The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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St. Pancras Chambers
8th October 1998

Our Guide, Calum Rollo, has been with the building since before restoration began. He led the group of 20 Friends on an extensive tour of the ground, first and second floors lasting over two hours.

We started in the south west Entrance Hall where there is a small display of recovered items found during the restoration work. The items cover chimney pots taken from the roof, to a pair of Victorian-period, workman's boots.

St Pancras Chambers viewed from Euston Road

A display panel shows that the building has been used as a set for several films in recent years and appears to be in increasing demand.

Calum started the tour with a brief description of the construction of the building. Sir George Gilbert Scott won the competition for the design in 1865. The east wing, from clock tower to central tower was constructed between 1868 and 1873. It was another three years before the frontage was complete. Scott used fourteen different types of stone in its construction, mainly for decorative effect.

The Midland Grand Hotel was from the start a most impressive place. It charged top prices - 14 shillings a night for a room, breakfast and an evening meal - and was recommended for large dinners where expense was no object. There were also offices dedicated for the management of the Midland Hotel chain. The hotel was operational to 1935 when activities terminated because it was no longer competitive. It was then converted to offices, being renamed St Pancras Chambers, finally closing in the 1980s because it no longer met fire regulations. In the early1990s there were a number of investigations into the state of building. They found that some of chimney pots were nearly ready to drop off and the roof was in a very poor condition. As a result, between 1993 and 1995, the outside of the building was repaired and cleaned. This cost £10 million, 90% coming from from BR , the remainder from English Heritage. The work was a prodigious user of scaffolding, some 60 to 80 thousand scaffolding clips being employed.

The building and lands at St Pancras went with the award of the Channel Tunnel high speed line to London and Continental Railways. The second phase of this project involves the line from Stratford to St Pancras, and it is hoped that full restoration of the building will form part of this phase. There have already been discussions with an American hotel company, which is making preliminary planning for the refurbishment of the interior to modern standards. However, as a grade 1 listed building there are many restrictions.

In the Entrance Hall, the floor tiles are by Minton and Company, with stone carvings over the window lintels representing owls, hawks, griffins and two headed doves. The upper wall decoration is not original, recent cleaning showing at least two other layers of decoration underneath. That on display dates from around 1910. Moving along the corridor we saw Victorian and Edwardian decoration which had been uncovered by careful washing and removal of the overcoats. In places, there are 7 coats of paint running up to the date of the hotel closure in 1935. The Victorian and Edwardian decoration comprises shellac varnish. Shellac was particularly susceptible to discoloration, reacting with the smog and dirt entering from the street. In most cases, it lasted less than 10 years before it was time for replacement. The upper half of the corridor was less on show and there are far fewer coats.

We then moved to the grand staircase. Surrounding the staircase are a number of hydraulic lifts. Until fairly recently these still worked, but they have now been locked out of service because of safety concerns. They were originally supplied by W G Armstrong, but the original timber boxes have "Otis" inscribed on them. They are believed to have been supplied by Armstrong when they were acting as the British agent for the American company.

Roof of the Grand Staircase

£100,000 was spent on refurbishment of the stairwell roof painting which comprises paintings of the eight virtues, together with the shield of the Midland Railway. The refurbishment was undertaken in 1994, brought on because the roof above it was in such a poor state that damp was getting through and rapidly destroying the illustrations.

The worst was "Humility" which had about two thirds of the panel destroyed. It was carefully restored by reference to original black and white photographs taken by the Historic Monuments department shortly after the hotel closed. The top floor landing is supported by cast iron girders with a simulated carved wooden covering. The stone corbels supporting the girders, although apparently identical are actually slightly different. The surrounding arches are also slightly different shapes, all due to the independent mindedness of the contract stonemasons. There are surprisingly few sources of artificial light on the stairwell which must have been quite gloomy during one of the regular London smogs. Those that are present were originally "gasoliers", converted to electrific lighting in the 1880s.

We moved to the second floor corridor, where Calum showed some of the problems in restoration, caused by the shortage of skilled craftsmen, for example bricklayers. During the restoration they needed to duplicate the 3mm thick mortar beds of the original brick courses. Only one bricklayer could replicate this with any degree of consistency, all the others quickly reverting to modern 5mm mortar beds.

Calum explained that while the ground floor had a coffee lounge and dinning room for public use, the rest of the floor was dedicated to station use. The first floor contained the main hotel function rooms. Only when we arrived at this, the second floor, did we come upon the main guest rooms. The third floor also comprised guest room, but of slightly lower quality. The fourth floor housed the "travelling servants", i.e. those members of the guests' household who accompanied their master and mistress. Finally, the fifth floor was for hotel staff use. A census survey in the late 1800s shows a total of 110 guests, with 310 staff - such was the level of service in the early days.

