Introduction: All change
When St Pancras first opened for business in the early morning of October 1, 1868, it was a wonder of the age – the largest uninterrupted enclosed space in the world.
The station was built by the Midland Railway Company to connect London with some of Britain’s major cities. Hitherto the company had been forced to share King’s Cross with the Great Northern, which naturally gave priority to its own trains. Many Midland trains were shunted into the goodsyard, forcing passengers to negotiate their way around beer barrels and great piles of coal, notes transport expert Christian Wolmar.
The Midland Railway, one of the biggest railway combines of the Victorian era, resolved that not only would it build its own London terminus next to King’s Cross, but that it would overshadow its rival in looks and size.
It appointed William Henry Barlow as chief engineer to design the overall station layout, track and train shed; and George Gilbert Scott, as architect for the hotel – the Midland Grand – which was subsequently completed in 1876.
The platform deck was raised up on a grid of 688 cast-iron columns to allow steam engines to pass over the Regent’s canal just to the north and thus avoid the challenging gradient up towards Kentish Town.
The space underneath, now a street level shopping arcade, was designed and used to store beer produced by Burton Brewers, notably Bass and Thomas Salt. The iron and glass roof was a bold innovation and at the time of its construction was the largest single span roof in the world – at 689ft long, 245ft wide and 100ft high. The elevation of the platform above street level and the intention to use the space below for commercial purposes influenced the design of the platform deck.
“The finished station and hotel was a masterpiece soaring high above its neighbours,” says Josie Murray, heritage advisor of HS1 Ltd, which owns and operates St Pancras International Station. “Its rich red brick colour and creamy stone standing out against the traditional yellows and browns of London brickwork.”
From its early days, St Pancras Station attempted to outdo its rivals in comfort, convenience and speed with a fleet of prestigious ‘named’ trains that carried passengers up and down the country on routes far beyond its original Midlands heartland.
In 1874 it introduced luxury Pullman trains, with restaurant cars on its express services and upholstered seating. The Thames Clyde Express and the Thames Forth Express – renamed the Waverly – were among the trains that would later ply routes to Scotland headed by high speed locomotives, in competition with the Flying Scotsman operating from King’s Cross.
“To stand on the end of the platform at St Pancras and watch a maroon painted LMS Jubilee class locomotive depart, and sense the power and sound of the machine as it gathered speed leaving the capital on the first leg of a long, five-hour journey to Scotland, was a sight to behold,” says railway historian John Scott-Morgan.
But it took only a few decades for the rot to set in. By the mid 1930s, the Midland Grand Hotel, once the last word in luxury, was no longer considered fit for purpose, and was closed and converted into station offices.
By the 1960s, the station itself was under threat from the wreckers ball. “For the swinging London of the ‘60s was also Shrinking London, its population in decline its employment ebbing away. British Rail responded with cuts in routes and services,” recalls Simon Bradley, author of the acclaimed 2007 history of the station. BR proposed to “combine” – demolish – both King’s Cross and St Pancras Station. Following a successful campaign to save it led by a number of prominent conservationists, among them John Betjeman, the station and former hotel received a Grade 1 listing.
However, St Pancras continued to be underused and to suffer neglect. Its lifeline came in the 1990s when it was decided to re-route the Channel Tunnel rail link to St Pancras as part of the overall regeneration of the King’s Cross railway lands. After lengthy refurbishment and enlargement, St Pancras International Station was opened by the Queen in 2007 as the London terminus for Eurostar services to the continent and a number of domestic routes. Brilliantly adapted for 21st century use, one can now travel from Paris to Brighton, or Amsterdam to Sheffield without ever leaving the station.
Railing against eviction
Tenants leader linked modern-day landgrabs to what happened when the Midland Railway Company rolled into town
In 1974, growing unease over office developers eyeing up parts of Camden as lucrative territory prompted one tenants’ champion to remind campaigners how one of the biggest developments of the Victorian era had led to thousands of local residents being made homeless.
