John Betjeman’s battle for the Euston Arch


Dan Cruickshank

During the early 1930s, when working as a journalist on The Architectural Review, young John Betjeman gradually revealed his often strikingly unfashionable and idiosyncratic artistic passions and opinions. And one of these passions was for the huge, gloomy, soot-stained and romantically majestic Euston Arch – the first and greatest emblem of Britain’s mighty railway age. It was completed in 1837 to the designs of Philip Hardwick, was inspired in large part by the Doric propyleaum or portico leading to the top of the Acropolis in Athens and, looming to the north of the Euston Road, marked the entry by railway into London from the north. It was the largest Greek Doric propylaeum ever built and reached a height of 70 feet. It was the first major monument of the railway age and a sublime artistic creation. As Betjeman later wrote: ‘The first trunk railway of the world we hail, London is linked to Birmingham by rail. Euston’s Great Portico was built to be, the gateway into Midland industry…’ The Arch was not only one of the most evocative and best designed structures of the early nineteenth century but also one of the best built. It was, in many ways, emblematic of the age - an inspired recreation of a much admired ancient prototype that also expressed tremendous pride and confidence in its own age. This happy combination of old and dazzlingly new was revealed by the arch’s construction that combined brick and stone with iron and utilized new building technology in an ingenious manner.

But by the early 1930s the glory of the arch was generally forgotten, Euston Station was shambolic and there was talk of rebuilding it. At the time, there were few who cared much about this rambling early Victorian terminus. But Betjeman cared and, a lone but articulate voice, he rose to the challenge of defending what he, almost alone, perceived to be an architectural masterpiece and an important piece of industrial and social history. In 1933 he wrote in the AR, that ‘Hardwick’s Doric Arch at Euston is the supreme justification of the Greek Revival in England…If vandals ever pulled down this lovely piece of architecture, it would seem as though the British Constitution had collapsed.’ (AR September 1933). Within a couple of years Betjeman’s fear was realized for in 1937 the London, Midland and Scottish Railway that ran Euston Station proposed demolition. The recently founded Georgian Group, of which Betjeman was a member, argued in 1938 that if the rebuilding of the station made demolition unavoidable then the arch must be rebuilt on the Euston Road. LMS’s architect, Percy Thomas, objected to this plan but the chairman of the LMS – Lord Stamp - was amenable to this solution. But before a final decision was made war broke out and the scheme was shelved. But in 1959 it rumbled back into life. Many of Britain’s architectural treasures had been destroyed or damaged, by bombing or redevelopment, during the intervening 20 years but this did not help the wonderful collection of early railway buildings that comprised Euston Station. The British Transport Commission (the body responsible for the nationalized British Railways) that now ran the show, was set on site clearance, the extension of the platforms to the south, and the construction of an airport-like station that was to speak of the wonders of the new, modern, technological age. For the Commission history was, indeed, the past.

