Agar Town and the Midland Railway

Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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'Agar Town and the Midland Railway', in Old and New London: Volume 5, (London, 1878) pp. 368-373. British History Online [accessed 4 March 2024]

In this section



Origin of the Midland Railway—Agar Town as it was—A Good Clearance—Underground Operations for the Construction of the Midland Railway and Terminus—Re-interment of a Roman Catholic Dignitary—The Midland Railway—Mr. William Agar—Tom Sayers, the Pugilist—The English "Connemara"—A Monster Hotel—The Midland Terminus: Vast Size of the Roof of the Station—A Railway Goods Bank—The Imperial Gas Works—York Road.

The Midland Railway, unlike most other long lines, was commenced, not in London, but in the provinces, having been originated in 1832 at a village inn on the borders of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, in the necessities of a few coalowners—not of the richest and most influential class. It has, however, gradually found its way from the provinces into London, and has spread out its paths of iron, like a net-work, north and south, east and west, through half the counties of England, till they stretch from the Severn to the Humber, from the Wash to the Mersey, from the Thames to the Solway Firth. Its construction has cost fifty millions of money, bringing in an income of five millions a year; and it has before it an almost unlimited future. We do not intend here to attempt an account of the entire Midland line; but as we have already given some details about the London and North-Western line in our account of Euston Square, so our description of St. Pancras will not be complete without a few particulars about this railway. When this line was brought into London, in 1866, it wrought a mighty revolution in the neighbourhood where we now are. "For its passenger station alone it swept away a church and seven streets of three thousand houses," writes Mr. F. Williams, in his "History of the Midland Railway: a Narrative of Modern Enterprise." "Old St. Pancras churchyard was invaded, and Agar Town almost demolished. Yet those who knew this district at that time have no regret at the change. Time was when the wealthy owner of a large estate had lived here in his mansion; but after his departure the place became a very 'abomination of desolation.' In its centre was what was termed La Belle Isle, a dreary and unsavoury locality, abandoned to mountains of refuse from the metropolitan dust-bins, strewn with decaying vegetables and foul-smelling fragments of what once had been fish, or occupied by knackers'-yards and manure-making, bone-boiling, and soap-manufacturing works, and smoke-belching potteries and brick-kilns. At the broken doors of multilated houses canaries still sang, and dogs lay basking in the sun, as if to remind one of the vast colonies of bird-fanciers and dog-fanciers who formerly made Agar Town their abode; and from these dwellings came out wretched creatures in rags and dirt, and searched amid the far-extending refuse for the filthy treasure by the aid of which they eked out a miserable livelihood; whilst over the whole neighbourhood the gas-works poured forth their mephitic vapours, and the canal gave forth its rheumatic dampness, extracting in return some of the more poisonous ingredients in the atmosphere, and spreading them upon the surface of the water in a thick scum of various and ominous hues. Such was Agar Town before the Midland Railway came into the midst of it."

The above sketch is slightly—but only slightly—overdrawn; for the canal still flows where it did, and it is known that gas-works, though unsightly, are not really unhealthy neighbours. Be this, however, as it may, a mighty clearance of houses was made, and a population equal to that of ten small boroughs was swept away, as the first step towards a new order of things. The neighbourhood for many months presented the appearance of an utter chaos, with mounds of earth, the débris of houses and tunnels in the course of being dug. By the side of the Euston Road, close under the front of the Midland Railway Hotel, was dug a large trench in which was built a tunnel for the use of the Metropolitan Company whenever it shall need to double its present traffic-lines. Further to the north came sweeping round another large cutting in which was to be made the actual junction of the Metropolitan and the Midland lines. "So vast, indeed, were these subterranean operations," writes Mr. Williams, "that the St. Pancras Station became like an iceberg, the greater portion of it being below the surface; indeed, remarkable as is the engineering skill displayed in the large building which towers so majestically above all its neighbours, it is as nothing compared with the works concealed below ground. For right underneath the monster railway station are two other separate constructions, one above the other, none the less wonderful because they will never see the light of day, but are irrevocably doomed
'To waste their sweetness on the desert air.'"
These works are the Underground Railway and the Fleet Sewer, while the branch of the Metropolitan that joins the Midland not only crosses it at the southern extremity, but thence runs up under the western side of the station, to re-cross at its northern end to the eastern side, where it gradually rises to its junction about a mile down the line.

