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Work is now nearing completion on Network Rail’s project to rebuild Kings Cross, revealing the station’s impressive frontage for the first time in many, many years. We’ll be taking another look at the station next month, but in the meantime this seems like a good opportunity to take a brief trip back into the past – in this case to the forties and fifties – and look at what the surrounding area looked like then. Below you will find a selection of photos that do just that. For these we are indebted to Shamus, both for the photos and descriptions.

kingscrossforties

A view of Kings Cross in the late forties. The scene would remain much the same throughtout the subsequent decade. Photographer unknown.

eustonroad

A pre-war RT on route 30 approaching St Pancras town hall, on the left is an old Austin low-loader taxi – complete with external luggage rack. Photo by John Fozard.

immaculatert

A positively immaculate RT on York Way. Photographer unknown.

passingrtls

Two RTLs pass each other on the same road. Photographer unknown

buseseuston

Two RTs (and their crews) standing at Euston. In the background is an old London Transport RFW sightseeing bus. The busy road in the background is Euston Road itself. Photographer unknown.

eustonsummer

Euston Road in the summertime. Photographer unknown.

guyarab

The distinctive look of a Birch Bros express – which ran to from Rushden to Kings Cross via Bedford, Hitchin, Welwyn, Barnet and North Finchley. This one is parked up on Pancras Road. Photo by Peter Green.

coachstation1

A Birch Bros bus pulls out of the coach station that could, at that time, be found on Judd Street. Below is the same view today. Photographer unknown.

trollykx

A trolleybus passing in front of Kings Cross. Photo by Geoff Bannister

trolleybuspancrasroad

Trolleybuses passing under the bridges on Pancras Road. The buses would need to travel quite slowly to get through this junction, but invariably caused of a shower of sparks from the wires as they did so. Photographer unknown.

trolleyfront

A trolleybus pulls out on Pancras Road. Photographer unknown.

trollycally

Trolleybuses on Caledonian Road. Houseman’s radical book shop is just visible and still exists today. Photographer unknown.

policemantrolley

A trolleybus waits its turn on Kings Cross bridge, as a policeman directs traffic. Photographer unknown.

trolleydirty

Black and white photos often serve to disguise the fact that the fifties were a grubby time for transport. Here a sleek – but dirty – trolley bus stands near Kings Cross. the bottom half of the image shows the same scene today. Photo by David Stevens.

Many thanks again to Shamus. You can find more photos of the area in his photoset on Flickr which is well worth a look.

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There are 52 comments on this article
  1. Greg Tingey says:

    See also ” The Ladykillers” film from (?) 1956 (?) many glorious shots of the area – available on DVD.

  2. Graham H says:

    These are lovely atmospheric pictures. It wasn’t just the vehicles which were (sometimes) grubby, but the buildings universally so in the days before the Clean Air legislation – and everything was still recovering from 6 years’ lack of maintenance. The other thing that strikes one forcibly is how small vehicles were by comparison with today – buses were narrower and shorter, lorries barely larger than some today’s 4x4s…. The late ’40s shot is especially interesting – can anyone place the single decker? A Green Line Q?

    [A pedantic point, apologies, on the shot of two buses passing in York Way: they are in fact RTLs - 99 and 682 - rather than RTs.]

  3. John Bull says:

    Well spotted! Fixed.

  4. Pedantic of Purley says:

    @Graham H

    It wasn’t just the vehicles which were (sometimes) grubby, but the buildings universally so in the days before the Clean Air legislation

    Absolutely. And modern films shot on location pretending to be the 1930s or whatever just look so wrong. The shots of a pristine St Pancras in The Bletchley Circle supposedly set in 1952 were absolutely cringe-making. One would have thought nothing would beat that but then a Routemaster appears in shot and a reference is made to the Goblin service. Aarrgh!

  5. Castlebar says:

    Truly, fabulous photographs

    Very many thanks for sharing them

  6. timbeau says:

    “can anyone place the single decker? A Green Line Q?”

