The King’s Cross Story23 minute read

I first learnt about King’s Cross in the teenage novel Harry Potter. It was my first impression of London: a historical and grand train station with steam powered trains coming in and out every day. It was a dream-like image.

I moved into a small apartment in King’s Cross in my second year. I still remember vividly my father’s concern, or horror, over my decision, for fear of the prostitutes and drunken people in the area. This was his only idea of this place when working in London 30 years ago.

Having been here for 2 years, I witness its ongoing transformations. I see the burgeoning of high-end restaurants and fancy residential buildings. I often wonder, will I still recognize this place when I come back in 10 years’ time?

I want to study more thoroughly the rich histories, vibrant communities and transformations in King’s Cross (KX). Through my palimpsests project, I hope to answer the research question ‘How has King’s Cross changed over time and how do these changes relate to shifts in political economy of London?’ This project will look further into 1) the tension between development and displacement and 2) the representation of KX and its effect.

My project is structured according to 3 identified periods in the history of KX: the railway expansion in the 1850s, the age of decline in 1950s and the regeneration starting in the 1980s. In ‘Scene I: 1850s’, I will explore how the railway expansion reflected the heyday of transport technology and industrialization, yet also caused widespread displacement. ‘Scene II: 1950s’ analyses the media depictions of the general decline in KX and how this particular image is used. In ‘Scene III: 1980s’, I will outline the changes that has taken place in KX and discuss whether the regenerations are people-centred as claimed, or has remained property-driven.


My project is based on secondary research from a wide range of sources. I will look at academic literatures which grounds my project in key themes of geography including regeneration, representation, etc. I will also analyse works from popular culture and literature including songs and poems. Literary works reflect the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time (Hudson 1921). They help us understand how the society was understood and represented. However, such understanding may be flawed or biased; therefore we need academic writings to provide a more accurate look on the area’s history. In addition, I will look at government publications on planning of KX and archival materials.

I am well aware of my personal position as a foreign student who has spent 2 years living in KX. My intimate relationship with the research area generates tension towards my aim to critically study the area. It is impossible for me to assume an ‘objective’ position (Haraway 1991). Instead of rejecting my personal constraints, I seek to use my viewpoint as an entry point for the project. From there on, I hope to create spaces for a more critical examination on the history and contemporary changes of KX (Kern 2009).

Scene I: 1850s

KX is an area that experiences constant changes. Yet no development has been as transformative as the railway arrival in the 1850s. The monopoly of the London & North Western’s Company was successfully broken by the building of a second railway route to the north from KX station runs by the Great Northern. The building plan started in 1846, with the temporal station completed in 1850, and the actual terminal opening in 1852 (Biddle 1990). Since then, KX station has become a hub in the railway system. Its importance and function reflects the political economy, technological innovations and lives of people in London.

Old KX coal drop
Old KX coal drop

In this section, I wish to talk especially about the goods trade. Trains arriving the KX station carry coal, potatoes, farm and fish products. These goods will be stored in the warehouse before they are distributed to the rest of London. Within 10 years after its opening, the trade reached 85,000 tons a year (Thorne, Duckworth and Jones 1990). This resulted in several attempts to expand the warehouse, for example engulfing the nearby passenger terminal. At the peak time, the storage warehouse could take up to 59 acres of land. This good trade continued and peaked after the WW1, reaching 124,000 tons of perishable goods being traded in KX in 1921 (Ibid.).

The large working class presence in London led to the high demand for potatoes and farm produces which were their typical diets. There were active potato markets on weekends. The nearby streets were nicknamed ‘Long and Short Fish Road’ because of the persisted smell. These products, especially potatoes, take up a lot of storage space therefore has greatly contributed to the expansion of warehouse in KX.