The second floor consists of a number of suites of rooms, designed to give a comfortable, familiar feeling to the upper-class guests. As an example, we entered room 104, which was probably the sitting room in the suite of 6 adjoining rooms. Despite its opulence, the railway heritage of the building is not far removed; a cast iron girder over the window, for example, has the bolt heads showing on its underside where a wrought iron plate is attached.

Room 104 One of the suites at the front of the building

The wall covering in this room is an early anaglypta dating from the early 1920s. On top of this, BR placed some 1960s textile wallpapers. Looking round this, one of the most prestigious suites, it was quite apparent why the hotel declined. The main room heating was from individual coal fires. In all there are 655 fireplaces in the building, and the first job of the chamber-maids each morning was to stoke every one. Not only was it inefficient, it was expensive too. Added to this, for the 110 rooms on the second floor, there are only 3 bathrooms (night commodes being provided in all rooms). While acceptable at the time of its building, it did not match up to even late Victorian period standards. Consequently, by 1930 it was no longer a top level hotel and in 1935 it achieved only £2700 profit, insufficient for it to survive.

Many of the rooms were altered to make them more usable for offices after the hotel closed. Room 105, for example, has a part concrete floor and one wall tiled. This indicates it was originally one of the three bathrooms. Subsequently, the bathroom wall was knocked down and additional concrete added to the floor to withstand the weight of a computer during the 1960s (yes, they were that heavy in those days!).

We walked along the second floor and to the servants staircase. Here Calum told us some of the stories he had heard from the staff of the old hotel. One told of the demise of a hotel porter in the early part of this century, who was in the habit of using the large water tank on roof as an unofficial swimming pool. Unfortunately, during his last session he had a heart attack and was only found three days later. In the meantime, the tank carried on supplying the domestic water.

We moved along the first floor to the guest staircase from the station concourse entrance. This was behind the current location of W.H. Smiths bookstall. The staircase led straight up from there to the first floor and the hotel function rooms. A splendid roof painting over the staircase is still in situ, sumptuously decorated with gold leaf. Looking out of the staircase windows, we had a good elevated view of the train-shed. When completed the station roof was the longest, widest and tallest in the world - it still is the tallest. However, to cope with Eurostar trains it will need to be virtually doubled in length. There is an ongoing debate between English Heritage and LCR on the design of the extension, the former, of course, wanting the extension to be in keeping with the existing Barlow train-shed. There is also concern over the future of the gasholders to the north of the station, all of which are Grade 1 listed.

Guest Staircase overlooking the Barlow Trainshed of St Pancras Station

We moved back toward the grand staircase to inspect an oil-on-canvas painting in an alcove. This is "The Garden of Deduit - Romance de la Rose" by Thomas Wallis Hay, a Scottish painter who emigrated to Australia in 1903. This painting is probably early 1900s, possibly commissioned by the hotel when the electricity supply was rewired in 1902, in a successful attempt to cover the cable conduits. Although slightly damaged it should be easily restored.

We moved to the Ladies Smoking Room, located directly above the south-west Entrance Hall. The name originating in the early 1900s, as a foretaste of female emancipation. There are two fireplaces with polished-granite columns. Some of the stone bases of these columns were recently cleaned in preparation for a film which ultimately didn't happen. Nevertheless, thanks to the film company we can now see that the base is made from a striking pink sandstone, effectively contrasting with the granite above, just as Sir George originally planned. Adjoining the Ladies Smoking Room is the main guest Dining Room. This could be split into two, to provide more intimate surroundings, by a screen running on a roof mounted rail system.

The Garden of Deduit - Romance de la Rose; painting in the landing alcove

We returned by way of the grand staircase to the first floor and the original Public Coffee Lounge and Dining Room. Here Calum pointed to the clock tower which is unmissable through the windows. Whilst Thomas Walker produced the first clock, this was soon replaced by a Dent mechanism. Dent was the company which solved the problem of the effect of wind on towers clocks, which tends to drive the arms on each face at different speeds.

Landing on the Grand Staircase

Surprisingly, there was no record to show that such a clock had been installed at St Pancras, and it only came to light during the restoration of the building. It has now been sent to the NRM at York. This lack of records may well inhibit the restoration of the building. Recently, the original inventory of the Hotel has re-surfaced in the records at York. Calum considers it a "gold mine" of detail which should help fill in some of the history. Perhaps surprisingly, while many diagrams of the building survive, they rarely directly match what exists. Because of the prestigious nature of the building, it was subject to extensive photography during its early life. However, only a small fraction of those known to have been taken are actually available. Calum has done the rounds of the obvious sources, including the Public Records Office, and the NRM, but still much needs to be found. He therefore extends a call to anyone who can provide any details of the Hotel's past. His most successful response came following the screening of a television programme in the "One Foot in the Past" series; this produced 180 letters from people offering information, many from ex-staff. As a result, he hosted a party for all contributors, even including a 103 year old. If you know of any records, please let him know, care of St Pancras Chambers, Euston Road.