The Victorian Society had been founded in 1958, with Betjeman as Vice-Chairman, and it was they who now took up the fight. In the face of a hideously destructive and architecturally non-descript redevelopment scheme all the Victorian Society asked was that the arch be moved – one way or another – to a new site. It was not much to ask – given the scale and cost of the development, and given earlier agreements that suggested such a compromise was possible. Indeed in January 1960 the London County Council – the relevant planning authority – confirmed that in its view the arch could only be removed providing the Commission agreed to re-erect it on another ‘appropriately dignified and open setting’. (Bevis Hillier, The Bonus of Laughter, p.127). It was the only civilized thing to do – and some small compensation for the destruction of the station’s other historic buildings, including its huge and splendid palazzo-like Great Hall. But the Commission would not agree. Instead it prevaricated. It was clearly set on out-and-out vandalism – as far as it was concerned all was to go in the name of progress and the creation of a modern image and sparkling new terminus for the recently electrified railway line. So in early 1960 the fight started in earnest. The arch was listed as a Grade II* building of architectural or historic interest so the railway authorities could not simply demolish it. Permission was needed and this took time – and time seemed to be on the side of the conservationists if they could use it to build a case, rouse public interest and funds and ultimately make the future of the arch a political issue. Betjeman wrote in the Daily Telegraph supporting the idea that the arch be re-erected on an appropriate site and concluded that ‘I can think of no worthier memorial to the fact that Britain built the first railways than to reconstruct the Arch, its lodges and railings on the Euston Road itself.’ (Daily Telegraph, 8 February). Betjeman also lobbied like mad. On the 28th January 1960 he wrote to the young and apparently sympathetic Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt – a member of the famed late Georgian and early Victorian family of architects and collaborator with Betjeman in earlier conservation campaigns – to secure his long term support; ‘How right you were in raising the matter of Euston Great Arch when you did. The bloody British Transport Commission has now come into the open….I think that there should be a survey made at the instigation of Parliament of all railway architecture and preservation orders put on those stations, viaducts, bridges and tunnel entrances which are worth preserving. In architectural and historic significance they are obviously equal to ruined castles (John etjemanB, Letters, ed. Candida Lycett Green. pp180-81). Wyatt made his contribution. On the 10th February he stated in Parliament that it ‘would be an act of vandalism to destroy the Great Hall…at Euston which was…designated as an historic monument’ and soon after tabled a motion ‘calling for the preservation of the Great Hall and the Shareholders’ Room, and asking that the Doric arch should be re-sited’ On the 16th April he wrote to The Times stating that ‘only the Ministry of Housing and Local Government could now stop the destroyers.’ (Bevis Hillier, Betjeman: The bonus of laughter, p130). This was a calculated appeal to the public, and through them to the politicians – and it seemed to be working. The future of the arch started to become a national issue. It was now not just a few architectural historians and poets who wanted to save it, but members of the public – even architects and some politicians. More and more people were starting to see the point of it – a great and beautiful symbol of Britain’s heroic industrial past, of its once rich and eclectic 19th century culture. Through the Spring and Summer the argument rumbled on. In May Sir Keith Joseph – the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing - announced that the Great Hall was to be demolished, and in June John Summerson – the icy and academic antidote to Betjeman’s passion and warmth – wrote an article in The Times in which, at great length, he quietly but firmly damned the arch with faint praise. As Bevis Hillier has observed, ‘with friends like Summerson, Euston hardly needed enemies.’ (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of laughter, p. 131-32). What Summerson really thought about Euston Station and its heroic arch is now hard to decide. In his article in The Times he managed to describe the portico as ‘useful only by virtue of the iron gates and lodges on either side of it’ and ‘manifestly absurd’, but did conclude that the station was a ‘great museum-piece commemorating as no other structure in the world the moment of supreme optimism in the marriage of steam and progress.’ So it seems he did admire this wonderful collection of pioneering railway buildings. But in a small book entitled The Architectural History of Euston Station, commissioned by the British Transport Commission in 1959, Summerson stated that Euston Station could hardly, ‘at the present day, claim to be a particularly attractive architectural composition.’ The book itself, although printed, was suppressed by the BTC because of the rebuilding plans. (Information from Gavin Stamp who is in possession of Summerson’s own copy of what is a very rare publication).

In July moving the arch was debated in Parliament when Joseph stated that the British Transport Commission ‘would raise no objection to the re-erection of the arch if a suitable site can be agreed, but they are not willing to pay for it.’(Hillier, The Bonus of Laughter, p.133). Joseph also made it clear that there was no possibility of the Government making a contribution. In the same month Betjeman persuaded the Royal Fine Art Commission – of which he was a member – to vote in favour of the preservation of the arch. In Parliament Wyatt used this decision to bait the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Would the Prime Minister appoint a minister to implement the RFAC’s recommendation? No, said Macmillan, ‘such action would be entirely inconsistent with the Commission’s status as an advisory body.’ (Hillier. The Bonus of Laughter, p.133). Agreement could not be reached, a compromise could not be found. As the future of the arch hung in the balance Betjeman was distracted by the publication of of his poetry, Summoned by Bells.

In fact little happened on the Euston Arch front during the winter of 1960 then, just as Betjeman was recovering from the rough reception of Summoned by Bells, he had to face another onslaught – and from a different direction. If the Euston Arch was one of Betjeman’s favourite pieces of railway architecture then one of his best loved City of London buildings was the Coal Exchange. Designed in the 1847 by John B. Bunning it was a splendid piece of Italianate architecture incorporating a stunning rotunda constructed out of cast iron. As early as the mid 1950s there had been rumblings about its future. It stood on Thames Street, which the modernizing City Corporation had long wanted to widen, so it was increasingly vulnerable. In September 1956 Betjeman had chosen to give a speech for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in the rotunda of the Coal Exchange and argued its qualities and the case for its preservation., (John Betjeman, Letters, vol. ii. p99) But by early 1961 the Coal Exchange was, like the Euston Arch, suddenly at doom’s door, despite all Betjeman’s efforts. In February 1961 he again turned to Woodrow Wyatt in a desperate and ultimately misplaced belief that this clever and socially well connected young MP could actually do something. There was, Betjeman wrote to Wyatt, to be a meeting at the Society of Antiquaries on the future of the Coal Exchange in the light of the temporary reprieve granted by the Court of Common Council. ‘For God’s sake’, appealed Betjeman, ‘come and speak. We must save this building. What is really behind its destruction is a speculator who has his eye on the rest of the island site on which it stands.’ (John Betjeman, Letters, vol. ii. p213). It must have beenghastly for Betjeman. Both the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange meant so much to him, both could so obviously be saved if their respective hard-nosed owners could be charmed, made to see the romantic beauty of the buildings – and yet both, as 1961 progressed, were slipping away.