This was the London terminus being planned at St Pancras by the Midland Railway Company, a name that “struck fear and terror” into people, said Tom Costello, whose own ancestors had been caught up in the evictions.
Writing in the monthly campaign newspaper, Camden Tenant, Costello described the company as a forerunner of the modern-day office developers who had already snapped up prime sites in the borough and were on the lookout for more.
“The Midland Railway Company’s financial assets stood at some £18m, [£1.6bn] in today’s money,” he said. “To add to its financial power was a powerful lobby at the Palace of Westminster. This then was the power that succeeded in evicting 20,000 people without compensation or in most cases re-housing.”
In the article ironically titled ‘The Promised Land’, he added: “Many were unemployed and destitute. They were least able to defend themselves against those who sought to exploit them.”
Those whose homes had been torn down lived in Agar Town and Somers Town, two integrally linked poor neighbourhoods that lay in the shadow of the railway lines arriving in the capital at King’s Cross and Euston.
In 1867, just a year before the opening of St Pancras Station, the Camden, Kentish Town and St Pancras Gazette reported that Agar Town had “entirely disappeared” along with parts of Somers Town after the railway company was given parliamentary approval to purchase property “by compulsion or agreement”.
Although the St Pancras Vestry, the 19th century equivalent of the borough council, was among those who protested at the way in which the Midland went about its business, there was eventually little public outcry over the removal of what was considered slum housing and a menace to public health.
Instead the wholesale evictions were seen as being a force for the social good. “We accept railways with their consequences, and we don’t think the worse of them for ventilating the city of London,” declared The Times in an editorial of the day.
“You can never make these wretched alleys really habitable; do what you will, but bring a railway to them and the whole problem is solved.”
However, the Gazette was forced to concede that “there must have been something defective in the law which could permit such a state of affairs” where “sad specimens” of men and “wretchedly clad” women and children had nowhere to live and were now “crowding and lowering” other parts of St Pancras and beyond.
Ten years later it was separately reporting outbreaks of scarlet fever, small pox and typhoid in the area, not to mention the lingering threat of cholera, deadly diseases that thrived on the poverty of its victims.
Tom Costello, who died in 2015 aged 78, had been a lifelong tenants’ activist in Somers Town where he could trace his roots back 160 years after his great grandfather, Patrick, settled there after fleeing the potato famine in Ireland. The family lived in a street that was obliterated by the building works but managed to remain in the area.
In what amounted to a rallying call, Costello goes on to describe what happened when, in 1877, the Midland Railway sought to acquire another parcel of land in what is now between Midland Road and Ossulton Street – the site of the British Library and Francis Crick Institute. This was to build an additional goods yard to store the increasing amount of rail freight and required 10,000 more people to be cleared out.
“So the operation that had brought about such hardship was to be repeated. Lessons were learnt and tenants formed themselves into the Somers Town Defence League.”
Tenants began contesting their cases at Bloomsbury County Court in an effort to ensure they, too, be compensated for their loss, not just their landlords, and the attention of the Disraeli government was drawn to the proposed scheme and its lack of any form of re-housing.
“The Midland Railway Company was forced in the end to release the land that they owned on Hampden St and Ossulton St to provide for the erection of dwellings,” he reports, though later adds that complaints were made about the slow rate of construction.
The Somers Town Defence League continued to campaign against further encroachment by the Midland Railway, in 1890 sending a delegation to the London County Council to press the demand for rehousing after the company knocked down 37 more houses to make way for a coal depot – today the Coopers Lane Estate – with a view to demolishing more.
Its efforts helped pave the way for improved housing in Somers Town as part of social reform measures brought in by the turn of the century.
“One of the very first public housing schemes in London was built in Somers Town and today it is an area of exemplary social housing,” points out Professor Linda Clarke, who has written extensively on the development of Somers Town.
“Squeezed as it is between three major mainline stations, it is an area that has gone through many so changes but has managed to survive thanks to an innovative and very active community.”
