History of the Euston Arch

Before the 1830s

Euston has long been associated with the railways. It was just south of Euston where in 1808 Richard Trevithick, the man credited with building the world’s first ever locomotive, ran his famous 'catch me who can' locomotive as a demonstration of how a steam train was faster than a horse.

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Euston Station was the first mainline terminus station opened in a capital city anywhere in the world. It was opened on July 20, 1837, as the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway constructed by Robert Stephenson. The architect was Philip Hardwick (pictured on the right) who worked with structural engineer Charles Fox. The station first had only two platforms, one for departures and one for arrivals.

It was also Hardwick who designed the Euston Arch, a 70 feet 6 inches high Doric propylaeum, the largest ever built and which formed the entrance to the station. The grit stone structure complemented the Ionic entrance to the Curzon Street Station in Birmingham (which still exists) which was the other end of the London and Birmingham Railway’s mainline.

The arch was supported on four columns and four piers with bronze gates placed behind them. It stood 70ft high and 44ft deep, while the diameter of each of the columns was 8ft 6in. The structure was built from stone from Bramley Fall in Yorkshire. Two lodges were built on each side of the arch, also Greek Revival in style. Each of these lodges was separated from its neighbour by an imposing pair of bronze gates. The gates between the right-hand lodges were an entrance for carriages and very heavy goods going by train, while the right-hand lodge was an office for outgoing parcels.

The traveller would drive through the arch into an oblong courtyard running north to south and enclosed by a brick wall nearly 500ft long and 100ft wide. On the eastern side (the arriving traveller's right) was a range of offices behind a colonnade of pillars.

The growth of the station saw the construction in 1849 of the spectacular Great Hall (designed by Hardwick's son, Philip Charles Hardwick), built in Italianate Renaissance style. It was 126 ft long, 61 ft wide and 64 ft high, with a coffered ceiling and a sweeping double flight of stairs leading to offices at the northern end of the hall.

The location of the front of the station was further north of the Euston Road than the modern complex as can be seen in the picture below. A short road called Euston Grove ran from Euston Square towards the arch. Two hotels, the Euston Hotel and the Victoria Hotel, flanked the northern half of this approach as can be seen in the picture below.

At first the arch had no name emblazoned on it until around 1870 when the London and North Western Railway Company incised ‘EUSTON’ on the architrave in letters of gold. In 1881, however, the westernmost pier and lodge of the arch structure were demolished to make way for offices, and soon afterwards a hotel extension blocked the view from Euston Road.


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The Stationary Winding Engine House

One of the few remaining original structures connected with the original Euston station is hidden underground in Camden. The stationary winding engine house, a vaulted underground structure 170 feet long by 135 feet wide, was built by Robert Stephenson for the London & Birmingham Railway and is located under the main line just north of Regent's Canal bridge. The first trains purchased by the L&B railway were not powerful enough to climb the incline between Euston and Camden. So the engine house housed the steam engines, boilers, pulleys and rope tightening mechanism that allowed the trains to be pulled by an endless rope from Euston up to Camden, where they were attached to their locomotives for the onward journey. Starting service in 1837, it operated until 1844 when more powerful locomotives made the equipment redundant. Two 40 metre high chimneys revealed the location of the subterranean engine house, and were a major feature on the skyline of the day. The vaults have survived well and the grandeur and mystery of their church-like interior leave a strong impression on visitors. With the Roundhouse, Primrose Hill Tunnel East Portals, Interchange Building and Stables Complex they are one of the finest jewels of Camden's railway heritage and one of the few remaining original buildings that served Euston Station.

Further pictures of the vaults can be found in the gallery.

Picture and information sourced from Camden Railway Heritage Trust.

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The 1930s proposal

In the late 1930s the London Midland and Scottish Railway company proposed a compete rebuilding of the complex according to an American-inspired design by Percy Thomas. Returning from a tour of modern stations in the United States, he proposed a large stripped-Classical block with wings which incorporated the station, a hotel and offices (see picture below). This required the removal of the Euston Arch but Gerald Wellesley and Albert Richardson of the Georgian Group, a conservation organisation, managed to persuade Lord Stamp, president of the LMS, that it would be possible to rebuild the arch on the Euston Road. Ultimately the plans for re-construction were never realised, the Second World War commencing the following year.

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Demolition in 1958-61

In January 1960 the British Transport Commission served notice of its intention to demolish Euston station.

The proposal formed part of the plans to electrify the West Coast mainline between Euston and Glasgow. The proposal called for the demolition of the Grade II listed arch as well as Euston station in its entirety, including the Grade II listed Great Hall. The station was regarded as inconveniently sited and impractically small.