By mid 1961 the future of the arch had become simply an issue of time and money. In July Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport, announced in a Parliamentary written reply that ‘it will not be possible to save the historic buildings at Euston, including the Doric arch.’ (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of laughter, p 134). His experts had told him that to move the arch alone would cost £190, 000 while demolition would cost only £12,000. So that, in effect, was that. Demolition could in theory proceed. There was public outrage. John Gloag wrote to The Times asking ‘would any European country allow such a landmark of architectural history to be removed, on economic grounds, without some attempt to raise the money for its preservation and re-erection?’ (Hillier, The Bonus of Laughter, p.134) And this is just what Betjeman and the Victorian Society set about. They pleaded for a delay in demolition, challenged the railway’s £190,000 figure for removal and resiting and commissioned its own experts to cost the removal of the arch to a new site. They came up with the far lower sum of £90,000 and started a public fund to raise the money. So once again there was deadlock. Demolition could take place but, in the face of such active and articulate opposition, the railway authorities were reluctant to move. The only hope, believed the Victorian Society, lay in one last impassioned and informed appeal to Government, a demand that the future of the arch – and with it the issues of culture, history and beauty – should be considered at a national level and not left to the money-men of the British Transport Commission and British Railways.

The moment of dramatic crisis was rapidly arriving. In mid October a group of young architects met in Euston Station’s Great Hall and then marched on the by now scaffolded arch where a pair of protestors erected a fifty foot banner inscribed ‘Save the Arch’ At around this time Betjeman made a television appeal for the Arch. The image is memorable – Betjeman was defiant, in a Churchillian sort of way, pugnacious, determined to fight-on with the magnificent but gloomy looking arch looming behind him. Betjeman spoke with conviction and what he said has great poignancy when considered in the context of Betjeman’s life at the time. The arch was, he declared, the ‘first bit of railway architecture in the world of any size’ and that ‘if it were moved forward in front of the new Euston Station it would make a magnificent public monument in London.’ Then angrily – and one can’t help but imagine Betjeman was thinking of some of those who had given Summoned by Bells harsh reviews - he added with a fierce twist of bitter sarcasm, ‘it would be beautiful you see, and of course people always think if you have anything beautiful it’s wicked nowadays. It has to be cheap.’

Behind the scenes, in secret places of power, desperate lobbying continued to take place – and Betjeman was in a good position to make things happen. Through Lady Elizabeth Cavendish – his intimate companion - he had close connections to her family home, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, and to the Duke of Devonshire. Chatsworth survived as one of the great political power houses in the land in which the Tory Prime Minister – Harold Macmillan – was an avuncular and regular guest. Finally a date was set for the meeting with Macmillan that would, in all probability, finally decide the fate of the arch. A committee was assembled and the meeting took place on the 24th October 1961 with, perhaps surprisingly, Summerson being given the job of speaking for the arch. Presumably in this role Summerson gave expression to his real and deep feelings of appreciation for Hardwick’s masterpiece. The following day Betjeman briefly described the event in a letter to his estranged wife Penelope: ‘I was one of a deputation to the Prime Minister yesterday about Euston Arch. Coolmore (John Summerson) put our case and we were led by Sir Charles Wheeler PRA and Michael Rosse and Robert Furneaux Jordan also made speeches. We were received politely and our case was put with great skill and backed up with pictures.’ (John Betjeman Letters, ed Candida Lycett Green, vol. ii. p.218). More details were offered later by other members of the deputation. J.M. Richards, Betjeman’s old sparing partner from his days at The Architectural Review who he nicknamed Marx because of his hard-line political and Modernist views, was present and offered an account of what happened in his autobiography, Memoirs of an Unjust Fella (1980, p216-17): ‘Summerson was our spokesman and pleaded eloquently. 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.’ If Richards was puzzled by Macmillan’s seemingly bored and lazy demeanor others were outraged. Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh perceived that the entire meeting was a cynical sham: ‘Macmillan was there, on his right was Ernest Marples…within a minute or two of the beginning of the meeting it transpired that in spite of our having supplied them with all the relevant information, Macmillan knew absolutely nothing about it. You would have thought he’d never heard of the Euston Arch. He said: “I understand you want to pull it down stone by stone and build it up again.” Well, months before we had said that was out of the question. What we proposed to do was to move it on rollers, which had been done in every other county for years.’ (Hillier, Betjeman The bonus of laughter, p.139).