The wealthy name behind a drinking fountain that is providing fresh water to the public once again
In his 1837 autobiography, physician Sir John Jacob Hansler makes frequent references to a disease that was proving to be the scourge of the age – “cholera, dire, cholera”.
Its “malign influence” was such that it had recently claimed more than 6,000 lives in the capital, mostly of the poor but also those from his own privileged circle.
Sir John, the first person to be knighted by Queen Victoria for his services to the royal family, lived in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, a wealthy neighbourhood that would soon be but a hop, skip and jump away from London’s new railway termini at Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras.
Here, building works had made many thousands of people homeless, resulting in yet more outbreaks of the disease.
It is at St Pancras International Station where the Hansler name is remembered in the form of a water fountain that was erected in 1877 as part of efforts to combat any further spread of ‘King Cholera’.
It is dedicated to Sir John’s son, Captain Robert Hansler, wine merchant, magistrate and one time member of the Essex Rifles, who died that year aged 66.
The fountain was installed by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, an organisation dedicated to providing fresh water to the public following the discovery some years earlier that cholera was caused by contaminated water.
Made of Portland stone and pink granite and set snugly in a wall on the side of the station in Pancras Road, it was paid for by Captain Hansler’s widow, the former Marianne Collis, whose early marital home had been in Woburn Place, Bloomsbury, at that time part of the county of Middlesex.
The association relied on charitable donations, particularly from the gentry, to carry out its work and would receive another gift of money from Mrs Hansler to help replace a trough in King’s Cross later that same year.
Lack of fresh water saw people using alcoholic drinks for beverage and the campaign for public drinking fountains was closely associated with the temperance movement, ironic given that St Pancras Station was used as a beer storage depot.
But the fortunes of the fountain followed that of the station and once out of action it ceased being a source of Victorian civic pride and ended up becoming a convenient rubbish bin and ashtray. Otherwise, the hundreds passing by it each day did not give it a second glance.
But in May 2018, as part of St Pancras International Station’s 150th anniversary celebrations, the fountain was re-opened to once again provide fresh water, and now people regularly stop to take a drink, fill up their water bottles or rinse their hands.
The fountain’s restoration was completed with specialist conservation masonry undertaken by Chichester Stone Works and supported through a grant by the Railway Heritage Foundation.
The inscription reads: ‘This fountain and trough were erected in memory of Capt Robert Hansler JP for Middlesex by his widow May 27 1877’.
Sir John, who had dedicated his autobiography to King George lll’s son, Prince Augustus Frederick, no less, would no doubt have been proud.
Building a picture of a new station
For most people it was just a noisy construction site but for Wanda Garland it proved to be the beginning of an artistic adventure
Dubbed the cathedral of the railways for its grandeur inside and out, no wonder St Pancras Station has caught the eye of so many artists over the years.
Painter Wanda Garland is among those to have made their own unique contribution to that illustrious canon, in her case capturing the building at a crucial moment in its history.
This was in the early 2000s when the station was at the heart of one of London’s biggest regeneration schemes and King’s Cross had been turned into a giant construction site. Oddly enough, it was getting caught in traffic that first drew her attention to what was going on.
“I remember driving past St Pancras and being captivated by the cranes and diggers and the human way they seemed to move, and all the workmen in their overalls and hardhats,” she recalls. “It was a route I regularly took and I found myself hoping I would get held up at the lights to get a closer look.”
Recently retired, Wanda was a textile designer who also specialised in watercolour landscapes. Now she wanted to recreate a different kind of vista.
“I wrote to the construction company telling them what I was interested in doing and they were more than happy to give me access to the site. I felt I was embarking on a huge adventure.”
The result is some 150 works produced between 2002 and 2008 and two solo exhibitions. Mostly large scale canvasses in oil or acrylic, they affectionately record St Pancras’ transformation through a startling mix of pattern, shape and colour as machinery became replaced by scaffolding and concrete via a shifting scenery of earth, brick and debris.
