John Betjeman, the Euston Arch, and the Fight to Save London’s Industrial Heritage
by Dr Ruth Adams
Senior Lecturer in Cultural & Creative Industries
Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries
King’s College London
My talk this afternoon tells the story of how the demolition of a monumental piece of railway architecture in London became the catalyst for a new phase in heritage campaigning, research and practice.
The building in question was The Euston Arch, which formed the entrance to the North London railway station. Strictly speaking, it was not an arch at all, but a Doric propylaeum in the Greek Revival style. Designed by Philip Hardwick and constructed of Yorkshire grit stone, it weighed 4 and half thousand tonnes. It stood over 70 feet high and 44 foot deep, and the diameter of each of the four massive columns was 8 feet 6 inches.
Euston Station was the first mainline terminus station in a capital city anywhere in the world. It opened in 1837 as the terminus of Robert Stephenson’s London to Birmingham Railway, and the Arch was completed the following year. As Nikolaus Pevsner observed, at the time it was built this railway was ‘one of the great achievements of man’, so, ‘To celebrate it and then to commemorate it, only that style of architecture is worthy which stands in everyone’s mind associatively for the greatest human achievement, the style of the Age of Pericles’.1 ‘Never had there been and never has been since in England so magnificent a piece of railway architecture’,2 claimed John Betjeman.
The proposed demolition prompted an outcry that not only spurred in increase in academic and policy interest, but also captured the imaginations of a wider public. A belief in the value of Victorian architecture and industrial heritage was fostered, together with a growing concern for the conservation of this type of building.
Instrumental in this was the Victorian Society, founded in 1958, by Betjeman and Anne, Countess of Rosse, along with Pevsner and a number of other architects and critics, including Christopher Hussey, Mark Girouard and Sir Hugh Casson. The Society’s membership overlapped with that of the Georgian Group, founded 20 years previously, partly in response to demolition of large swathes of John Nash’s Regent Street in the West End of London. The 3rd Viscount Esher was appointed as the Society’s chairman and told members at the first annual general meeting how exciting he thought it ‘to be just in time to save what will be admired tomorrow.’3
The involvement of eminent scholars and intellectuals, with perhaps Pevsner the most prominent of these, was key to giving Victorian architecture academic credibility.
However, it was undoubtedly Betjeman’s involvement that played the most vital part in shaping and changing popular opinion towards Victorian and railway architecture. Betjeman was a rare beast of English culture, a popular poet. He was also well known and well loved for his print and broadcast journalism, and he became something of a ‘professional eccentric’.4 Although he was the assistant editor of the Architectural Review in the early 1930s, Betjeman had no scholarly credentials, a lack he sometimes felt rather keenly. He was, however, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur, with a great skill for communicating his enthusiasms to a wide audience. His friend, the architectural historian John Summerson said that although Betjeman had ‘not written even one book about Victorian architecture’ ‘his name has become an illuminant and a sanction; through him, kindliness toward Victorian architecture is permitted to thousands whose habits of mind would drive them in quite another direction.’5
Although one of the adjacent lodges was demolished, and the view of it obscured by a hotel extension in the late 19th century the Arch stood, largely unchanged and unmolested until, in January 1960 the British Transport Commission published its intention to demolish Euston station in its entirety. The proposal formed part of the plans to electrify the West Coast mainline between Euston and Glasgow, and the Victorian station was seen as too small and in the wrong place to accommodate these developments. Raphael Samuel argues that it also stood in the way of the city planners’ modernist vision and belief that ‘demolition was a good in itself, both on account of the ‘obsolete’ buildings and ‘out-of-date’ layouts which it did away with and because it prepared the way for comprehensive redevelopment – a ‘surgical operation’ […] designed to put a knife to the dead and decaying’.6
Nevertheless, following a planning enquiry, the London County Council agreed the removal of the arch but on condition that it was ‘re-erected on another site in an appropriate dignified and open setting’.7 This plan was supported by the MP Woodrow Wyatt, who tabled a motion in the House of Commons demanding that the arch be retained. Betjeman wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper in February 1960 to express his view that there was ‘no worthier memorial to the fact that Britain built the first railways than to re-construct this Arch, its lodges and railings on the Euston Road itself.’ He then went on to make the case for railway architecture more generally, not only for its national, historical significance, but also its beauty and utility, not just stations, but hotels, bridges, viaducts and tunnels. He concluded the letter by asserting that
If ruined castles, decaying churches and country houses are part of our heritage worthy of preservation, so are many of the constructions of our railways. I hope that a survey will be made of our railway architecture and that its best examples will be preserved.8
The Royal Fine Art Commission, the largely toothless body responsible for advising on questions of ‘public amenity or of artistic importance’, requested consultations on the Arch from both the British Transport Commission and the London County Council. However the British Transport Commission referred the Fine Art Commission to the London County Council, which in turn avoided the issue by stating that it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to call in the planning application. The Ministry refused to act, claiming that the London County Council had to deal with the application.