At a planning enquiry held in late January 1960, the London County Council adopted a report which allowed the removal of the arch and its attendant lodges on condition that "they are re-erected on another site in an appropriate dignified and open setting." The call to preserve the arch in an alternative location was echoed by Woodrow Wyatt MP who tabled a motion in the House of Commons demanding that the arch as well as the Great Hall and Shareholders' Room in the station be retained. The British Transport Commission, however, refused to pay the estimated £180,000 cost.

The original notice to demolish the station expired in April 1960 leaving only the Minister of Housing and Local Government in a position to save them by placing a preservation order on them.

At around this time the Royal Fine Art Commission, the body responsible for advising on questions of "public amenity or of artistic importance", asked both the BTC and the LCC to consult it. Local planning authorities are 'advised' to seek the Commission's advice on development schemes of national or major regional importance, and will make non-binding recommendations as to the proposed development from the perspective of its impact on the local environment and its design quality. The BTC referred the Commission to the LCC which itself avoided the issue by stating that it was for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to call-in the planning application. The Ministry refused to act, stating that it still remained for the LCC to deal with the application.

In May 1960 Henry Brooke, the Conservative Minister for Housing and Local Government, was asked to issue a Building Preservation Order in respect of the arch under Section 29 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, this would prevent any works being carried out without the permission of the LCC. He rejected the request, believing that an Order was unnecessary given that the LCC was in discussions with the BTC on the future of the arch. The Royal Fine Art Commission contacted the Minister in June 1960 expressing their concern for the arch, and again requested to be consulted on the proposals for redevelopment of the station site. The Minister did not reply to this letter.

On 12 July 1961, in a written answer to a Parliamentary question, the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, confirmed that he had given approval to the early reconstruction of Euston station which, in his view, was urgent not only because the electrification programme but because three 50-year old Underground lifts had almost reached the end of their useful life. The replacement of the lifts would cost £700,000. As he recounted,

The possibility of moving the Doric arch to another part of the site has also been examined by the [BTC] and by the expert advisers to the Minister of Works. They estimate that the cost of dismantling and reerecting the arch alone without its flanking lodges, would be about £190,000, compared with £12,000 for simple demolition. The arch weighed about 4,500 tons, and to brace it and remove it on rollers would cost even more.
The arch did not, in his view, justify such expenditure, and although he expressed his regret at the passing of a major monument of the early railway age, there was no other practical alternative in his mind.
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The Campaign to save the Arch

The arch's imminent demolition sparked a preservation protest in which Woodrow Wyatt, John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner were prominent figures, and a wider debate about the modernisation of central London. (See Betjeman's Battle for Euston Arch by Dan Cruickshank). There was public disquiet over how a local authority with a good track record for architecture and town planning such as the London County Council, and the British Transport Commission, an important public service operator, could allow the demolition of such an important monument. Figures such as Sir Charles Wheeler, the President of the Royal Academy, backed by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Georgian Group and the London Society, lobbied in vain for the arch's preservation. Arguments which had been successfully employed to see off the previous attempted demolition in 1938 failed to sway the BTC which said that it was unable to afford the costs of reconstruction.

The Victorian Society, whose vice-chairman was Sir John Betjeman, attempted to raise £90,000 to pay for the relocation of the arch, and pleaded for a stay of execution for the arch until this had been done. A Canadian firm, Nicholas Brothers, had offered to move the portico on rollers to a site 200 yards nearer the Euston Road. It was reported in October 1961 that a promise had been received that the gates of the arch would be preserved and moved elsewhere on the railways.

On 24 October 1961, a group of campaigners including J.M. Richards, the editor of the Architectural Review, went to see Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister, to plea for the preservation of the arch, arguing that if it really had to be moved, that it should be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. As J.M. Richards recalled, "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."

Two weeks later Macmillan gave his response to the proposals. He stated that he had decided against adopting the suggested preservation strategy, and explained that "every possible way" of preserving the arch had been investigated by the BTC, but the lack of available land, the operational requirements of the station and the removal costs entailed made the project unfeasible. He revealed that the only place the arch could be put where it would not look "incongruous" was the traffic roundabout on the Euston Road, a possibility which had been considered unsuitable by the LCC. He refused to allow any further delay or to allow the Victorian Society time to raise funds, for that would delay the reconstruction of the station and involve extra expenditure of £100,000.

A group of young architects had attempted to delay demolition by climbing the scaffolding around the arch and erecting a 50ft long banner with the inscription "save the arch" on it. Sir John Summerson was also present at the demonstration.

