The Euston Arch Trust campaign:

  The Campaign | Loss of the Arch | An Architectural Masterpiece

'The Euston Arch was a powerful symbol of the optimistic spirit of the Victorian railway. Its demolition in the 1960s confirmed that blandness and lack of imagination had replaced the heroic vision of the past. Since then, the enormous popularity of the restored St Pancras, soon to be followed by a restored King's Cross, has shown that celebration of the past and potential for the future are not mutually exclusive. The restoration of Euston Arch would restore to London's oldest mainline terminus some of the character and dignity of its great neighbours.' - Michael Palin, Patron of the Euston Arch Trust

The Campaign

The Euston Arch Trust was set up by a group of historians and architects in 1994 following the discovery that material from the Euston Arch survived at the bottom of a river in east London. The Trust campaigns for the rebuilding of the Euston Arch, using as many of the original stones as possible.

The Euston Arch has acquired legendary status as one of the great lost landmarks of London. Completed in May 1838, it was the centrepiece of Euston Station, the world's first main line terminus in a capital city. Built on a huge scale, it symbolized modernity and new links between London and the north. It was the first great monument of the railway age, which Britain pioneered.

The Arch was demolished in 1962 after a short and sharp campaign to save it. Sanctioned by a philistine administration, the demolition now seems shocking and is widely regarded as a terrible mistake. In a story stranger than fiction, most of the stones from the Arch ended up at the bottom of a river in east London.

Now, Euston Station is due to be redeveloped, presenting an opportunity to rectify the mistakes of the past. The present station has many flaws and is almost invivisible from the main road. The forthcoming redevelopment can change this, by incorporating a rebuilt Euston Arch as a landmark gateway to the new station.

The survival of much of the original material from the Arch, as well as detailed drawings, means that it can be faithfully restored, returning to Britain a masterpiece of international significance. Too much 'regeneration' involves demolishing much-loved buildings - rebuilding the Arch would regenerate Euston in the best possible way, attracting investment and creating a great heritage asset for the wider community.

^ Back to top

Loss of the Arch

The failure to save the Arch was a bitter and public defeat for the conservation lobby - headed by Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society - and a gruesome victory for the penny-pinching British Railways, aided and abetted by Harold Macmillan's Government.

But the loss of the Euston Arch - an event that shocked and appalled the British public - helped to kick-start the conservation movement. Never, it was felt, should such a gross act ever again be committed in the name of the British public and against their desire. The sacrifice of the Euston Arch had the effect of saving St Pancras and King's Cross stations from the wrecking ball because it was clear to both British Railways and politicians that such cavalier and brutish conduct - pursued in the face of popular opinion - dared not be repeated.

Public fury surrounding the demoltion of the Arch was partly due to the fact that most people assumed it was safe. In 1937, when the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) first announced its intention to rebuild Euston Station, the nascent Georgian Group persuaded it to re-site the arch on Euston Road. The Second World War put a stop to redevelopment of the station, but when the matter was discussed again in the late 1950s, it was generally assumed that the Arch would be saved. Only in 1960 did it emerge that British Railways and the British Transport Commission wanted to renege on early assurances and cut costs by simply demolishing rather than moving the Arch. To make the betrayal more bitter, the Victorian Society demonstrated that moving the arch on rails was technically possible and affordable.

Saving the arch in 1961 was perfectly feasible - and what the public wished. Most people agreed with the eminent historian Sir John Summerson, who observed that the arch commemorated ‘as no other structure in the world, the moment of supreme optimism in the marriage of steam and progress’. Understood in this context - not simply as a handsome old building, but as a heroic and timeless symbol of technological progress - there was no philosophical problem incorporating the Arch in a modern station.

The final decision on the future of the Arch was left with the Government and the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Despite intense lobbying from informed individuals and organisations, the Government declined to make the British Transport Commission stand by its promise. Furthermore, Macmillan's Government refused to provide money to move the Arch but instead urged that time was pressing, rejecting all advice from the Victorian Society and other organisations. So, to the shock and disbelief of many, the Arch was demolished.

Frank Valori, the man employed by British Railways to demolish the arch, implied soon after destruction that he had carefully dismantled and numbered the stones on his own initiative, storing them away for later re-erection. Sadly, this is not true. In the early 1990s two short films about the Euston Arch and its destruction were made for BBC2, revealing the true fate of the arch (watch them here). Demolition was speedy and brutal - as recorded in various newsreel documentaries - with the stones damaged as the Arch was speedily cleared away.

A member of the demolition team recalled the fate of the stones. Some of the stones from the Arch and its lodges were used by Valori himself in the construction of his own house - Paradise Villa, Sundridge Avenue, Bromley, Kent. Stones were used in the foundations, for a pond and to form a garden terrace. It was also discovered that Valori had disposed of a large number of stones to British Waterways to help fill a hole that been scoured in the bed of the Prescott Channel, near the River Lea in east London. In the 1990s divers retrieved a large stone - a segment of one of the columns - to the astonishment of the public. 30 stones have now been recovered, following work by British Waterways in 2009 in conjunction with repairs to waterways serving the Olympic Park. It is estimated that at least 60% of the stone from the Arch still survives in the Prescott Channel, which the Trust plans to raise.

^ Back to top

An Architectural Masterpiece

As well as possessing great historical importance, the Euston Arch was also a building of great visual power and beauty. Designed by Philip Hardwick in the Greek Revival style, it was a monument of sublime grandeur. Standing 70 feet high, impressed first of all by its sheer size. Hardwick kept ornament to a minimum, in order to accentuate the massive scale of the building. Marking the entry to the world’s first railway terminus in a capital city, it was one of the most emblematic structures of nineteenth-century Britain. It was the gateway between London and the north, a symbol of the new railway age and of technological progress.

Properly speaking it was not an arch at all, but a propylaeum or 'gateway'. It was modelled on the famous Propylaeum at the Acropolis in Athens, built in c. 450 BC. But the arch was no copy or pastiche - it was an inspired interpretation of great refinement, also drawing on Roman buildings such as the gate to the Roman Agora in Athens. Yet the Euston Arch also, in its ingenious and pioneering construction, expressed pride and confidence in its own age. Although inspired by ancient Greek architecture and apparently of traditional masonry construction, the Arch was in fact modern in conception and incorporated much structural ironwork.

Hardwick wanted to minimise construction costs by reducing the weight of the Arch and the quantity of expensive material, so stone was used as cladding over an iron and brick inner structure. Each column was not solid, but hollow, being composed of slabs fixed together with metal cramps. It was part of one of these slabs that was lifted from the Prescott Channel. The rest of the stones remain in the Cut, their site unaffected by the recent construction of a large new lock.

Hardwick used grit stone from the Bramley Fall quarry in Yorkshire, which is almost as hard as granite. Its durability means that the surviving stones are in surprisingly good condition, despite being harshly treated during demolition. Crucially, the quarry is still functioning, so that similar stone can be cut for use in the rebuilt Arch.

^ Back to top

< Back to homepage