Of the difficulty experienced in carrying the railway through the graveyard of Old St. Pancras Church, and also through that of St. Giles's parish which adjoins it, without any unavoidable disturbance of the dead, we have spoken in a previous chapter; (fn. 1) but we may add here, that, though every precaution was taken by the agents of the Midland Railway Company, a most serio-comic incident occurred during the process. The company had purchased a new piece of ground in which to re-inter the human remains discovered in the part which they required. Among them was the corpse of a high dignitary of the Roman Catholic Church in France. Orders were received for the transshipment of the remains to his native land, and the delicate work of exhuming the corpse was entrusted to some clever gravediggers. On opening the ground they were surprised to find the bones, not of one man, but of several. Three skulls and three sets of bones were yielded up by the soil in which they had lain mouldering. The difficulty was how to identify the bones of a French ecclesiastic amid so many. After much discussion, the shrewdest of the gravediggers suggested that, as he was a foreigner, the darkest-coloured skull must be his. Acting upon this idea, the blackest bones were sorted and put together, until the requisite number of lefts and rights were obtained. These were reverently screwed up in a new coffin, conveyed to France, and buried again with all the "pomp and circumstance" of the Roman Catholic Church.

Shortly after passing the churchyard of Old St. Pancras the line crosses the Regent's Canal, and then passes under the North London Railway, which is carried above it by a bridge of three arches. "Their construction," Mr. Jackson tells us, "was a matter of no ordinary difficulty on account of the ceaseless traffic on the line overhead; it was, however, accomplished without the interruption of a single hour." The Midland line is here joined by the branch which comes up from the Metropolitan at King's Cross, as mentioned above. The lines actually converge near the Camden covered-way; but the transfer of passengers usually takes place at Kentish Town Station, half a mile further from the London Terminus. At Kentish Town a line branches off to Holloway and Tottenham, while the main line is carried by a long tunnel under Haverstock Hill, whence, emerging into open daylight, the trains run on to Hendon and St. Albans, and thence northwards through the "midland" counties.

We have spoken above of the great clearance of houses which was effected in this locality by the formation of the Midland Railway. The district, which is—or was—known as Agar Town, consisted mostly of small tenements of the lowest class, named after one Mr. William Agar—or, as he was commonly called, "Councillor Agar," an eccentric and miserly lawyer—to whom the site was let on a short lease for building purposes, about the year 1840.

Twenty years later the fee-simple of the greater part of this locality was transferred by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, to whom it had reverted, to the Midland Railway Company for a considerable sum, and most of the houses have been swept away to form ale and coal stores and other warehouses in connection with the terminus of the Midland Railway, about which we shall speak presently. Much of the vacant ground not required for the company's use has been laid out for building warehouses, and has raised, as it were, another town in the place of this already overcrowded neighbourhood.

It can hardly be expected that such a district as this can have any historical associations worth recording; but still the place has not been without its "celebrities," for here lived for many years the well-known pugilist, Tom Sayers. His notoriety arose from his accepting the challenge of Heenan, the American champion, in 1860, to fight for the champion belt of the world. Sayers was comparatively small in stature, whilst Heenan was much above the ordinary height; and it is said that when Sayers met his monster opponent for the first time he felt a little daunted. The fight, nevertheless, came off, and in the first round Sayers's right arm was broken; but still, with this fractured limb, he continued the encounter for some time, and in the end, if he did not obtain the victory, he made it a drawn battle, and received with Heenan the honour of a double belt. Henceforth Tom Sayers was everywhere greeted as a hero; and at the Stock Exchange a purse of £1,000 was handed to him for his "gallant conduct," on the understanding that he at once retired from the Ring. For a time Sayers was the topic of general conversation; but he did not long survive his triumph, if such it may be called. He died soon afterwards from pulmonary consumption, and was buried, with considerable ceremony, in the Highgate Cemetery, his profile and a portrait of his dog being the only memorials on his tombstone to mark the place of his interment.

If the Midland Railway had conferred no other benefit on London and Londoners, our thanks would be due to it for having cleared away the whole, or nearly the whole, of the above-mentioned miserable district of mud and hovels, and given us something better to look upon. So dreary and dirty indeed was the place—though its creation was only of so recent date—that it was styled by Charles Dickens our "English Connemara." It was mainly occupied by costermongers, and by dog and bird fanciers.

