King's Cross Voices
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF KINGS CROSS
18th CENTURY
Until the burst of construction in early Georgian times, the King's Cross area was simply open farmland marked with a few buildings. These included several inns and St. Pancras Old Church, which is thought to date from Roman times and be one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain.
Old St. Pancras Church
Old St. Pancras Church.
Photo Credit: King?s Cross Oral History Project.

The first major new construction in the area was Thomas Coram?s Foundling Hospital, built in the 1740s. Euston Road arrived a decade later, and over the next 100 years the fields it bisected were gradually filled in with housing and industry. This new district was originally called Battle Bridge; the King?s Cross was a monument erected to George IV in 1836 that was thought so ugly it only lasted six years, but it was during these six years that Great Northern Railways announced the name of their planned London terminus: King?s Cross.

The first Georgian developments were aimed at the gentry and included the elegant Brunswick and Mecklenburgh Squares and sweeping terraces and a unique polygon building in Somers Town. However, the area would never quite make it as a totally respectable neighbourhood. Baron Somers of Evesham ran into financial difficulties, forcing the sale of Somers Town houses at a much lower price than originally intended. This, plus the presence of a smallpox hospital on Euston Road, the growth of an infamous and huge ?dust heap? at the end of Gray?s Inn Road, the arrival of the noisy and dirty railway lines, and the building of Regent?s Canal (then a major industrial artery) ensured that King?s Cross quickly became a relatively downmarket district.

19th CENTURY
By the mid-1800s, Somers Town was described as having a "smokey, worn-out atmosphere" and Builder magazine concluded, "a more dilapidated or disease-ridden block of hovels does not exist in any part of the metropolis".
Basement of 14 Little Drummond St. in Sommers Town 1927

Basement of 14 Little Drummond St. in Somers Town 1927.
Photo Credit: St. Pancras Housing Association/Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.

Consequently, periodic requests from the railway companies to replace housing with yet more acres of goods yard were usually granted. Despite the displacement of thousands of residents to make way for expansion, the railways continued to benefit the area with plentiful employment and did provide some architectural compensation for the unsightly warehouses and depots. The curved simplicity of the Great Northern Hotel provided an elegant new landmark for the area, and was later joined by the gothic extravagance of the Midland Hotel. This period also saw the restoration and enlargement of St. Pancras Old Church and a new wave of building throughout the area.
20th CENTURY
St Pancras Station after an air raid in 1941.

St. Pancras Station after an air raid in 1941.
Photo Credit: Camden Local Studies and Archives.

The resulting dominance of the residential sector by dense Council-owned blocks has to a certain extent blocked gentrification of King?s Cross, which is still a place for the less affluent, students, and refugees. Surviving Georgian houses have become more and more sought after, especially those towards Bloomsbury and Holborn.

At the same time, industrial activity to the north of the stations steadily declined throughout the century. The Clean Air Act was a major factor in the decline of the coal trade in the area to which a considerable amount of the freight yards were devoted. Demand for rail and canal transport fell sharply with the advent of lorries; by 1955 the area was a suitably rundown, a seedy backdrop for the classic Ealing Comedy 'The Lady Killers' staring Alec Guinness released in 1955. Sporadic developments have occurred over the years, for example the creation of the Maiden Lane Estate in the 1970?s and more recently The British Library, but the majority of the railway lands awaits regeneration.

Aerial View of King's Cross and St. Pancras

Aerial View of King?s Cross and St. Pancras.
Photo Credit: King?s Cross Oral History Project.

King's Cross is one of London's less affluent areas: St. Pancras & Somers Town ward is among the 10% most deprived in the country. Characteristics include a high unemployment rate (over 10% compared to a borough average of under 7%), a low average household income (around 60% households with less than 20,000 income p.a.) and high proportion of social housing (66%).

Residents with jobs are more likely to be employed in unskilled/semi-skilled/manual than professional/managerial/technical positions, unlike most areas in Camden. This is a local employment base of 30,000 jobs and reflects a skills mismatch between residents and many of the jobs available. The largest of the local employers are the railway companies, and other media companies such as ITN, London Borough of Camden and the higher education sector (University of London 's School of Pharmacy and Westminster-Kingsway College).

In a recent survey of local households undertaken by the King's Cross Partnership 30% are occupied by people under 20 years old. It is therefore no surprise to discover that King's Cross is home to eleven primary schools: infants (including St Aloysius RC), primary (including Argyle, Angel, St. Mary & St. Pancras CE and St Andrews CE) and three secondary (South Camden Community School, Maria Fidelis and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) which together teach around 5200 pupils.

CULTURAL LIFE

King?s Cross? affordability and proximity to central London have attracted a variety of characters over the years, especially artists and writers. These have included Mary Shelley (born in Somers Town in 1797, daughter of the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecroft), Madame Tussaud (who exhibited her waxworks in the now-demolished London Horse and Carriage Repository), William Thackeray, Dr. Roget (of Roget?s Thesaurus), Aldous Huxley, and the Bloomsbury Group which began in Gordon Square before WWI. Several members of the Bloomsbury Group, which took its name from the area, lived in neighbouring houses. Some of the residents of the Bloomsbury Group, who had a great influence on the English modernist movement in art and literature included Leonard and Virgina Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Duncan Grant. Virginia Woolf lived in Mecklenburgh Square for a few months being bombed out in 1940.

In more recent times famous sons and daughters include the comedian Kenneth Williams whose parents ran a hairdressers in Marchmont Street (the premises are still used for this purpose) and who continued to live in King?s Cross throughout his life.

Presently the area has a significant number of community organised annual events ? King?s Cross County Show, Festival of Cultures, Hillview Festival and the Bangladeshi Mela. These showcase local talent and enterprise helping to reinforce the area?s strong community networks.

King?s Cross is also home to The British Library, The Place (contemporary dance theatre and school), Raw Creative (award winning music and media project for local young people), the Canal Museum and until recently Cubitt Studios (housing over sixty artists including Turner Prize Winner Chris Offili).

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2004 King's Cross Voices Oral History Project