St Pancras Station: An Offensively Brief Biography

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 12 months ago

Last Updated 19 July 2023

St Pancras Station: An Offensively Brief Biography

A very brief, very potted history of London's most stunning railway station. Also see our offensively brief biography of neighbouring King's Cross.

The St Pancras station roof, with the champagne booths below
St Pancras - a station built on beer (although today better known for its champagne bar). Image: Londonist

Beheaded teenager: St Pancras station takes its name from the surrounding parish of St Pancras, named after St Pancras Old Church, named after Saint Pancras — a 14-year-old boy who refused to denounce his Christian faith, and was therefore beheaded by Diocletian. Christians still sometimes invoke St Pancras against headaches.

There goes the neighbourhood: When the station was built in the 1860s by the Midland Railway Company (MRC), huge chunks of the surrounding Agar Town and Somers Town neighbourhoods were demolished to make way. Thousands of people wound up homeless: you can go on a guided tour led by a formerly homeless person, that discusses this in more depth.

View of King's Cross station from the roof of St Pancras
Looking down on its rival station. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Inspiring roof: The crowning glory of St Pancras is its striking train shed, boasting a single-span roof designed by William Henry Barlow. This was the inspiration behind the roof of the original Grand Central station in NYC, before that had a makeover. (The two stations were officially twinned in 2014.) You can climb up on St Pancras's roof and gaze down on the platforms (and its neighbouring rival, King's Cross)... if you know the right people.

Built on beer: The MRC built St Pancras so that it had its own dedicated London railway terminus. These were the days when freight was king, and as well as coal and milk, one of the biggest imports was the newfangled pale ale beer from Burton-on-Trent. The vaults (where St Pancras's shops are today) were storage areas for the beer, copied from those in Burton — measuring 14 feet across — to snugly fit the barrels. Those Victorians could hardly have guessed that in 2023, the station would be directly linked to Paris, the trains pulling in and out alongside a champagne bar.

A glass and bottle of Bass beer
Bass was one of the biggest imports into the station when it opened. Image: Sotaro OMURA via creative commons

Dry hotel rooms: George Gilbert Scott's Midland Grand Hotel opened in 1873, five years after the station. Early ads perhaps slightly undersold the 250 rooms, stating they were "perfectly dry". An article from the Illustrated London News in 1967 claims that "Scott's friends thought the building the finest in London. Others thought it vulgar and ridiculous." The erstwhile Gilbert Scott cocktail bar mixed a concoction called... The Londonist. We demand its return!

Grisly suicide: A dark chapter in the station's history is recounted in newspapers from January 1878; a porter from the Midland Grand Hotel committed suicide by disembowelling himself, chasing people who came to his aid up two flights of stairs, then leaping to his death through a plate glass window, falling into the courtyard outside the station entrance.

The gothic redbrick lovlieness of the hotel
The Midland Grand - finest building in London, or vulgar and ridiculous? Image: Rob Oo via creative commons

Massive clock up: One of the first things passengers notice pulling into the station is the gargantuan Grace clock. Spoiler alert: this is not the original. That was dropped and smashed into many pieces by cack-handed British Rail staff in 1968. Another member of staff bought the pieces and rebuilt it onto the side of his Nottinghamshire barn. Shame the whole incident didn't happen in the last few years, because it would've made a cracking episode of The Repair Shop.

Horses, vans, cars: The grand porch where many foot passengers now arrive was initially where horse-drawn carts, and later on, vans, would drive through to unload freight. (The space where you'll now find Hamleys, M&S et al., was also used as a car park, after beer imports dried up in the 1960s.) Watch the 1987 action movie The Fourth Protocol to see Michael Caine perform a screeching handbrake turn in a Rover on one of St Pancras's platform, before leaping onto a moving train. Not bad for a bloke then in his mid-50s.

Channel Tunnel: Not content with stealing King's Cross's thunder when it opened, St Pancras did the same to Waterloo in 2007, when its Eurostar services were moved here. The Queen opened the new terminal on 7 November. Trains came with the added bonus of 20 mins shorter run-in to Paris. Hopefully passengers didn't have an onward journey to make from France; a massive strike was on that day, and transport was crippled.

Betjeman: Developers did some insane things back in the 1960s, including almost demolishing most of St Pancras station, in a ham-fisted attempt to link it with King's Cross. It's said that it was only 11 days off being turned to rubble, when then-poet laureate John Betjeman helped finally manage to secure the station a Grade 1 listing. His cuddly concourse statue is now adored by all who see it.

Spice Girls: In 1996, the landscape of pop music changed forever, with the arrival of the Spice Girls and their debut hit Wannabe. Most people remember the sweeping staircase of what is now St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, upon which they cavort in the video. Fewer recall that, at the start of the video, Baby Spice steals from a homeless man.

Marmite statue: Paul Day's 30-feet-tall statue of an embracing couple — The Meeting Place — courted much controversy when unveiled after the station's massive restoration in 2007. Anthony Gormley called it "a very good example of the crap out there." (Personally I like it.) There was also a furore over early reliefs Day had created for the statue's base, including a skeleton driving a tube train, seemingly about to hit an intoxicated person. That — and someone giving the middle finger to passers-by — never made the final design.

St Pancras has had some pretty unusual Christmas trees over the years.

Pianos: Public pianos were introduced to the station in 2012, becoming something of an attraction in their own right. Elton John brought his own piano in 2016, scrawled his name on it, then left it here. Currently, Channel 4 show The Piano sees ludicrously talented musicians tickle the ivories at the station, little knowing that Mika bloke is spying on them from a nearby hidden room. The pianos are kept tuned by Richard Lewis.

Oh Christmas tree: In its restored incarnation, St Pancras has become known for its increasingly unorthodox Christmas tree displays — including an Eiffel Tower built out of perfume bottles, and a tree suffocated in Disney soft toys.

A young couple holding hands in their weeding garb at St Pancras station
Claire and Matt Zinsner got married in the station just before lockdown rules came in.

Love in the time of Covid: On 18 March 2020 — just a few days before the UK went into total lockdown — Anglo-French couple Claire and Matt Zinsner had a rushed wedding at St Pancras station, with a reception at the Searcy's champagne bar. Well, it is called the 'Cathedral of the Rails' after all.

Amsterdam: The first direct London to Amsterdam train service ran on 4 April 2018, with passengers greeted at the latter with bunches of tulips.