    Don’t think so: The two piece rear windscreen is unusual – most London single deckers either had a single piece screen or, if an emergency exit was fitted, three separate windows. I think it might be a CR (rear engined Cub).
    http://www.londonbusmuseum.com/museum-exhibits/single-decker-buses/leyland-cub-rear-engined-bus-cr16/

    Very rare, but, according to this article, some of them were indeed drafted in to help out in the dire shortage of serviceable vehicles in the immediate post-war era

  7. Anonymous says:

    Looks like a cub, as the rear window is too curved

    http://www.countrybus.org/CR/CR.html

    the passing lorry has obscured the lower end, but the buses still have restricted blind displays, and cream round the windows, no good on cars though, the lettering on King’s Cross station doesn’t say British Railways yet, the other photos look like later fifties.

  8. Castlebar says:

    If you go on to the “Ian’s Bus Stop” site, you will see profiles of all LT types since the 1930s, and from there you will be able to determine exactly what type the single decker is,

  9. Anonymous says:

    Just had a look at the photoset on the Flickr site and there is a picture of a Cub on the 73.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Fab – thanks! But kind of surprising that you didn’t mention in your intro that these are all principally BUS photos. I was expecting pictures of the station, or more general street scenes, at first…

  11. Fandroid says:

    That last pair of photos illustrates Graham H’s point about buildings being much grubbier in the 1950s. The houses look as if they have had a serious scrub between the two photos being taken. Can anyone identify any major pre-war buildings which still retain their proper coating of soot. (I don’t mean all those post-war concrete buildings which are crying out for a decent scrub).

    The trolley-buses definitely look narrower than modern buses, but possibly not shorter. Were they actually narrower than motor buses. A wild guess comes up with the notion that due to the restrictions imposed by the trolley wires, narrowness may have given the driver a teeny bit of manoeuvrability back.

  12. Malcolm says:

    London trolleybuses were the same width as motor buses, 7 foot 6 or 8 foot. They look narrower because they were longer.

  13. Fandroid says:

    I have just spotted that Majorca was a potential flying destination back then (advertised on the route 30 RT) – by Air France. Plus ca change……? At least one organisation we know hasn’t changed its name in 60 years!

  14. Graham H says:

    @Fandroid – yes, both the buses and the trolleys were narrower than today’s vehicles. Today, 8 ‘ 2 1/2″, then 7 ’6 ” apart from the RTWs which were just coming into service, and the SA1 and 2 , and Q1 trolleybuses which were 8 ‘ and lived in the suburbs. I always understood that the narrow width was the result of the usual interference of the police in LT vehicle design, something which successively led to delays in introducing pneumatic tyres, enclosed cabs, covered top decks etc etc. The trolleys were certainly very manoeuverable: they used to turn – unimaginable in today’s traffic – in the width of Bishopsgate, for example.

    I can’t think of any still sooty buildings although some of those in the Grays Inn Road look as if they haven’t been painted or cleaned since the War (is the jellied eel shop still there, I wonder?). An architect friend explained to me once that it shouldn’t be necessary to clean the soot off brick and stonework as the weather would eventually do the job. Not sure whether I believe him even now; some buildings have re-acquired a much more vicious coating of filth from car emissions which doesn’t come off of its own accord; the best example is the west front of Westminster Abbey which was cleaned for Princess Margaret’s wedding and became black again within a decade. A propos all those lovely buildings in “fair face” streaky concrete, apparently the architects like them that way…

  15. Mike says:

    Re width, the 14 pictured on Euston Road is an eight-foot-wide RTW – it looks just a little bit wider than the 7’6″ RTs, RTLs and trolleybuses.

    Not sure why the RFW is singled out as being “old” – it’s no older than any of the other buses pictured.

  16. marek says:

    The buses provide an inadvertent reminder of another change over this period – how much shorter bus routes have got.

    The 77A isn’t to be seen at Kings Cross any more, partly because it has since been renumbered 87, but mostly because it doesn’t go any further than Aldwych. Nor does it go all the way to Raynes Park: these days it stops at Wandsworth. The 196 does still go to Norwood Junction but comes no closer to Kings Cross (to say nothing of Tufnell Park) than Elephant and Castle, while the 77 from Tooting (and formerly points further south) ends at Waterloo. That much I can pretty much do from memory, but it didn’t surprise me to find on checking Ian Armstrong’s bus route site – http://www.londonbuses.co.uk/ – that the same is true of the 14 and the 73 as well.

