shareholders’ Room? Will he agree also that it might be acceptable to remove the Doric Arch nearer to Euston Road provided that it is not in any way disfigured or altered in so doing?
The two months’ notice required does not lapse till the middle of March, during which interval my right hon. Friend is considering the alternatives about the Arch. As regards the Great Hall and Shareholders’ Room, the proposals are now under discussion with the B.T.C., L.C.C. and external advisers to see whether their proposals can be modified in any way.
On the surface, Joseph’s reply seems relatively positive, if a little vague – “We’re considering the evidence but don’t worry, there’s plenty of time.”
Sadly, however, it stands as an accurate representation of the attitude towards the Arch in central government that would ultimately condemn it to oblivion.
By April, the Commission was free to proceed without preserving the Arch. Betjeman and his associates rallied public support through the press – Betjeman wrote letters to the papers, others wrote articles on the subject. They appealed directly to Henry Brooke himself to issue a preservation order in May, but he refused – the Commission had assured him they were in productive talks with LCC on the subject, he said (seemingly ignoring all evidence to the contrary), and thus a preservation order would be somewhat un-necessary.
The Royal Fine Art Commission soon lent their support to the defenders’ cause. The RFAC should have proven a powerful ally – they were responsible for advising on projects that affected the design and artistic heritage of the country, and though their recommendations were always non-binding, they carried significant weight.
The RFAC asked both the Transport Commission and the LCC for permission to consult on the Euston project. The Commission claimed that wasn’t their decision to make, and said it was for the LCC to decide. The LCC then dodged responsibility themselves by saying that was something for the Ministry of Housing to decide.
The RFAC wrote to the Ministry in June, who responded by sitting on the request until October, at which point Wyatt was forced to make a desperate plea before parliament:
Wyatt: Mr. Wyatt asks the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs what reply he has sent to the letter, sent to him in July by the Royal Fine Art Commission, concerning the proposed removal of the Doric Arch, Great Hall and Shareholders’ Meeting Room at Euston Station; and if he will make a statement.
Joseph: My right hon. Friend has not yet replied to this letter because he is still considering the matter in consultation with the other Ministers concerned.
Wyatt: The Government have been considering this matter for nearly a year now. What is the point of having a Royal Fine Art Commission if the Government are going to disregard its recommendations which, in this case, are to keep that historic monument at Euston Station? Why waste the time of the distinguished gentlemen advising the Government if they take no notice?
Joseph: I think the length of time shows what respect the Government are paying to the Royal Fine Art Commission and its recommendations.
Mr K Robinson: Will the Minister consult particularly with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Works who now discovers, contrary to the reply which he gave in this House before the Recess, that he does possess powers to contribute towards the cost of replacing this arch?
When the Ministry did finally bother to reply a month later, it was to absolve themselves from any decision making responsibility on the issue – they simply referred Wyatt back to the LCC.
With the quest for a preservation order – or indeed government intervention (national or local) of any kind – looking increasingly unlikely, the defenders increasingly focussed their efforts on the other major stumbling block to the Arch’s preservation – money. As the last part of the exchange quoted above reveals, however, by October progress here was proving as frustratingly slow as well.
The Transport Commission still insisted the cost of saving the Arch was in the region of £180,000 – a prohibitive figure that they still refused to pay. Betjeman and his allies tried to persuade the Government to contribute the money and the response was that the funding would have to come from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The Ministry once again prevaricated, then announced that they did not have the necessary authority to contribute. The Arch’s defenders took that claim to the Minister of Works who (again, after a suitable delay) announced that the Ministry of Housing was wrong – they could contribute if they wanted to. Wyatt and his parliamentary allies took this back to them in Parliament (as can be seen in the quotation above).
“Couldn’t?” Was (to paraphrase) the Ministry of Housing’s response to that. “Sorry – we meant ‘wouldn’t’.”
Everything the defenders tried to do took time and, with the Transport Commission ploughing eternally onwards with their plans, time was rapidly running out.
Finally, in July 1961, Transport Minister Ernest Marples virtually condemned, with one written parliamentary answer, over 100 years of London’s railway heritage to destruction:
I have given approval in principle to the early reconstruction of the Euston main line and Underground stations, which is made necessary by the main line electrification and by increased traffic demands. This scheme is urgent not only because of the electrification programme but because the Underground lifts have almost reached the end of their useful life. The Underground scheme will cost about £700,000, but a detailed estimate is not yet available for the much more extensive work involved in the main line station reconstruction.