Equally absorbing was the rebuilding of the undercroft and Barlow Shed, which to Wanda resembled a circus big top as workers, suspended in climbing rig, set to work on the glazing.
“The scale of the Barlow Shed is enormous,” she says. “When I was first taken inside it looked extremely bleak as it had not been touched for years, so it was amazing to see it being stripped and rebuilt. As light began to filter through new sections of glazing, the cast iron ribs in their new blue coating began to emerge out of the gloom. In my mind some of the work produced then seemed to represent church interiors.”
Wanda came to London in 1946 as a refugee from Poland, settling in London’s Camden Town in the 1950s. She studied at Hornsey Art College and then St Martin’s before becoming a textile designer, but turned to teaching while bringing her two children up. When she retired in 1997, she took up painting, concentrating on rural landscapes.
Interest in her St Pancras collection led to her 2006 show, Works in Progress, at the German Gymnasium, another Victorian building that was part of the King’s Cross regeneration scheme. This was followed by an exhibition in St Pancras Hospital a year later.
Although many of those who attended were railway enthusiasts, workers from the site also came along in their numbers. “They were genuinely delighted that something they had worked on was a subject of interest,” comments Wanda.
A decade on, the thrill she first felt when she passed St Pancras Station is still there, but for a different reason.
“Because I worked there and spent so much time observing it I feel it belongs to me, that there is something of me in it. I didn’t realise at the time that I was painting history and this gives me a great sense of excitement.”
From terminal decline to renaissance
Norma Ashe-Watt worked in offices converted from what was once one of London’s most luxurious hotels
After several decades in business, St Pancras Station’s jewel in the crown, the Midland Grand Hotel, shut its doors to lead a more prosaic existence as railway offices.
Renamed St Pancras Chambers in 1948, it went on to serve as headquarters for British Rail subsidiary British Transport Hotels employing several hundred workers overseeing catering in station hotels, refreshment rooms and on trains.
Norma Ashe-Watt was one of them, rising through the ranks as a cashier in the 1960s to accounts manager by the time BR itself was heading for the history books and the offices were closed in the 1980s.
Originally from Trinidad and the beneficiary of a thorough colonial education, Norma remembers how grand her workplace was, even though it had clearly seen better days.
“The hotel’s bedrooms had been turned into offices with only a few adjustments,” she explains. “Most of the original Victorian decorations were still in place, including beautiful ornamental ceilings that looked to me as if they have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. It was like working in a palace.”
The ceilings were high but that meant it could get very cold in winter, not helped by tall, ill fitting windows that let in the draught.
“There were huge marble fireplaces but of course these had fallen out of use and we had to rely on radiators that were not up to the job. One winter it was so cold we had to work in our coats until someone came round to seal up the windows.”
Beautiful turquoise velvet curtains and original Persian carpets were also still in use. “But, sadly, once it was decided to clean them they just disintegrated.”
Soot encrusted and neglected, the building was given a makeover following its Grade 1 listing but, as Norma recollects, once the lengthy work of cleaning the brick work had been completed, it was time to begin all over again.
At the time, she lived in Islington and would take the No 73 bus to get to work, alighting at a bus stop opposite the station.
She repeated the journey recently, finding it hard to recognise the place she had devoted the best part of her career to.
As we sipped tea in the opulent foyer of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which occupies the one time taxi rank area of the station, her mind ran back to a world that now appears light years away.
“In those days the men went to work in bowler hats and carried umbrellas and the women wore suits or dresses. It was all very formal and you would not dream of addressing a colleague by their first name.”
She adds laughing: “The other day I bumped into one of my staff who is now in her seventies but she still insisted on calling me Miss Ashe. That is just the way it was.”
Norma had worked on the first floor, where the new hotel rooms are now located, but at lunchtimes would go down to the staff canteen in the basement where subsidised meals were on offer.