    In short, all the routes pictured still exist in recognisable form today. But every one of them runs a much shorter route.

  17. Greg Tingey says:

    Trolleybuses carried MORE people than the RM’s which replaced them, actually – & some of us wondered why this was so … but of course, then, we didn’t know that:
    a] The wiring & generation equipment was worn out
    and
    b] Diesel buses were fashionable, because trolleybuses were the “same” as those horrible tram things.

  18. Anonymous says:

    @marek – Bus travel was a lot more ‘romantic’ when the routes were longer. I’m not sure if anybody ever travelled from Park Royal to South Croydon on the 12 but the fact that you could (at certain times only) was appealing.

    I also miss the the letter suffixes. Who could possibly get confused when trying to catch the 51, 51A, 51B or 51C?

  19. marek says:

    @ anon 7.14

    One of my favourite books when I was a child was The Case of the Silver Egg. One of the key plot twists is the need to identify a house in a photograph, with the only clue being a 12 just visible in one corner. So the gang of kids gather their funds and buy a sequence of sixpenny tickets as they trundle the length of the route, with one character observing how unlucky they were that it was one of the longest bus routes in London

  20. Slugabed says:

    What came as a small shock to me was how familiar the scenes looked to me.I’m not THAT old (49 next birthday) but these photos made me aware of how little London changed from,say 1945-75 and how much it has changed since.

  21. Graham H says:

    @slugabed – in 1983, LT produced a book for their golden jubilee with “then” and “now” pictures on the cover, including one of Trafalgar Square; these were noteable for two things – the bus routes were the same; and, a ladder propped against the dome of the National Gallery for repairs in 1933 was still there in 1983.

    Actually, my impression is that London has changed in a more nuanced way since the ’60s – first, there was the pro-car redevelopment that changed some individual areas such as Croydon and Harrow (and more local schemes such as Holborn/Red Lion Square and Centre Point) plus a terrible near miss for Bloomsbury when the Euston Road GSI was devised) for ever but which left the rest of the fabric more or less intact, but more recently, there has been both the gentrification movement which has swept away “old London” in such areas as Woolwich and Battersea but also left the fabric intact and then of course there’s the complete rebuilding in Docklands and now the Lea valley. But – there’s a lot that hasn’t changed much at all – the Streatham of 2013 is still recognisably the one my great aunt lived in 1952 (no trams, tho’) and so are swathes of places like Ealing or chunks of central London like Fitzrovia.

    To stay on topic, it takes only a short walk east or south of KX to see that nothing has changed much since the War architecturally.

  22. Castlebar says:

    A great joy many years ago was a ride on the top deck of a late running 65 RT bus as it caught up lost time twixt Chessington & Leatherhead in 1965!

  23. Greg says:

    Trolleybuses on Pancras Road: I assume the bridge we see at the back doesn’t exist today, am I right?

    Here is the Street View link for the location: http://goo.gl/maps/pRrJR

  24. DaviD J says:

    The RFW wasn’t specifically a sightseeing bus. It was really a private hire coach, and never ran on allocated routes. Us bus spotters used to get really excited when one of the fleet passed.

  25. Graham H says:

    @Greg – if that location is right as must surely be the case, then there wouldn’t have been a trolleybus junction at that point, merely some special work to cater for the reverse curve under the bridge – quite a lot of sparks, though! I think the 639 went off into Crowndale Road a bit further north.

  26. JimJordan says:

    Bus lengths and widths were laid down for the whole country in the Construction and Use regulations. Unusually the Met did not have a say there. Trolleys carried more than RMs as they were longer – permitted as they had three axles. Three axle diesel buses in the old days were a bit underpowered – the LTs for example. Electric buses have a lot more poke. Eventually the rules were relaxed and the RMLs appeared diesel engines were by then more powerful although LT had them all derated to 115hp in those days.