Eventually, after much passing the buck, in May 1960 Henry Brooke, the Conservative Minister for Housing and Local Government, was asked to issue a Building Preservation Order to prevent any works being carried out on the Arch without the permission of the London County Council. He rejected the request, believing that an Order was unnecessary given that the London County Council was in discussions with the British Transport Commission on the future of the Arch. The Royal Fine Art Commission contacted the Minister in June 1960 expressing their concern for the structure, and again requested to be consulted on the proposals for redevelopment of the station site. The Minister did not reply to this letter.
On 12 July 1961, in a written answer to a Parliamentary question, the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, confirmed that he had approved the reconstruction of Euston station which, in his view, was urgent due not only to the electrification programme but because three 50-year old lifts to the Underground station needed replacing, at a cost of £700,000. Moving the Arch was estimated to cost £190,000, compared with only £12,000 to knock it down. Although the Minister expressed his regret at the loss of a major monument of the early railway age, he could not justify the additional expenditure, and saw no practical alternatives to demolition.
The Arch’s imminent destruction prompted a preservation campaign in which Woodrow Wyatt, Betjeman and Pevsner all featured prominently. The Victorian Society, of which Betjeman was vice-chair, challenged the priorities of the government and other decision makers, noting rather bitterly that the cost of moving the Arch was ‘rather less than the Treasury [had] ungrudgingly paid out […] for the purchase of two indifferent Renoirs, which no one was threatening to destroy’.9 They attempted to raise £90,000 to pay for the relocation of the arch, and asked that any decisions about the Arch’s future be delayed until this had been done. Sir Charles Wheeler, the President of the Royal Academy, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Georgian Group, and the London Society, all added weight to the lobby for the Arch’s preservation.
On 24 October 1961, a group of campaigners including J.M. Richards, editor of the Architectural Review, went to see Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister, to make the case for the Arch, arguing that if it had to be moved, it should be re-erected elsewhere. As Richards recalled, ‘Macmillan listened — or I suppose he listened […] he sat without moving with his eyes apparently closed. He asked no questions; in fact he said nothing except that he would consider the matter.’10 Two weeks later Macmillan announced that he had decided against preservation, and that ‘every possible way’11 of saving the Arch had been investigated by the British Transport Commission, but the lack of available land, the operational requirements of the station and the removal costs entailed made the project unfeasible. He argued that the only place the arch could be put where it would not look ‘incongruous’ was the traffic roundabout on the Euston Road, a possibility considered unsuitable by the London County Council. He refused to allow the Victorian Society time to raise funds, as that would delay the reconstruction of the station and involve extra expenditure of £100,000. William Cook suggests that ‘[d]espite his olde-worlde public image’, Harold Macmillan was, like the town planners of the time, ‘infatuated with modernism’, and believed that an ‘obsession’ with old buildings could drain ‘national vitality’.12
However, Macmillan’s detachment perhaps also reflected a more widespread antipathy towards Victorian building. As Gavin Stamp observes, for much of the 20th century, ‘Victorian architecture was conventionally held to be self-evidently hideous and ridiculous, not to be taken seriously.’13 Pevsner recalled that when he gave his inaugural Slade Art College Lecture on the subject of the Victorian architect and designer Matthew Digby Wyatt, ‘the undergraduates found it a huge joke and laughed so much that I had to step off the platform and say: “This is not funny”.’14 In the 1930s even Betjeman himself held Victorian architecture up to ridicule, portraying it as an aesthetic chaos resulting from the rapid rise of the industrial bourgeoisie. Many Victorian buildings were demolished unmourned, or were extensively modernised in ways that later came to be regarded as crassly unsympathetic. The Victorian era as a whole was viewed by many as stuffy and hypocritical, Stamp suggests,
as dark and oppressive, at once sinister and ludicrous, and there was a violent reaction against its legacy in favour of a clean, uncluttered modernity. And the buildings left behind by the Victorians, so prominent, so solid, so confident, so extraordinary, became the targets of particularly virulent abuse.15
In many ways the Euston Arch was an archetype of everything that might be regarded as hateful about Victorian architecture, so the critical and popular outcry about its destruction was perhaps surprising, and indicative of something of a coming sea change in taste in late 20th century Britain.