Coal Drops transformed
The coal drops transformed into Coal Drop Yard, a retail quarter with restaurants, galleries and markets

Coal, being extremely important for industrial processes, was another important element of the London’s goods trade. Before the introduction of the railway, coal could only arrive by ships. Yet the profitability of sea trade is hampered by the high risk it incurs. In 1845, coal started being transported through the railway and KX became a hub for coal trade. By 1856, there were already 200,000 tons of coals reaching KX every year (Thorne 1990). Concurrently, volume of coal allowed on ships was greatly reduced for safety reason. This directly reduced the competitiveness of coal trade via sea routes. Coal by trains has exceeded that through ships for the first time in 1867. Although in late 1890s, coal arriving from sea has once again taken over, the vibrant coal trade has deemed the importance of the KX station in the Victorian era.

Yet there is another side to this railway fervent. Lying between Euston and KX station is the infamous slum of Agar Town, named after its land owner William Agar. After he died in 1841, his wife leased out the land in very small plots with a 21-year lease. Its proximity to train stations and the extremely short lease led to the over-crowdedness and the poor living conditions (Stamp 1990).

Map of Agar Town
Map of Agar Town by Swensen (2006) constructed according to Booth’s map

Journalists, novelists, government officials unanimously decried the conditions of Agar Town. It was seen as the ‘foulest north London development of all’, an area ‘more fitted for wild beasts than human being’ (Porter 1995:217; Denford 1995:11). Given its notorious name, the eviction of the town in 1866 to make way for the new St Pancras station was lauded as social improvements. More than 32,000 were displaced without compensation (Dyos 1957).

However, a revisionist look on the history of Agar Town and its population suggests a more complex story. Swensen (2006) looked at the census data and interview records to reconstruct the demographic characteristics of Agar Town dwellers. Alternative narratives to the town population were discovered: old inhabitants reported pleasant features such as small gardens; the neighbourhood was composed of a respectable population with clerks, jewelers and skilled artisans. An attempt to draw a poverty map of the Agar Town in Charles Booth’s style shows not all areas are coloured black (poorest). Many are indeed in blue and purple, or even pink, which suggest good ordinary earnings among the people. The community was more dynamic than we thought.

The overemphasis of the slum like quality of Agar Town also left the question of ‘why’ unanswered. In the beginning, Agar Town was seen as a byword for bad landlords, which showed normative judgments. However, such narrative was totally lost in the 1866 eviction (Swensen 2006). Neither was there any critical assessment on the impact of railway expansion. The railway expansion has distorted the urban scene of London, and the KX area was the immediate victim, as seen in the over-crowdedness of Agar Town. The benefits of railway were only distributed to the upper and middle class, at the expenses of the poor (Olsen 1964).

Displacement and decay caused by the railway continued. In 1898-99, Ernest Aves, Charles Booth’s assistant, recorded his walk with Inspector Bowles in the area and said many streets should be coloured dark blue on Booth’s map. ‘A good many prostitutes and amateurish thieves are living here’. The Old St Pancras Garden ‘have been diminished by the railways, and the head-stones that had to be displaced … [are] silent reminders of the encroachments of the Midland’ (Aves 1899:109,143).

t is not only the living who is displaced, but also the dead. In the poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, Thomas Hardy (1882) expressed his resentment and frustrations towards the digging of dead bones in the graveyards to make way for trains (see Appendix 1). The poet imagined himself as part of the exhumed bones and lamented over his own fate. Ironically, Hardy’s poem was commemorated through the Hardy Tree in the Old Pancras Church, but the powerless people and the dead were forgotten.

In this section, we have learnt about the prestigious position of KX station in the London goods trade and the high demands for coal and food products that reflected the industrial processes and working class diet. However, behind the triumph of railway were the unheard cries of the displaced. These voices were silenced in official records and popular history. The diverse lives of the Agar Town population were lumped together in the homogenous portrayal of the town as slum by the media and society. Although popular culture may reflect the Zeitgeist, we have to question whose Zeitgeist we are talking about. Representation mirrors only what people think, but does not necessarily reflect the reality.