    Regarding the change to diesel buses, I was informed once that the decision to replace South London trams with diesel buses instead of trolleybuses was to give more buses available for evacuation in the event of war. You wouldn’t have got far in four minutes though! Any information on this point?

  27. Graham H says:

    @JimJordan – the C&U regulations were indeed national, but that didn’t prevent the Met from prohibiting wide vehicles from using certain central London streets regardless of what the C&U regs allowed, including any that (still) had tram services – there’s useful reference on p 58 of Ken Blacker’s book on the RT class, for example.

    You’re right about the extra poke of electric traction – a minor pleasure on the Uxbridge Road services, where the Q1s could show their stuff, was watching trolleybuses tailgating slow private cars.

    I’d not heard about the civil defence argument for replacing trams with trolleybuses before (though it’s the sort of daft argument that was current in government attitudes to the topic at the time*) – the general thought has been that it was the financial case that did for the trolleybuses. The Board invested in trolleybuses mainly because there was considerable unexpired economic life (sc debt!) left in the ex-tram electric plant and distribution system. By 1945, that consideration was a lot less important and the prospect of having to renew the cabling and transformer substations was a major consideration, even tho’ trolleybus operating costs were understood to be lower than buses .

    * One – I hope by now declassified – file I once read included the memorable phrase “if even the BBC becomes untenable”.

  28. Lew Finnis says:

    Having recently re-read Ken Glazier’s books on the era, it is clear that the decision to replace south London trams with diesel buses was taken in 1945. Had the war not intervened, trolleybuses would have been the order of the day, as had already happened to the Bexleyheath system.

  29. timbeau says:

    The Woolwich-Bexleyheath was an early adopter of trolleybuses because the local tram network was clapped out. It remained isolated from the rest of the system until the end (although both ends of the Woolwich ferry were served, so you could have operated a through service using battery power to get on and off the ferry!)

    My father, who moved to Dartford in the late 1930s, remembers the novelty of trolleybuses (“silent death”) after the noisy trams which still held sway in Mitcham.

    On emasculated bus routes, as well as the 14 and 73, the 30 is now much curtailed, now only going as far as Oxford Street. The South Kensington – Roehampton section is covered by the new 430.

    Indeed, in my student days there were no less than four routes from the South Kensington areato Kings Cross – the 14 (via Picadilly), the 30 (via baker Street), the 45 (via Brixton!), and the 73 via Oxford Street. Noew there is only the 10

  30. Moosealot says:

    Interesting to see the trolleybuses and comments about how well they accelerated; the Borismasters and various other new buses are pure electric drive with an onboard generator because in start-stop scenarios (such as… er… a bus route) the electric traction is more efficient and has lower maintenance overheads. Their acceleration from 0-10mph is noticeably superior to pretty much anything with a clutch or torque converter, but once the bus is moving the low power:weight ratio prevents it from keeping up with cars.

    If the price and performance of batteries and capacitors continues to improve at its current rate, it won’t be long before buses will be able to make short journeys topping up their batteries from charging loops in the road (or something similar) at bus stops and traffic lights where there is sufficient bus traffic to warrant the infrastructure. I’d be really surprised if there weren’t services running in London within the next 10 years where buses are running through at least some of routes through central areas had electric drives powered by mains-derived electricity. Plus ça change…

  31. timbeau says:

    Another interesting point – the No 30 in the first picture is one of the 151 pre-war batch of RTs – note the difference in windcreen shapes between it and the No 14 behind, and the blanked-off “roofbox”.

    Such were the minor differences that interested London’s bus spotters in the era of standardisation (by 1957 almost every London bus was an RT or an RF of some kind or another). Now we seem to have a different kind of bus on every route – and a new type appearing every time the contract is re-let.

  32. Robert says:

    Talking of routes staying the same, I remember when the 621 trolleybus became the 221 bus and the 659 became the 259. The routes are now, of course, shorter than they used to be.

  33. Walthamstow Writer says:

    @ Moosealot – in the near future there will be two “all electric” BYD Chinese manufactured buses running out of Waterloo garage on the 507 / 521. The buses are currently somewhere in Hampshire being prepared for service. There is a small rumour that an all electric Optare Metrocity demonstrator is also imminent at Hounslow Garage but it’s not clear if it will be used in passenger service.