All possible ways of preserving the historic buildings in situ have been considered by the British Transport Commission and by independent advisers, but they have been forced to the conclusion that the operational requirements make this impracticable. […] They estimate that the cost of dismantling and re-erecting the Arch alone, without its flanking lodges, would be about £190,000 as compared with £12,000 for simple demolition. The Arch weighs about 4,500 tons, and to brace it and remove it on rollers would cost even more.
The Government has decided that the preservation of the Arch does not justify expenditure of this order. This decision has not been reached without regret at the passing of a major monument of the early railway age, but there is no practicable alternative. The Commission have accordingly been informed that they may proceed on this basis.
For a little while longer Betjeman, Wyatt and the rest of the Arch’s defenders fought valiantly on. Marples’ decision provoked a certain amount of public outcry. As one letter to the Times concluded:
would any European country allow such a landmark of architectural history to be removed, on economic grounds, without some attempt to raise the money for its preservation and re-erection?
And so the defenders turned to the public for help – if the Government wouldn’t contribute the money then maybe they would.
The Victorian Society commissioned a report which appeared to challenge the Transport Commission’s projected cost. Their report seemed to indicate that the Arch could be saved for £90,000, and Betjeman and his allies now engaged in an all-out PR war on funding. They publicly begged for time to raise the money and Betjeman even went on TV to make his case. He argued that the arch was too much of a part of the heritage of the country to be lost, that it was a work of art that should stand in front of the new station as a monument to all that was right with Britain’s railway heritage but, he concluded, darkly:
it would be beautiful you see, and of course people always think if you have anything beautiful it’s wicked nowadays. It has to be cheap.
Ultimately, it was all to no avail. By October 1961 the scaffolding was in place around the arch and its destruction was ready to begin. A group of architecture students scaled the scaffolding in protest, and a fifty foot banner proclaiming “Save the Arch!” briefly hung from its pediment, but they were soon evicted.
The final throw of the defenders’ dice came thanks to the family connections of Betjeman’s long-time partner, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish – one last, direct, appeal to the Prime Minister himself. A delegation of all the leading defenders put the case before Macmillan himself. As Betjeman himself described it in a letter:
I was one of a deputation to the Prime Minister yesterday about Euston Arch. Coolmore (John Summerson) put our case and we were led by Sir Charles Wheeler PRA and Michael Rosse and Robert Furneaux Jordan also made speeches. We were received politely and our case was put with great skill and backed up with pictures.
It soon became clear, however, that once again they were fighting a losing battle. As another member of the delegation would recount:
Macmillan was there, on his right was Ernest Marples […] within a minute or two of the beginning of the meeting it transpired that in spite of our having supplied them with all the relevant information, Macmillan knew absolutely nothing about it. You would have thought he’d never heard of the Euston Arch. He said: “I understand you want to pull it down stone by stone and build it up again.” Well, months before we had said that was out of the question. What we proposed to do was to move it on rollers, which had been done in every other county for years.
Ten days later Macmillan, unmoved, gave his reply. He spent some time talking about the difficulties in moving the Arch, the cost involved, the time available but only one sentence in his letter really mattered. A sentence that, in effect, finally committed one of London’s great railway landmarks to dust:
We have regretfully reached the conclusion that we ought not to adopt your suggestions for preserving the portico.
In December the demolition contractors moved in, and within weeks the Arch was gone. Despite a desperate and valiant fight, the battle was finally – and completely – lost.
So who was to blame for its destruction?
It would be easy, of course, to simply pin the blame on the Transport Commission – it was, after all, their plan that would lead to the Arch’s destruction. To do so, however, would be to paint too black and white a picture of events. After all, the Commission were – in many ways – acting in what they regarded as the best interests of Britain, London, and the railways. It is virtually impossible to argue that the Commission weren’t correct in their insistence that a new station was required at Euston. Similarly, their argument that they should not be required to foot the cost for the movement of the Arch is not without merit.
As far as the Commission were concerned, their job was to provide a new station at the best possible price. The idea that the railway authorities are responsible not only for running the railways of this country, but also for helping to preserve the history and heritage of them is very much a modern conceit – and one that is in many ways the direct legacy of the Euston debacle.
So whilst the Commission holds part of the blame, they should not bear that burden alone. If anything, the arch was condemned to destruction less by the acts undertaken by the Commission and more by the inactivity of the governmental bodies – both local and national – whose responsibility it should have been to step up and see it preserved for the national good.
Ultimately it was apathy – not action – that doomed the Euston Arch. But even though its physical form no longer existed, the powerful image of its final fate, and the lessons that Betjeman and the rest of its defenders learnt trying to save it, would prove a powerful legacy.
It was a legacy that would soon be called into action again in the fight for St Pancras, and a legacy that may well mean that even the Euston Arch’s physical fate isn’t quite as final as it seems…
To be continued…