Ten days later the members of the deputation received Macmillan’s judgment, dated November 2nd 1961, ‘You asked’, wrote Macmillan, ‘that demolition should be delayed while [your] estimate [for moving it] was examined and a public appeal launched. This course would, I fear, delay substantially the re-construction of the station [f]or it would…take some little time to test the claim that the portico could be removed [on rollers] for as little as £90,000.’ Macmillan then offered an aesthetic opinion. It was, he observed, ‘very doubtful whether there was any really suitable place on the Euston site to which the portico could be moved…it would be quite inappropriate for the portico to be incorporated in the front of the new building.’ In consequence, announced Macmillan, ‘we have regretfully reached the conclusion that we ought not to adopt your suggestions for preserving the portico

Macmillan’s reply was a villainous and cynical document. The arch could – and most certainly should – have been spared. The possible costs involved were minimal in the context of the total expenditure on redevelopment, and for no obvious reason Macmillan chose to accept the Commission’s estimate that ‘bracing’ and removing the arch on rollers would cost more than £190,000 while dismissing the Victorian Society’s experts’ estimate of £90,000 for the job. And it was a dubious subjective observation, with which few would have agreed, that the retained arch would look ‘inappropriate’ or ‘incongruous’ in a new station. The arch’s brutal demolition was entirely avoidable, but rather than rising to the opportunity offered him Macmillan merely chose to play the role of the lazy philistine and signed the death warrant for one of the greatest and most moving monuments of its age. Why, as Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh asked, did Macmillan and his advisors not agree with the Victorian Society proposal? It was due, he believed, to ‘sheer pique on the part of British Railways and the Government. They were so outraged that anybody should dare to criticize them. They were savages.’ (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter, p.139).

So, almost exactly a year after Betjeman read the first cruel reviews of Summoned by Bells he had to read this disastrous document – but by that time he was out of the country. A year ago the reviews had made want to go to ground this time, five days after the meeting with Macmillan, he did just that - he left Britain for a five week tour of Australia. When he returned the stones of the Euston Arch had gone – and for thirty years no one knew where.

But the fates had not yet finished with Betjeman. When he returned after his escapist and much enjoyed tour of Australia his ordeal continued. The stones of the Euston Arch – unmarked for resurrection and ill-treated- were rapidly being dispersed around the south of England, but the Coal Exchange still stood. But not for long. The Victorian Society produced a series of alternative schemes showing how the city’s aspirations and the retention of the exchange could be reconciled, but all this good work came to nothing. Finally desperate attempts were made to save just the cast iron of the rotunda, but this plan also failed. Those involved in the sad battle to save this great City building appreciated the tragedy of the events unfolding around them. As Robert Furneaux Jordan rightly observed, ‘posterity will revile us if we do not do something about it.’ (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter, p.176). But the City Corporation and the Tory Government didn’t see things that way. They were wrong of course and at the end of 1962 the Coal Exchange was demolished.

It is difficult to over estimate the effect the loss of both the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange had on Betjeman. While coming to terms with the severe dent that the poor reviews of Summoned by Bells had administered to his reputation Betjeman also had to endure the assault on buildings that meant much to him, and feel guilt at his lack of success. Bevis Hillier asks why Betjeman and his friends failed to save the Coal Exchange and suggests that although Betjeman was a ‘great catalyst in a controversy or campaign’ he lacked ‘follow through and staying power.’ (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of Llaughter, p. 182.) This is probably true. What is more certain is that ‘the loss of the Coal Exchange was a blow to John’s vanity…in both the Euston Arch and Coal Exchange campaigns he was the front man, both ended in failure.’ (p.182)

Only when these events – the critical response to Summoned by Bells and the failure of his conservation campaigns - are put together is it possible to understand something of the psychological stress that Betjeman was under. His honest attempt to tell the story of his youth – in Summoned by Bells – was generally derided. As his friend Juliet Townsend explained in the BBC programme Reputations, with Summoned by Bells Betjeman ‘thought he’d produced something pretty good’ and so was particularly hurt and confused by the wave of negative reviews. And the destruction of the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange made it clear, in a most public and painful manner, that his reputation and social connections with the powerful in the land, meant nothing when the crises came, and were not enough to save the things he loved.

But Betjeman was resilient. In a sense his behavior during his year of crisis defines his true character. He was rapidly becoming, as Kenneth Allsop observed in December 1960, ‘a national emblem, a sort of Uncle Unicorn’ (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter, p 121) complete with ambling walk, ill-fitting baggy suits, pork pie hat, and antique teddy bear. But despite this inoffensively eccentric – almost clownish – appearance Betjeman had a steady and steely resolve. His determination was, like so much of his favourite architecture, cast iron. Although he would have been the last to admit it, Betjeman was brave and would not be long kept down by his reverses. It is a measure of the man that he learned the tough lessons offered by these events and applied then in future – more successful – campaigns. In this way he ensured that the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange did not die in vain. They became martyrs to a cause and, in many significant ways, their demolition kick-started the conservation movement. Next time Betjeman and his friends were better prepared and, when it came to the battles for St. Pancras Station and Bedford Park in west London, they won.


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