    @ Timbeau – interesting remarks about standardisation. Plenty of people moan that double deckers are now either Volvos or Dennis (barring the NB4L) and almost all single deckers are Enviro 200s. Yes there are some exceptions to these purchasing preferences but they are not quite rare. Only during the days of LRT control was there a lot of variety as a result of the plethora of smaller operators, “low cost” units which exhumed DMSs from everywhere and the more relaxed view about using second hand buses.

  34. Bus Pedant says:

    Birch Bros:

    I’m sure I’ve read that the front of the upper deck was (unusually) reserved for luggage rather than passengers. That seems to be borne out by the lack of ‘forward faces’ in the second photo?

  35. Fandroid says:

    A luggage space on the upper deck! That sounds like a recipe for much huffing and puffing and the occasional unguided missile tumbling down and throwing its contents everywhere.

  36. SAINTSMAN says:

    Love the photos. Not old enough to remember the 50s. Much happier travelling around Kings Cross compared to the 80s. With the final bits of the Kings Cross station refurb coming together, the photo’s do show how these works have improved the aspect original frontage (with the “temporary monstrosity in between). Amused by the policeman directing traffic – a different age. Where are all the bikes?

  37. Taz says:

    If the trolleybuses hadn’t been replaced in the early 1960s, there would have been a lot of rewiring costs for the new one-way systems of that decade which were intended to increase road capacity and traffic speeds.

  38. Taz says:

    Birch Bros had a particular place in my life, providing my first public transport trip as a babe-in-arms back from the evacuated City of London Maternity Hospital at Brocket Hall, Lemsford. Birch Bros must have done a good trade with visiting fathers over the 10 years. Are there any other Brocket Babies in this group?

  39. Dr Paul says:

    I know King’s Cross well, having studied at a nearby college and worked briefly in the second-hand shop in Housman’s basement, and these old pictures are great.

    To reply to Greg, the bridges were from the approach to St Pancras and went into the Midland goods depot where the British Library now stands and the coal depot to the north of it; both have long gone. A few fragments of the massive red-brick abutments still remain.

    Does anyone remember the stuffed cow in one of the arches underneath St Pancras station in Pancras Road? It disappeared when the arches were refurbished as part of the modernisation plan.

    Amongst its excellent selection of books on London, Housman’s have some copies of Somers Town: A Record of Change, an out-of-print book of old pictures of the nearby area, with some fascinating photographs of old housing, slum clearance, the Midland goods depot and local streets.

    King’s Cross has changed quite a bit over the last couple of decades, it’s considerably cleaner and tidier now, and most of the undesirable features of the place have gone (probably up the road somewhere). The station frontage looks a little odd, as there are now no buildings in front of the station, and the place looks strangely bare compared to what I’ve been used to.

    I recall, back in the 1960s, I travelled from a bus station in the King’s Cross area, but I’ve been unable to locate precisely where it was. I have a memory of the station being reached by walking down a long ramp from the street. I believe that the bus station was in different places at different times, in Judd Street, off the Pentonville Road and in a street opposite St Pancras and King’s Cross stations. Can anyone give any information?

  40. Castlebar says:

    @ Dr Paul

    “Kings Cross Coach Station” was in JUDD Street

    Always a poor relation to Victoria, the site was taken over by a national body, possibly the Post Office (not sure of this) for their vast van fleet

  41. Castlebar says:

    @ Dr Paul

    ………….and I’ve now been told there is a large NCP car park on the site

  42. John says:

    @Moosealot – charging loops at traffic lights? You know the Boris buses have no windows, right?? And we don’t want to have to replace the batteries once a year…

  43. Melvyn says:

    Having lived just off City Road and St John Street for most of my life some of these buses were my local buses as a child. Especially routes 615 and 639 that were Trolleybus routes that served Kings Cross and ran up and down City Road from their Moorgate Finsbury Square terminus.

    The 639 to Hampstead became the 239 but was removed several decades ago, while the 615 became the 214 ! And not only still runs but actually has a longer route with its normal southern terminus being Liverpool Street Bus Station and at its northern end it had been extended to Highgate Village. However, it has gone from double deck to single deck operation.