Although a group of young architects attempted to delay it by climbing the scaffolding around the arch and erecting a 50ft long banner with the inscription ‘save the arch’ on it, demolition began in December 1961. Frank Valori was appointed as demolition contractors. The company revealed that it would take several weeks to demolish the Arch as the job would have to be done by hand – explosives being out of the question due to possible damage to the adjacent buildings.
The Architectural Review criticised the cynical means employed by British Rail in achieving the demolition of the arch:
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.16
Frank Valori later revealed to Lord Esher that he had undertaken the demolition ‘without pleasure’ and had offered to provide the Government with an alternative site at his own expense at which he would store the stones of the portico with a view to re-erecting it elsewhere. This offer was ‘disdainfully rejected by the Government on the flimsy pretext that no place could ever be found’. Valori presented a silver model of the arch to Lord Esher who admitted that the gesture ‘made him feel as if some man had murdered his wife and then presented him with her bust’.17 Valori later incorporated part of the arch into the house and garden that he built for himself in Bromley, Kent. The ornamental iron gates from the Arch were saved and are now at the National Railway Museum in York.
Euston Station could not be saved, but the changing attitudes to Victorian and industrial architecture that Betjeman, Pevsner and other campaigners helped bring about almost certainly saved both King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations, and the adjacent Midland Hotel. These buildings have recently been sympathetically restored and remodelled to meet the needs of the changing transport network, are universally admired and form the centrepiece of an extensive urban regeneration scheme.
When they were threatened with demolition in 1966, Betjeman wrote to the Sunday Telegraph extolling the virtues of the Midland and St Pancras, comparing the ‘vaulted passages’ to a cathedral, and arguing that
More damage has been done to London and our other old towns by ‘developers’ and their tame architects than ever was done by German bombing. No one can object to the clearance of what is shoddy and badly built. St Pancras Station is neither…18
It is fitting then that a statue of Betjeman was in 2007 installed in the newly restored and converted St Pancras concourse.
Industrial heritage has also become an expanding area of research and practice in recent decades, reflecting a growing realisation of ‘the immense importance of Britain’s role as the first industrial nation’,19 perhaps because, as Anthony Burton suggests,20 the British found it increasingly appealing to look back to a time when they led the world. Certainly, the sense of urgency prompted by the demolition of the Euston Arch and other, similar buildings appeared to galvanise public opinion, and gave a significant impetus to lobby organisations such as the Victorian Society, and to a host of groups of enthusiastic amateurs dedicated to preserving and celebrating the best of the relatively recent past before it disappeared forever in a flurry of ever accelerating technological change and social ‘progress’.
Following the demolition of the Arch, the Council of British Archaeology worked towards developing a widespread awareness ‘of the urgent need to get important monuments recognised, listed, documented and where possible, preserved’.21 The Industrial Monuments Survey was set up in 1963. In 1965 a report from the Ancient Monuments board called for an agreed policy on preserving significant structures, while the Survey became the National Record of Industrial Monuments and was taken under the care of the University of Bath, becoming part of the wider National Monuments Record in the 1990s. In 1967 environmental protection was put on the statute book in a Civic Amenities Act which made grants for the preservation of historic buildings a priority spend of municipal rates, and the creation of ‘conservation areas’ became a novel obsession of local authorities. Industrial architecture and remains have become an increasingly significant element of the concerns of UK bodies such as English Heritage and the National Trust, the latter taking responsibility for twenty six miles of canal in 1960, and appointing an industrial advisor in 1964.
Industrial archaeology also has a growing presence on the list of the UK’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 1986 there was only one, Ironbridge Gorge Museum, but by the end of the millennium this had risen to ten. The Association for Industrial Archaeology was founded in 1973, which was also, observes Robert Hewison, the year of the international oil crisis. Like Anthony Burton, Hewison suggests that the growth in interest in industrial archaeology should be considered in the context of the decline of British industry, with the former representing nostalgia for the latter. Hewison notes that, ironically,
While the real world of industrial manufacturing decays, redundant and obsolete machinery flourishes – in museums. Within a hundred years we have begun to conserve and protect some of the very things, such as railway lines and factories, which sparked off the urge to rediscover and protect the Britain that the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty believed was threatened. Now that time has eroded their function, industrial monuments, defined as ‘any relic of an obsolete phase of an industry or transport system, ranging from an Neolithic flint mine to a newly obsolete aircraft or electronic computer’, can be accommodated into the safe and pleasing past.22
However, until fairly recently interest in the topic remained on the periphery of academic study, particularly archaeology. This was in part because it was regarded, argues Hilary Orange, as a preservation activity undertaken by ‘hobbyists’, for ‘fun’.23 Although the involvement of characters like Betjeman was clearly vital in raising public awareness and concern, it perhaps damaged the credibility of the topic in the longer term, despite the best efforts of Pevsner and other scholars. More positively, though, Raphael Samuel regards the broadening of the definition and scope of heritage as indicative of a growing democratisation. In the late 1960s it became, he argues, ‘a cultural capital on which all were invited to draw’.24
In 1994 the historian Dan Cruickshank discovered an estimated 60% of the 4,000 plus tons of the arch buried in the bed of the Prescott Channel in the River Lea in East London. A section of one of the columns was recovered from the water. It transpired that the rubble had been purchased in 1962 to fill a chasm in the bed of the Channel.