Scene II: 1950s

Fame and glory do not last forever. When capital flees and economy changes, the long term urban decline caused by capitalist development will finally be exposed (Edensor 2005). This is the post-WW2 London. During 1950s-1970s, railway and industry declined and KX was the immediate victim. Markets are closed, housings fell into poor conditions. The area was in despaired.

In this section, I will look particularly at the media portrayal of the decay of KX. ‘King’s Cross’ by Pet Shop Boy released in 1987 was an interesting example. KX has been a popular subject in songs or movies because it is a symbol of London: as the songwriter Neil Tennant (quoted in Campkin 2013:113) puts it, ‘KX was an emblem of downbeat London, of a city and country in crisis’.

The song (see Appendix 2) first included typical scenes you see in KX. The first verse of the song goes as ‘the man at the back of the queue was sent/ to feel the smack of firm government/ You leave home and you don’t go back’. This is a portrait of numerous people who arrive London via KX from the Northeast to in search for opportunities, only to find themselves disappointingly sent away and stranded in this city.

This picture of people wandering around KX looking for jobs and accommodations is recorded elsewhere, reinforcing the scene of despair. Journalist Alexandra Artley (1986) described vividly what he observed in KX every day: ‘hotel homelessness’ is ‘very clearly visible in KX’, and in everywhere you can see ‘a middle-aged woman wearing decaying sacking, her legs streaked with greasy filth walking barefoot on a wet street’. London, the promising city and KX, the thriving train station for trade turned into places that carry nothing but false hope. The portrayal of these images carries an undertone of criticism towards Thatcherism, which left so many people in desperate situations. The society in general, typified in KX, was surrounded by a gloomy atmosphere (Campkin 2013).

KX has become not only a place of shattered dreams, but also a hotbed for vice. Other lyrics in the song KX included ‘Dead and wounded on either side’, ‘Murder walking around the block/ ending up in KX’. As the song writer says, ‘there’s lots of crime around KX – prostitution, drug addicts, and a lot of tramps come up to you there’ (Ibid.).

In the above section, we looked at how a representation can be inaccurate. Now, we would discuss how a certain representation can be reinforced and used by different parties to advance their goals.

The bleak and immoral image of KX, of streets occupied only by the drug dealers and prostitutes was used by government to justify the need for regeneration in the 1980s. The displacement of these ‘undesirable people’ went uncontested. The KX station
fire in 1987 that killed 31 people was the tipping point when people all agreed to the need for social improvement given the abhorrent conditions of the station. The

voices of opposition, mainly from the Railway Land Group, who argued that there was already a vibrant local community in the area that should not be neglected or eliminated, went largely unheard (Ibid.). The tension between redevelopment and displacement of local culture was easily written off under the exaggerated image of a decaying KX.

The red light district of KX, in the hands of real estate developers, has become an ‘inner city chic’ with huge developmental potential (Ibid.:124). The Almeida theatre venue was originally a shelter for the homeless and clandestine meeting point for sex transactions. The company then decided the use the place for their new play Lulu Plays, in which the protagonists is a female prostitute. The past use of the theatre building was successful incorporated into the play to add an uncanny element. Here we can see how a certain representation of an area can be employed creatively to achieve economic aims or cultural allusion. However, through employing such images, the parties are indeed perpetuating these associations without critically assessing their validities. No one has questioned what the lives of the prostitutes actually look like, or why have they chosen to gather in KX. In studying representation of an area it is important to look beyond the impersonal accounts and search for the real lives behind all those descriptions.

Scene III: 1980s

The government and developers will not miss the economic value of the large piece of land that is situated on the edge of central London. Therefore plans of renewal of KX have come up starting from the 1980s (Hunter 1990). The KX redevelopment plan is now the largest urban regeneration project in the whole Western Europe, involving 67 acres of land. In this section, I would explain the transformation that have taken place in KX, and explore the tension between regeneration and the displacement of local culture and people.