Having made these general remarks about the line, and of the site which it occupies, we will proceed with a few details concerning the station and the "grand hotel" which adjoins it. The latter building, which abuts upon the Euston Road, facing Judd Street, was opened in 1873, and completed in the spring of 1876. It was erected from the designs of Sir Gilbert Scott, and is constructed chiefly of red brick, with dressings of Bath stone, in the most ornate style of Gothic art. It must be owned that towering as it does into mid air, it is a most beautiful structure; indeed, to quote the words of the "Tourist's Guide," "it stands without a rival in the hotel line, for palatial beauty, comfort, and convenience." The style of architecture is a combination of various mediæval features, the inspection of which recall to mind the Lombardic and Venetian brick Gothic or Gothic-Italian types, while the critical eye of the student will observe touches of Milan and other Italian terra-cotta buildings, interlaced with good reproductions of details from Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals, Westminster Abbey, &c.; while in the interior and exterior may be seen the ornaments of Amiens, Laon, and other French edifices, which, though a conglomerate, must have required great pains and skill to properly harmonise in order to produce so attractive a result. The designs of the interior, as well as the apartments (some of which are embellished with almost regal splendour), were the production of Sir Gilbert Scott, afterwards assisted by Mr. Sang. The colouring is rich and almost faultlessly pleasing and harmonious, producing a marked mediæval character. The ceiling of the reading-room glows in an atmosphere of gold and colour, yet free and graceful in its figures and ornaments, designed by Mr. Sang. The large and magnificent coffee-room, the "grand saloon," together with the adjoining "state" and reception rooms, probably have no equal in point of design or finish in any building of the kind; while the corridors and staircases throughout are all decorated in a rich style, at once tasteful and beautiful.

A broad terraced carriage-drive, 400 feet in length, separates the hotel from the roadway, and leads by various entrances to the building and archways to the station. Altogether, the hotel has a frontage of about 600 feet; and it is very lofty, consisting of seven storeys, including attics in the sloping roofs. At the south-east corner of the building is a clock-tower 240 feet high, nearly forty feet higher than the Monument at London Bridge. There are bedrooms for upwards of 500 guests, all most luxuriously furnished; and an uniformly mild temperature is maintained in all seasons. The cost of the hotel, with its fittings and furniture, is said to have been not less than half a million pounds sterling. The whole of the arrangements for conducting the business of the hotel, it need hardly be added, are most complete. There are speaking-tubes, electric bells, lifts, and dust-shafts; and an apparatus for the extinction of fire is laid on at every floor. In the basement are spacious and extensive cellars, and a laundry; and it may be added that the whole of the washing and drying is done by steam power.

It was found necessary to raise the level of the terminus about fifteen feet higher than the Euston Road, in order to secure good gradients and proper levels for some of the suburban stations. The space underneath was then utilised as a cellarage for the Burton and other ale traffic, and thus the entire station may be said, seriously as well as jestingly, to rest on a substratum of beer. The roof of part of the cellarage forms the flooring of the terminus and platform of the station, and is so constructed as to bear the immense weight of many locomotive engines at the same time.

The roof is of glass, supported by huge iron girders, "not unlike lobster's claws, from which the shorter nippers have been broken," and forming a Gothic arch, not resting on piers, but embedded in the ground. It is 100 feet high, 700 feet in length, and its width about 240 feet. The span of the roof covers four platforms, eleven lines of rails, and a cab-stand twenty-five feet wide; altogether the station occupies a site of nearly ten acres. There are twenty-five principal ribs in the roof, and the weight of each is about fifty tons. The very scaffolding, by the help of which the roof was raised into its position, contained eight miles of massive timber, 1,000 tons in weight, besides about 25,000 cubic feet of wood, and eighty tons of ironwork. No other roof of so vast a span has been attempted. It is double the width of the Agricultural Hall at Islington, and ten yards wider than the two arches of the neighbouring terminus of the Great Northern Railway, which, when first built, were considered a triumph of engineering skill. Some idea may be formed of the vast expanse of the roof of the Midland Terminus when we state that it contains no less than two acres and a half of glass. The gigantic main ribs cost a thousand pounds apiece. These and the other interior portions of the framework are painted a sky-blue, and by this means the roof is made to look particularly light and airy. We may add that in the station and its approaches were absorbed about sixty millions of bricks, nine thousand tons of iron, and eighty thousand cubic feet of dressed stone. The consulting engineer was Mr. Barlow.

The opening of the St. Pancras Station in the year 1868, and its connection with the Metropolitan and other lines, gave the Midland Company, for the first time, a London terminus. Up to this period the Midland trains travelled on the Great Northern line from King's Cross as far as Hitchin, and thence by a branch line to Bedford and other portions of the Midland Railway system.