Cruickshank found that despite spending over 30 years at the bottom of a river, the stone had not weathered at all. Consequently he argued that the reconstruction of the arch could still be a tangible reality. A fluted section of column was brought up from the river, and the stones with ‘Euston’ marked in gold lettering were also found there.
In 2007 Network Rail announced that it was looking to redevelop Euston Station. The initial plans were superseded in 2013 for an alternative that could accommodate the new High Speed Two rail link from London to Glasgow. These new plans seemed to offer an opportunity for the reconstruction of the Arch as the gateway to the new station. Last April four of the stones went on display outside the station to encourage interest in the scheme.
The proposal to rebuild the Arch is not a universally popular one, however, even amongst advocates for industrial heritage. For example, Peter Darley, secretary of the Camden Railway Heritage Trust, stated that his organisation would campaign against it, arguing that it was ‘an irrelevant and unnecessary diversion from creating a modern world class station and protecting Euston Square Gardens as a public open space in front of the station.’ He stated that while the Trust ‘is intimately concerned with preservation and restoration of the heritage of the London & Birmingham Railway, of which the Euston Arch formed a magnificent part. We propose that recovered fragments of the arch be integrated into the landscape of the piazza in front of the new Euston station.’ He argued that ‘These would be a stark reminder of the monument’s destruction, creating a classical vista not unlike the ruins of the Roman Forum, as well as provide public seating.’25
The future of the Arch remains, as yet, unclear.
- Diane Barthel, 1996, ‘Getting in Touch with History: The Role of Historic Preservation in Shaping Collective Memories’, Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 3
- Lionel Esher, A Broken Wave: The Rebuilding of England 1940-1980, (Pelican, London, 1983)
- Euston Arch Trust – http://www.eustonarch.org/
- Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, (Pimlico, London, 2013)
- Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, (Methuen, London, 1987)
- Hilary Orange, 2008, ‘Industrial Archaeology: Its Place Within the Academic Discipline, the Public Realm and the Heritage Industry’, Vol. 30, No. 2
- Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, (Verso, London, 1996)
- Gavin Stamp, Lost Victorian Britain: How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth Century’s Architectural Masterpieces, (Aurum Press, London, 2010)
- The Victorian Society, Saving A Century: The Victorian Society 1958-2008, (London, 2008)
1 Quoted in Stamp, Lost Victorian Britain, p. 41
2 Quoted in ibid., p. 42
3 Quoted in ibid., p. 20
4 Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, p. 528
5 Quoted in Saving A Century: The Victorian Society 1958-2008, p. 7
6 Samuel, Theatres of Memory, p. 67
7 Quoted in http://www.eustonarch.org/about-us/the-history/
8 John Betjeman, ‘The Demolition of Euston Arch’, Daily Telegraph, 8 February 1960
9 Quoted in Stamp, op cit., pp. 21-22
10 Quoted in ibid., p. 22
11 Quoted in http://www.eustonarch.org/about-us/the-history/
12 William Cook, ‘Should Euston Arch be raised from the dead?’, The Spectator, 23 May 2015
13 Stamp, op cit., p. 10
14 ibid., p. 10
15 ibid., p. 11
16 Quoted in http://www.eustonarch.org/about-us/the-history/
17 Quoted in ibid.
18 Quoted in Stamp, op cit., p. 24
19 Hilary Orange, ‘Industrial Archaeology: Its Place Within the Academic Discipline, the Public Realm and the Heritage Industry’, Industrial Archaeology Review, 2008, p. 83
20 see Burton, Remains of a Revolution
21 Quoted in Diane Barthel, ‘Getting in Touch with History: The Role of Historic Preservation in Shaping Collective Memories’, Qualitative Sociology, 1996, p. 347
22 Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, p. 91
23 Orange, op cit., p. 84
24 Samuel, op cit., pp. 237-238
25 Dan Carrier, ‘Heritage campaigners say they will fight plans to rebuild Euston Arch’, Camden New Journal, 16 February 2015