Under the Thatcher government, there is a shift from large scale public planning during the post-war era to the private capital led development. Publicly owned companies are encouraged to deregulate and privatize. British Rail decided to sell off its land in KX (Edwards 2009). The KX area, although was full of ruins at that time, was perceived to contain huge economic potential: it is situated at the heartland of London; it was considered the ideal terminus of Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Being the ‘most exciting opportunity in Britain’, it was unsurprising that in 1987 the government wanted to develop KX in similar style as the Docklands and Broadgate (Hunter 1990:129).

KX Interactive Map
KX Interactive Map

Such proposals were greatly criticized by the local groups and the KX Railway Land Community Development Group was quickly set up later that year. It warned of social consequences of the speculative investments and urged the government to take into account the local needs. Also, although property-led investment was still the mainstream, there were calls for greater community involvement in planning processes in light of the widespread social displacement. Therefore the Camden Council in 1988 issued a document brief that stressed the importance of improving social wellbeing and respecting local cultures during urban redevelopment. The Islington and Camden Council (2002) envisioned a KX that is environmentally pleasant and could provide major benefits like housings and employments to the local communities. The KX redevelopment was seen as a ‘demonstration of how large-scale inner-city regeneration could be achieved through co-operation rather than confrontation’ (Imrie 2009).

In 2001, Argent was selected as the developer of KX and in 2006, the plan to build 50 new office buildings, 1,900 new homes and 26 acres of open space by Allies and Morrison and Porphyrios Associates was approved (Kings Cross, 2016). Argent, the development partner, emphasized how the plan was a result of consensus built after over 300 meetings with local concerns group and would lead to ‘inclusive urban regeneration’ (Moore 2014).

Lumier London 2016
Lumier London 2016

Today, if you go on the KX website, you will see photos showing historical buildings, new restaurants, community events and history of KX. There are extensive descriptions of how historical sites such as the Granary and the German Gymnasium has been well preserved and converted into new uses such as hosting the UAL Central Saint Martins campus. The Camley Street Natural Park was converted from the former Plimsoll coal drops. The area earlier this year hosted the Lumier show which was the largest light festival in London. KX has now been repackaged as a visitor friendly place with flourishing local cultures.

However, are there alternative narratives to the KX redevelopment project? On community involvement, while Argent emphasised protection of local values and interests, it has been criticized as being only a ‘show’ (Imrie 2009). Their only aim was to ‘manufacture consensus’ in order to satisfy the requirement by the government. The fact that the 2006 plan submitted to the Camden Council, which should improve based on the need of the local residents, bear little change compared to the 2001 plan suggests how little the commitment of Argent has towards attending to social needs (Ibid.). This is further exemplified by its plan to reduce the number of social housing in KX in 2015 when the coalition government allowed developers to re-negotiate agreements on housing provision amidst financial crisis (Edwards 2015).

Holgersen and Haarstad (2009) argued that the lack of class sensitive approach to viewing the community hampers the success of inclusive development. All the players in KX are lumped into the term ‘community’. Yet a local trader may have very different views from a resident. The use of community writes off all the potential tension within this large group. The aim to foster consensus is thus impossible, not because of the vast number of groups but because of the potential class conflict. The consensus Argent wishes to build will either never be reached, or built artificially, under such circumstances.

Concerning displacement, the KX Visitor Centre has made brochures that promotes the glorious railway history and heritages, while was busy getting rid of traces of prostitution and drugs. Papayanis (2000:341) argued that in many Western cities, elimination of minorities like the homeless and the sexual promiscuous was justified as a ‘sanitization of urban landscape’. Like in the eviction of Agar Town, economic development swipes away the socially undesirable while retain sites that carry religious or historical significance. As Cathy Bird (2002), the minister at King’s Cross Methodist Church argued, unless the poor are provided viable means of living, redevelopment, or efforts to crack down crimes will not solve any problem. Yet the government and developers refused to consider these people as a worthy player in the development process. In such case, they will only be pushed into even darker corners.