“In those days at 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon someone would also come around to serve staff with tea and coffee.”
The coffee had been ground on the premises as part of the supply to BR’s hotel chain. There was also an equivalent wine cellar on the Midland Road side of the building.
A staff gym as well as subsidised travel all gave the impression of belonging to a privileged workforce.
Although Norma remembers the camaraderie and friendly banter, her unusual position as a black member of the management team did not escape her.
“I had a desk that was bigger and separate from the main part of the accounts office yet people would walk straight past it and address their queries to one of my staff,” she says, laughing again.
Inevitably in a building dating back to the 1870s there was much talk of ghosts. “One of my colleagues regularly told the tale of how he was in the men’s room out of hours and he heard a toilet flush. He waited but no one came out of the cubicle, and when he looked under the door there was no one in it.”
The hotel’s famed spiral staircase was also a source of stories. At the fourth floor it was known as ‘suicide drop’ for the number of people who took their own lives and then wandered the premises for ever more.
“It was a marvellous place to work in but it could be spooky at times,” remembers Norma’s colleague Stan Burke, who started work at St Pancras Chambers in 1957 as a fresh faced 22-year-old. “There were so many dark corners and long corridors and lots of different ways of going upstairs and downstairs.”
His job as a clerk in the restaurant car division involved going down to the platforms. “St Pancras was such a sleepy little place, small and old fashioned but very interesting,” he says. “There were always groups of tourists coming around asking us questions.”
In 1979 following Mrs Thatcher’s election, it was decided that BR hotels were not making enough money and would be privatised.
Norma says: “We had the opportunity of remaining within BR or taking redundancy. I was in my early fifties and I took early retirement.”
Still, the nostalgia of working there stayed with her and when work on St Pancras International Station was underway in 2005, she was among those who paid £5 to tour the building and to take advantage of free London Open House weekends when queues would snake out into Euston Road.
“It is a very special place and I feel privileged to have worked there,” she concludes, smiling.
Journey that lasted a lifetime
Irish country lad Tony Donaghey made St Pancras Station his first and last stop when he landed a job as on the railways
When Tony Donaghey crossed the Irish Sea in search of work he ended up at St Pancras Station in a job that would last him a lifetime, earning him official recognition more than four decades later as its longest serving railway worker .
So when he was barred from entering the station to take part in a BBC interview during St Pancras International Station’s grand opening in 2007 he was more than a little annoyed.
“It was a ridiculous situation,” he recalls chuckling. “I had been stepping in and out of there for 47 years and now some job’s worth was telling me I needed a pass to get in. I didn’t know anything about a pass but I knew I had an appointment to attend and stood my ground. In the end I was allowed through.”
Getting the better part of an argument is nothing new for Tony. After starting work as a guard on Midland line trains in 1960, he became a union member, rising through the ranks over the years to become president of the RMT in 2004.
“When I got the job at St Pancras I was only 17 and not long over from a small hill farm in Donegal. Everything was so alien to me and I felt lost,” he begins explaining in his soft Irish brogue.
“I decided the best way to get support was to join the union. I met some good people in it who showed me the ropes and I never looked back.”
By 1966 he was a shop steward, helping to negotiate better conditions for fellow workers.
“In those days you had goods trains running through the night and working on the railways could be very arduous. You often had to start your shift in the early hours and there was nothing like unsocial hours allowances. Until the 1970s certain grades of workers did not even receive sick pay. We successfully negotiated for things like this as well as a railway pension scheme. At the end of the day you had to fight for better conditions – they weren’t going to be offered to you on a plate.”
When it came to helping out individual staff, one case in particular brings out his easy smile. It concerned fellow St Pancras train guard Jerry Williams, who was elected the first black mayor of Camden in 1988.
“Not long after his election, he was disciplined for having too much time off. I represented Jerry at the hearing and took great pleasure in pointing out that as he was now Mayor Williams he was entitled to this. They were extremely embarrassed and threw the case out.”
