A Little History of King’s Cross

13 November 2013

 King's Cross
[object Object]

King’s Cross, London: the Great Dust-Heap, next to Battle Bridge and the Smallpox Hospital. Watercolour painting by E H Dixon, 1837

Dr Ben Campkin, Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory and Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture, led a series of walking tours entitled “Crisis and Creativity in King’s Cross” over six days in September and October. In this article Muriel Bailly examines what it is in King’s Cross that’s changed in its history, and why.

King’s Cross is one of London’s busiest and most thriving areas with its 50 million commuters each year, but its fame goes far beyond the boundaries of the City. Thanks to the worldwide phenomenon Harry Potter, the only people that haven’t heard of King’s Cross – and of platform 9 ¾ – are the ones that are too young to have read the books yet. However, King’s Cross station had been playing a central part in London’s history far before J K Rowling’s success.

The modern site of King’s Cross stands only a few miles north-west of the Roman settlement of Londinium. Archaeological excavations carried out in the area suggest that this point served as a crossing of the Fleet River. The area is also traditionally recognised as the location of the legendary battle between Boudica, the warriors Queen of the Iceni, against the Roman invaders in AD 61. It is believed that Boudica’s remains rest under platform 9 at King’s Cross station. After her death, the crossing over the Fleet River was renamed Battle Bridge.

In the 18th century, the area of King’s Cross and St Pancras was popular with Londoners escaping the busy city to healthy ‘countryside’ – that is, Kentish Town, Highgate and Hampstead, which were retirement and commuter villages at the time.

The 19th century was undeniably a period of frenetic transformation for the area, which became heavily industrialised. The completion of the Regent’s Canal in 1920 ensured the connection between King’s Cross and other major industrial cities in northern England. The railway industry established itself in area by the mid-19th century, when the first temporary passenger station opened in 1850 north of the canal. This station remained in use until the inauguration of King’s Cross station in 1852. The Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway, was also completed at this time. The temporary station subsequently became part of a wholesale potato market. The railway development at King’s Cross in the mid-19th century was also associated with intense demolition campaigns, including the destruction of housing buildings, which contributed to the overcrowding of the area.

The mid-20th century was a turning point in the history of King’s Cross. The site’s status of ‘wasteland’ changed in response to the decline of the industries that used to flourish there. King’s Cross went from being a busy industrial zone to an under-used site. Such a shift in the land’s economy had a strong impact on the local community; many lost their work associated with the transport of freight activities and various buildings were abandoned, leaving the area in a dramatic state of decline. It is from this desolate landscape that idea of a ‘dodgy’ King’s Cross was born.

By the 1980s and 1990s, King’s Cross was often associated with working-class, and the issues of poverty, racism, drugs and prostitution. Mike Leigh’s 1988 movie High Hopes focuses on a working-class family living in King’s Cross, exploring the political and social classes of the area’s inhabitants.

King’s Cross devastated land became the soil for new generations to form their ideas and develop new industries. Many artists and designers, including Antony Gormley and Thomas Heatherwick – both leading figures of contemporary art – have established their studios in the King’s Cross area. I will allow myself a little digression here, as it is worth to mention that the Wellcome Trust has had the chance to work with both artists in the past. Thomas Heatherwick’s dramatic, 30m high Bleigiessen sculpture was commissioned by the Trust to be displayed in the new headquarters inaugurated at 215 Euston Road in 2004. Antony Gormley’s sculpture Feel is displayed at Wellcome Collection, although it has been recently boxed up for its own good for the duration of our development project.

But back to King’s Cross: if you have been wandering around the area lately you have probably noticed that, there too, there are some important works going on. King’s Cross Central is the area’s latest regeneration project that will result in the constructions of cultural venues, hotels and restaurants. It’s a trendy area to be in, and from the looks of things, the creativity in King’s Cross can only grow and blossom in the years to come.