With the moving in of Eurostar and MNCs like Google, we must recognize the benefits brought by the KX Regeneration Project. Effort to include the community in the planning should also be acknowledged. However, the ‘quasi-religious’ connotation carried by the word ‘regeneration’ may hide the ongoing process of destruction and displacement (Campkin 2013:164). Without fundamentally changing the power relations, the local parties cannot have their rightful say in the development process.

Conclusion: the KX story, the London story

In this project, we have seen how KX has changed in the 3 periods identified. Song Writer of Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant said that ‘KX was a metaphor for Britain’. This is true throughout the 150 years we covered. The destiny of London and KX are so interwoven that a KX story is simultaneously a London story.

1851 was not only the year when railway arrived KX, but also the year when the
Great Exhibition was held in London, which proved to the world the power of London and Britain (Hudson 2011). In all these, KX has supplied London with industrial materials and food needed to support its factories productions and working class diet. London’s fame as an industrial centre in turns gave meaning to KX as a transport hub. KX could not thrive without a thriving London, or vice versa.

At the same time, London was littered with social problems arising from rapid industrialisation and urbanization. Income gaps were large. Living conditions were poor. Therefore the case of Agar Town we saw was only a tip of an iceberg. The displacement and suffering of Agar Town dwellers was a reflection of the lives of many poor people who reside in the city.

Similarly, the decline of KX seen in the 1950s was due to the overall postwar decline of London. The bombing left the city in ruin. The price of industrialisation slowly surfaced. The hazardous London smog that claimed over 4000 lives in 1952 was the environmental consequence of the industrialization is a parallel to the KX fire in 1987 which was an example of how ‘technological advancements have raised the potential for large-scale human catastrophe’ (Quinault 2001; Campkin 2013:116). The fire, due to the long term underinvestment and the cutting of staff in the station also reflects the shift in political economy landscape after the Tory came into power in the 1970s.

The millennium London was marked by its increasing internationalization and diversity. This is seen in the opening of the Eurostar Terminal in St Pancras station in 2007 and the arrival of migrants here. Also, London today is full of stories of gentrifications. Brixton, Elephant and Castle, just to name a few. Despite efforts to counter the trend of displacement through ‘inclusive development’ in KX, we witness persisting mentality of property-led development. There is no genuine change in the direction of urban redevelopment. Luckily, the redevelopment in KX is ongoing; there are still rooms for true community participation to take place. Let us then await the changes in KX that will happen in 10 years’ time, just as we await those happening in London. After all, the KX story is essentially a London story.


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Appendix 1

The Levelled Churchyard By Thomas Hardy 1882

“O passenger, pray list and catch Our sighs and piteous groans, Half stifled in this jumbled patch Of wrenched memorial stones!

“We late-lamented, resting here, Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!’

“The wicked people have annexed The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text Teetotal Tommy should!

“Where we are huddled none can trace, And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place Where we have never lain!

“There’s not a modest maiden elf But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself, And half some local strumpet!

“From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”

Appendix 2

King’s Cross by Pet Shop Boys
The man at the back of the queue was sent to feel the smack of firm government Lingered by the fly poster for a fight
It’s the same story every night
I’ve been hurt and we’ve been had
You leave home and you don’t go back

Someone told me Monday, someone told me Saturday Wait until tomorrow and there’s still no way
Read it in a book or write it in a letter
Wake up in the morning and there’s still no guarantee

Only last night I found myself lost by the station called King’s Cross Dead and wounded on either side You know it’s only a matter of time I’ve been good and I’ve been bad I’ve been guilty of hanging around

Someone told me Monday, someone told me Saturday Wait until tomorrow and there’s still no way
Read it in a book or write it in a letter
Wake up in the morning and there’s still no guarantee

So I went looking out today
for the one who got away Murder walking round the block ending up in King’s Cross

Good luck, bad luck waiting in a line It takes more than the matter of time

Someone told me Monday, someone told me Saturday Wait until tomorrow and there’s still no way
Read it in a book or write it in a letter
Wake up in the morning and there’s still no guarantee There is still no guarantee

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