At the Midland Railway Goods Station alone some 1,300 men are employed, and at the Coal Depôt in York Road, close by, there are from 150 to 200 coal porters and carters. From the "Report of the London City Mission," which gives an account of the work that is being done by the society's agents among the labourers employed here, we quote the following description of a "Goods Bank:"—"The 'Goods Banks,' as they are called, are three in number. But does the reader know what a 'Goods Bank' is? Let me attempt a description. Suppose a building of adequate length to receive a tolerably long goods train, and about sixty or eighty feet wide, with a platform raised just high enough to load a cart at, or to unload a train of trucks without the toil of raising the goods. Fancy this platform running the whole length of the edifice, and more than half its width, packed up with every conceivable sort of merchandise, with little passages between leading to the carts, trucks, and various parts of the platform. Then imagine these carts, trucks, and passages all alive with men, some in uniform, some without, some with caps that tell you they are foremen, &c., and all variously employed. Here is a string of them, with handbarrows loaded; there another with the same articles empty; here are men at the cranes raising the goods to the height required, while there are men receiving them; then, again, over there are the officials with long papers in their hands, that make you wonder where all that writing is done, and how they manage to get rid of the goods described on them. But just look around on the goods. You will no longer wonder that Webster's Dictionary is such a thick volume, but rather stand wondering where the English language gets names from to describe the multiplicity of articles before you, and you go away with a much better idea of the intelligence of the railway official who knows how to describe the items in such a miscellaneous collection. Amongst this endless array I have seen sewing machines, reaping machines, pianos, harmoniums, holly and mistletoe, bags and sacks that you could not imagine what was inside, and bags and sacks that from their peculiar colour and odour, as well as from the appearance of the men handling them, you know at once to be soot. On one occasion an official said to me, 'Do you smell anything particular this morning?' On my replying negatively, he said, 'We have just had a large arrival of cats' meat in a bad condition;' and I learnt that this article sometimes came up by tons from Scotland—our friends out north being too canny to waste anything. At another time I saw the dead carcase of a horse swinging high in the air, as it was about to be delivered to a waiting cart or van. But," adds the missionary, "this terrible bustle of business makes the 'Bank' in itself an unfavourable place for religious work."

Between the Midland and the Great Northern lines a large space of ground is covered partly by the Imperial Gas Works, and partly by a coal depôt and the Great Northern Railway Goods Depôt. On the east side of these various centres of industry runs northwards the road which forms the boundary between the parishes of St. Pancras and Islington. This thoroughfare, as we have stated in a previous volume, (fn. 2) was, till recently, called Maiden Lane, and it is one of the most ancient roads in the north of London. The historian Camden says, "It was opened to the public in the year 1300, and was then the principal road for all travellers proceeding to Highgate and the north." It was formerly called "Longwich Lane," and was generally kept in such a dirty, disreputable state as to be almost impassable in winter, and was so often complained of that the Bishop of London was induced to lay out a new road to Highgate Hill, so that a carrier might get to the north by avoiding Longwich Lane. But of this we shall have more to say when we reach Highgate.

"The old and anciente highwaye to High Barnet, from Gray's Inn and Clerkenwell," writes John Norden, in his "Speculum Britanniæ," "was through a lane to the east of Pancras Church, called Longwich Lane, from whence, leaving Highgate on the west, it passed through Tallingdon Lane, and so on to Crouche Ende, thence through Hornsey Great Park to Muswell Hill, Coanie Hatch, Fryene Barnete, and so on to Whetstone. This anciente waye, by reason of the deepness and dirtieness of the passage in the winter season, was refused by wayfaring men, carriers, and travellers, in regard, whereof, it is agreed between the Bishop of London and the countrie, that a new waye shall be laide forthe through Bishop's Park, beginning at Highgate Hill, to leade directe to Whetstone, for which a certain tole should be paid to the Bishop, and for that purpose has a gate been erected on the hill, that through the same all travellers should pass, and be the more aptly staide for the tole."


Before quitting Maiden Lane, we may here mention the fact that for some few months previous to the erection of the Great Northern Terminus at King's Cross, which occupies the site of the Smallpox Hospital, the trains of that company started from a temporary station in Maiden Lane.

From King's Cross as far as Camden Road this thoroughfare was some years ago named York Road, on account of the contiguity of the London and York (now the Great Northern) Railway; and from the "Brecknock Arms," at the north-east corner of Camden Town, to the foot of Highgate Hill, it was, a few years ago, re-named the Brecknock Road, by order of the Metropolitan Board of Works. By this road we will now proceed leisurely on our way northwards.


  • 1. See ante, p. 336.
  • 2. See Vol. II., p. 276.