Excavating the Age of Steam
St Pancras station famously escaped demolition in the 1960s, but what happened to the bit Betjeman did not save? Louise Davies and Hana Lewis from Museum of London Archaeology share the secrets of the Somers Town Goods Yard with Matthew Symonds.
The 1960s were not kind to London’s Victorian heritage. Soot-encrusted and neglected, such public buildings were seen a sold-fashioned grotesques that had lingered too long. The decline in rail travel made stations particularly vulnerable to modernising drives. Despite public outcry, Euston’s elegant Doric buildings fell in 1961-1962, and by 1966 it was clear that St Pancras was next in the firing line. Yet the shockwaves of Euston’s demolition had galvanised opposition, and this time British Rail found itself facing an influential alliance of critics. Betjeman wrote evocatively of ‘Barlow’s train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel’. By 1967 the complex had Grade I protection, and British Rail backed down. St Pancras was saved, and rail heritage was on a surer footing. Or so it seemed.
But it was not just passengers who were whisked into the capital along the Midland Main Line: beside St Pancras lay the Somers Town Goods Yard, once a state-of-the-art facility designed to cater for London’s seemingly insatiable appetite for East Midlands’ victuals. Although it did not have the High Victorian grandeur of St Pancras, the goods yard proudly echoed its neighbour’s opulence with understated arcades of Gothic brick arches. St Pancras may well deserve to be lauded as a Victorian cathedral of steam, but Somers Town was its essential counterpart: a temple to consumerism on a massive scale. The goods yard, however, could not muster a line up of poets and architectural historians to shield it from the wrecker’s ball. So while St Pancras was spared, its unsung adjunct was levelled. In 1997, the site of the southern half of the Somers Town yard was redeveloped as the British Library. Now the northern half is set to become a new medical research institute (the UKCMRI), and a team of archaeologists from MOLA have been teasing out the traces of what London lost.
Barely six years after the first express steamed into St Pancras in 1868, the station faced a serious dilemma. The new main line was proving too successful for its own good, and the capital’s demand for perishable food had overwhelmed the original goods yard. If the rail company was to capitalise on this booming market, it needed to expand in a big way. But there was no suitable open ground nearby. Casting around, the company’s eye fell on the Somers Town slum housing to the west. By now a jumbled warren of around 4,000 late 18th and 19th century residences sheltered some 10,000 souls. Midland Railway’s problem was about to become their problem.
An act of Parliament provided the company with the compulsory purchase order they needed. Moving swiftly, Midland Railway set about razing a five hectare lot directly north of the Euston Road. While landowners were compensated for their loss, this was scant comfort to the occupants of the houses — most of whom were tenants far too poor to own their own properties. Unceremoniously ejected, these disposed residents were condemned to an uncertain future, so that London could fully enjoy the fresh produce rail transport offered. In their place a gigantic goods terminus to receive and distribute goods was constructed between 1883 and 1887.
The earliest finds from the Somers Town excavations belonged to the inhabitants of the slum housing. Although almost all traces of these were swept away when the goods yard was constructed, a drain survived, and within its silt was a collection of early 19th century household objects. These included beads, a comb, a spoon, an ornamental ceramic running hare, and a curious cone-shaped object. Open ended, with slight traces of burning around the rim, this is believed to be a device for snuffing out candles. The silt itself will be analysed to see if it can reveal traces of any organic materials that accompanied these everyday objects into the drain.
The influence of St Pancras station on the architecture of the goods yard that replaced the slum tenements went beyond its Gothic brickwork arches. The two storey solution at St Pancras, designed to deal with the uneven site and the nearby Regent’s Canal, was also adopted at Somers Town. A viaduct carried a branch off the Main Line, leading onto the upper level of the yard, where goods sheds and over 30 sidings catered for wagons carrying a variety of foodstuffs.
Underneath, the lower storey of the yard was at street level, and served as the distribution centre. Here, there were offices, stores, and even a large potato market — now the site of the British library. The quantities of produce fed a constant stream of traffic, with the 1,200 rail company horses needed to deliver goods by cart causing tailbacks that stretched beyond the goods yard gates. Keeping these carts laden required enough track for 600 railway wagons, and the facilities to unload them. One stretch of track under excavation still had the timber sleepers that held the rails in place. Next to it was a cobbled surface, where carts could draw up alongside the railway wagons, and unload their cargoes directly into the carriages, before distributing them throughout the metropolis. Yet this neat arrangement also highlights rail freight’s Achilles’ heel: it lacked the flexibility that came with supplying goods by road.
While the two-storey design of Somers Town economised on space, it brought a problem of its own — how to move incredibly heavy loads between the two levels? The solution was pressurised water, and while London had a public hydraulic power supply at the time, the yard’s dependence on it led to the construction of a hydraulic pump station within the goods yard. Excavated by the MOLA team in April this year, this facility provides a fascinating insight into the mechanics of powering heavy equipment in the pre-electrical era. The remains included corroded water tanks, and brick boiler supports that survive to their original height. Here the water was transformed into steam and piped into three steam-driven hydraulic pumps that
converted it into pressurised water. Once pressurised, it was fed into the power station’s accumulator tower. This innovation provided a way to maintain water pressure, or release sudden bursts of energy, without building a gigantic water tower. The accumulator powered three cranes capable of shifting 20 tons — or a fully laden railway wagon — and an array of smaller hoists and capstans. These latter, more commonly encountered on ships, could be used to shunt wagons for a short distance instead of bringing in a locomotive.
This is an extract. The full article can be found in Issue 256 of Current Archaeology.