When Tony joined St Pancras, like many Irish migrants he lived in Camden Town, then Archway before eventually moving to Borehamwood, conveniently just a few stops up the line from St Pancras.
He takes me on a tour around the station that was practically a second home to him, showing me what was once there and what still is and revelling in the memories of the fellowship that develops when people spend a lot of time together, not just railway men and women, but those whose work took them to St Pancras to pick up freighted post and newspapers.
He loved his job as a guard, where passenger protection was paramount. “I spent three months learning about health and safety and if I didn’t pass that stage of the training I would have been told to leave,” he tells me. “There’s a lot of talk about new technology these days. Technology is not always reliable and at the end of the day people need people.”
Like a cabbie, Tony has stories of those he once had on his train, including John Betjeman, a frequent traveller and the man credited with saving the station from demolition in the 1960s. “He was very eccentric,” he says, leaving it at that.
Privatisation in 1994 came as a huge blow. “It has been a disaster for both passengers and workers,” he insists. Aside from destroying solidarity among staff who once worked for a single entity, it removed whole tiers of services to the public, like the porters – known in St Pancras as ‘weaselers’.
His three-year stint as RMT president came in the twilight of his career and these days he is busy with the union’s retired section as well as the National Pensioners Convention, work that frequently brings him into St Pancras.
“They’ve done a really decent job on the station,” he says gazing up at the grand expanse of the Barlow roof. “We were afraid that it might end up being a biscuit tin like Euston. It’s a lovely building but it is the people inside it who really make it what it is.”
The day St Pancras became an airport
It was a day when a white wedding turned black after a Harrier Jump Jet lifted off from a disused coal yard at St Pancras Station leaving clouds of dust in its wake.
The RAF plane was taking part in the the Daily Mail’s transatlantic air race of 1969, an event that saw reporters and photographers from all over the world descend on the station as it became an unlikely airport.
Theresa Butler watched it all as a teenager from the balcony of her home in Gas Company Flats in Pancras Road alongside excited neighbours and friends.
“I remember there being a lot of commotion afterwards,” she says. “We saw the plane go straight up and it was over in seconds but the whole area was covered in soot for the rest of the day, including a bride getting married at St Pancras Old Church. People talked more about that than the actual race.”
Those with best view of all assembled on the roof of the Chenies, a block of flats that directly overlooked the coal yard. But they got even more of a dusting.
The event had been organised to mark the first ever non-stop trans-Atlantic crossing in 1919 and required competitors to race from the top of the Post Office Tower in London and the top of the Empire State Building in New York.
The main problem facing the teams was how to get from these two buildings to jump in a plane at the nearest airport. While the likes of racing driver Stirling Moss used a motorbike and a helicopter, the RAF decided to take advantage of its new Harrier Jump Jet’s ability to take off and land vertically. All that was required was a suitably open central London location, and the old coal yard, now the Coopers Lane Estate, seemed the perfect choice.
Although the Harrier was slower than other aircraft flown in the contest, the fact that it was able to land close to both buildings resulted in it winning the race in the fastest overall journey time.
Tale of two photographers
Any one passing by St Pancras Station 40 years ago would have been forgiven for not knowing that it enjoyed the same Grade 1 listing as one of the nation’s most famous landmarks, Buckingham Palace.
Shabby inside and out, it was a far cry from its days as a wonder of the Victorian age and when Ian Dovell was sent there to take a series of photos for a design company working to produce publicity material for British Rail in 1975, no amount of skilled camerawork could redeem it.
For a start, the train shed, once famous for having the largest single-span roof in the world, still bore the scars of bombing from the Second World War.
“It was very dark inside because most of the damaged glass in the canopy had been covered up rather than replaced and not much daylight was getting through,” he explains.
“The station’s internal lighting was also inadequate and matters were not helped by the fact that it was a cold and overcast November afternoon.”