Demolition began in December 1961. Frank Valori was appointed as demolition contractors. The company revealed that it would take several weeks to demolish the arch as the job would have to be done by hand - explosives being out of the question due to possible damage to the adjacent buildings.

Sir John Betjeman

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The Architectural Review criticised the cynical means employed by British Rail in achieving the demolition of the arch:

Its destruction is wanton and unnecessary - connived at by the British Transport Commission, its guardians, and by the London County Council and the Government, who are jointly responsible for safeguarding London's major architectural monuments, of which this is undoubtedly one. In spite of [...] being one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early nineteenth century and the most important - and visually satisfying - monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered, the united efforts of many organisations and individuals failed to save it in the face of official apathy and philistinism.

Frank Valori later revealed to Lord Esher that he had undertaken the demolition "without pleasure" and had offered to provide the Government with an alternative site at his own expense at which he would store the stones of the portico with a view to re-erecting it elsewhere. This offer was "disdainfully rejected by the Government on the flimsy pretext that no place could ever be found." Valori presented a silver model of the arch to Lord Esher who admitted that the gesture "made him feel as if some man had murdered his wife and then presented him with her bust". Valori later incorporated part of the arch into the stonework of the house which he had constructed for himself in Bromley.

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The current station

The new station was opened in 1968 and a brochure published to commemorate the redevelopment (which you can read here: [britishrail1968.pdf]). Designed in the International Modern style, its somewhat bleak style has been variously described as "hideous", "a dingy, grey, horizontal nothingness", "an ugly desecration of a formerly impressive building", a reflection of "the tawdry glamour of its time" entirely lacking of "the sense of occasion, of adventure, that the great Victorian termini gave to the traveller", and "the worst of the Central London terminuses, both ugly and unfriendly to use". Writing in The Times, Richard Morrison stated that "even by the bleak standards of Sixties architecture, Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; and a blight on surrounding streets. The design should never have left the drawing-board - if, indeed, it was ever on a drawing-board. It gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight".

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Tracking down the remains of the Arch

In 1994 the historian Dan Cruickshank discovered an estimated 60% of the 4,000 plus tons of the arch buried in the bed of the Prescott Channel at its junction with the Channelsea River that runs into the River Lea in the East End of London. A section of one of the columns was recovered from the river (see picture to the right). The location of the rubble, for which he had been searching for 15 years, had been revealed by Bob Cotton, a British Waterways engineer, who stated that the rubble had been purchased in 1962 to fill a chasm in the bed of the Prescott Channel.

Dan Cruickshank revealed on his One Foot in the Past television programme, broadcast on 7 June 1994, that the stone had not weathered at all. As he explained, "This makes the reconstruction of the arch a tangible reality, [...] The arch is made of stone from the Bramley-Fall quarry in Yorkshire which is incredibly hard, almost like granite, so it has not weathered at all." A fluted section of column was brought up from the river bed, and the stones with "Euston" marked in gold lettering are also to be found there. However, due to the brutal manner in which the arch was demolished, some of these stones may be too badly damaged to be incorporated in a rebuilt arch. Other stones are in the garden of Valori’s own house in Kent.

The ornamental iron gates from the Arch were saved and are now kept at the National Railway Museum in York along with several other items that can be seen in the key questions section: what is left of the old Euston station?

You can watch clips from the episodes of 'One Foot in the Past' and other footage of the Arch in the videos section of our gallery.

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Future redevelopment

In 2007 Network Rail announced that it was looking to redevelop Euston Station. The sheer size of the complex, the untapped retail, housing and office space available and the blight it inflicts on the local area made it a prime candidate for redevelopment.

Network Rail considered several proposals. All aimed to make fuller use of the space the station occupies, to better integrate it with the local area and provide the station with a more prominent frontage, the current station being hidden from the Euston Road by the 1970s office blocks built outside the main concourse area.

On 5 April 2007, British Land announced they had won the tender to demolish the existing 40 year old building and rebuild the terminal, spending some £250m of their overall redevelopment budget of £1bn for the area. As a result the number of platforms will increase from 18 to 21. There has also been some discussion that the newly redeveloped station may form the terminus for any new high speed railway built to connect London with the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland. Pictures of what the station could posisbly look like were released to the public (see the top two pictures to the right).

In early 2008 Sydney and London Properties - owner of the office blocks in front of the station - put forward proposals for the redevelopment of the station and offices (see right). In addition, Sydney and London have produced a Euston Arch Discussion Document, illustrating proposals for the rebuilding of the Arch (available to download here: http://www.eustonvision.com/)

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