    As for route 14 this presently terminates near to Kings Cross outside UCH Hospital near Warren Street Station and with the Euston Cross scheme now changing this junction its worth asking why the 14 can’t once again serve Kings Cross given the massive upgrade taking place in this area? I bet if he was still Mayor Ken Livingstone would do this common sense extention,

    Re London once having fewer longer routes its worth asking if a route like the 25 can run from Oxford Circus to Ilford why more routes can’t be joined together like the 170 and 239 were a few years ago making one route from Roehampton to Victoria instead of two routes that terminated at Clapham Junction.

  44. RayAnonymous says:

    John – Borismasters have no windows, you say? Last time I saw one it was well endowed with windows both upstairs & down!
    Graham H – As mentioned by others I confirm the single decker in the late 1940s photo is a CR. These had only 20 seats but were pressed into service in the Central Area in the light of the then severe bus shortages being suffered by London Transport.
    Jim Jordan – I tend to disagree that the diesel LT type buses were underpowered. Apart from a tiny number with Gardner engines they had 8.8 litre AEC engines and my schoolboy memory (I’m now 75) is that they had superior performance to the STLs and were certainly much more chacterful.

  45. DevonJohn says:

    How lovely to see this set of photos – from a period when I lived in or close to East London, and many happy hours were spent spotting from top decks, armed with one of those ‘Red Rover’ tickets.
    I can certainly attest to the fierce acceleration exhibited by the Trolleybuses, having travelled on the various Docklands – Walthamstow/Chingford Mount services on my daily journeys to and from school in Leyton. Woe betide anyone who was not either sat down or carefully heeding the universal “Hold very tight, please!” as the driver applied power.

  46. ashbro says:

    The other striking difference between then and now is the proliferation of road markings. Looking back at these photos, the tarmac was bare while we now have lane markings, parking restrictions, pedestrian crossings, cycle superhighways and congestion charge zone indicators. I can’t help thinking the roads looked tidier then (albeit more of a free-for-all for the road users not tethered to overhead cables!).

  47. Greg Tingey says:

    If you had tight wires, the trolleys coud reach impressive speeds (well above the 30mph limit – oops!)
    Between Walthamstow Waterworks & over Hagga Bridge ( 623, 625 ) or along Whipps Cross Road (661) were good local examples from my area – or if you got a no-stop run along Lea Bridge Road, for that matter (555, 557, 581 )

    P.S. Whoever is posting as “Greg” isn’t me!

  48. Graham H says:

    @Gret T – the 607 on the dual carriageway Hayes by-pass with a Q1 was especially exciting -40-50 mph not at all uncommon (my father claimed he had to do 60, once, to overtake one) – no special work, and only light traffic; the only drawback was that the service was so frequent that you were likely to run down the bus in front.

  49. Castlebar says:

    Between Hampton Wick & Hampton Court was invariably a fast ride on a Q1 with a speed of about 45mph. You’ve no idea how fast that felt on a trolleybus!

  50. Littlejohn says:

    The Q1s were always in the minority at Hanwell and on the 607. Most of the stock was F1s which I seem to recall were designed specifically for the Uxbridge Road and which were at least as sprightly.

  51. Anonymous says:

    Lovely pictures of a ‘bygone age’. I was born in the late 50′s and am not overly familiar with the present King’s Cross area.

  52. James says:

    I lived in Fredrika street (my spelling) in the late sixties, at number 101. The street was of course the location for “The lady killers”. I watched as house after house was pulled down around us, at one point ours was nearly demolished when I was at school and my mum at work! My cousin always convinced me it was ok to trespass on the railway (I was only five) and we played on the famous grass bank next to the gantry were in the famous film one gangster after another fell into the wagon’s passing below. By 1969 much was gone, and a very Victorian feel went with it. From dirty urchins in the street, the coal man making his deliveries, and our bomb site playground. I have seen few photo’s of the upper end of the street were we lived. I believe Dana, the singer was born in the street in about 1952. Any one with photo’s?

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