Although the photographs reveal that some attempts had been made to upgrade the station with new entrances to its five platforms and modern information boards as well as a self-service ticket machine, it hardly reflected the progressive image that British Rail was now trying to project with the roll out that year of its new InterCity 125 trains.
Litter on the track beside a stationary coach bearing the company’s blue and grey livery from the 1960s and the small number of passengers about suggest that St Pancras was suffering from serious lack of investment.
“It all looked pretty grim and horrible and the photographs were never used,” recalls the retired art director, who went on to work on an exhibition promoting the new 125s.
Twenty years down the line, Jim Munday was told to take a series of architectural images as part of an evening photography class in 1995. The building that immediately sprang to mind was St Pancras Station.
“It is called the cathedral of the railways for a reason and for me it was the obvious choice for my assignment,” he says.
“It is a wonderful building. The detail and sheer quality of the workmanship is marvellous and when I got down there I walked around thinking, ‘This place was absolutely a labour of love’.”
The result is a portfolio of stunning black and white prints that show St Pancras in all its faded grandeur, from gothic gargoyles and decorative ceiling tiles to fancy brickwork and wooden paneling.
He also captured aspects that no longer exist like the gasholders looming in stately fashion at the end of one of the platforms and the train shed roof and railway arches glimpsed at from Clarence Passage.
Unfortunately, his tutor felt he should not have focused his work on St Pancras Station alone.
“I thought that was a daft thing to say – St Pancras is such a huge subject in itself . We got into an argument and that was the end of my course,” laughs Jim, a retired food marketing manager now living in Yorkshire.
Still a keen photographer, he is nevertheless delighted that he has a record of St Pancras as it once was. “When I went down it was a very small station and incredibly few trains came out of it. So much of the station was under-utilised. Now it has a brilliant interchange facility that means you can go from Paris to Brighton without ever getting wet.”
‘Dingy but magnificent’
Veteran actress Shirley Dixon is also an artist whose walks along the canal inspired one of her favourite works
Shirley Dixon has always lived in Camden ever since moving to London from the north of England to study acting.
But despite becoming a regular fixture on the stage, screen and radio over the years following her breakthrough role as Jenny Dale in the hugely popular 1960s radio series Mrs Dale’s Diary, she has always drawn or painted.
“Art was an early passion of mine,” she says. “I went to Manchester High School for Girls which had a very good art department. I was considering going to art college but then I won a scholarship to RADA and that was that.”
But her artistic sensibilities never left her. In the early 1970s, she began to take regular walks along the Regent’s Canal towpath that had just been opened up to the public, enjoying a unique view of St Pancras Station amid an industrial landscape cut through by water and greenery.
“I love railway stations and the feeling of hustle and bustle they represent, and I love canals – there is a romance about them but also a practicality,” explains Shirley, who could recently be heard in BBC Radio’s re-broadcasts of Peter Tinniswood’s Winston dramas.
“St Pancras itself looked dingy but magnificent all the same, especially the way it stood between the gasholders. It was such a distinctive scene and I began to make sketches of it.”
The resulting watercolour is almost dreamy, encapsulating what Shirley describes as a “remembered mosaic of colour and light”.
After continuing to paint other parts of the King’s Cross railway lands, including an expanse of wasteland that would become the Maiden Lane Estate, the mother-of-three decided to make something more of her hobby by studying for a BA in art at Middlesex University, which ran the course in conjunction with the Working Men’s College in Camden Town.
Since then she has painted professionally while still pursuing her acting career, and has been exhibited on a number of occasions, in particular portraits and experimental works based on glass prints.
Her St Pancras canvas, undertaken in 1974, depicts a view of the station that has now changed for ever. “The station has been really transformed and so has the canal. I plan to retrace my steps and paint it all over again.”
The above articles appear in St Pancras: A Journey Through 150 Years of History, a magazine with contributions by Josie Murray, Christian Wolmar, Simon Bradley and John Scott-Morgan and including a number of historical images. Published December 2018, price £4.50