Up to the eighteenth century the parish of St Pancras was mostly common land and pasture, with the only
buildings being the old church and two manors.
There was a manor house at Totenhale, to the north-east of what is now the Euston underpass, and there may have been a knot of buildings around the medieval manor of Cantelowes at Camden Town. Change came rapidly after the 1750s however and within less than a century the area had been transformed from open countryside to its present intensely urban form.
The catalyst for change was the construction in 1756-7 of the New Road which ran from Paddington to Islington (now Marylebone Road and Euston Road). The New Road was created to relieve heavily congested east west route of Oxford Street and Holborn and drive cattle to market at Smithfield. It was also intended to some degree to halt what was seen as the “ruinous rage for building” on the north side of town by the Bedford, Portman and Fitzroy Estates, amongst others. Horace Walpole described the New Road as being “built to pass the stones”: in this light it can thus be claimed as the world’s first urban bypass.
Some ribbon development appeared along the New Road in the late 1700s but the most significant development was a speculative venture by Jacob Leroux on land leased from Lord Somers and thereafter named as Somers Town. Its narrow terrace streets also contained the Polygon a tight ring of tall villas facing outwards from within a square.
The next major change came with the creation of Regent’s Park. John Nash was appointed as Architect to the Department of Woods and Forests – The Department’s Commissioners instructed Nash to develop a new plan for the park that would be the northern culmination of Nash’s ambitious replanning of the West End, from Carlton House Terrace and Regent Street to Portland Place.
Contemporary with the park, and defining its northern boundary, was the Regents’ Canal, built to bring goods from the Midlands into the heart of London. Nash built a working-class quarter for canal workers and to complement the fine houses in and around Regents Park but there was a conscious segregation with few
links between the two.
The New Canal Company was founded in May1811 to form a canal linking Paddington Basin to the Limehouse Cut. The Canal Bill received royal assent in July 1812 and work began on the eight mile stretch of canal. In 1813 an Act of Parliament authorised construction of a branch canal to Cumberland Market. The resulting design, known as the Collateral Cut – or more familiarly by canal users as the “Cumberland Turn” – would run south through Park Villages East and West and end at the docks (known variously as Regents Park Basin or Cumberland Basin), surrounded by wharfs supplying the markets in the adjacent squares east of Albany Street. A commercial ice well some 25m deep was accommodated on its west side of the basin, stocked with Norwegian ice.
The Nash plan was for the canal basin to serve three market squares (hay and straw in the first, meat and vegetables in the second and third) linked on the north-south axis of Osnaburgh Street – Cumberland Market (1819), the northernmost and largest, provided for the essential function of transporting foodstuffs into London and horse manure out to the farms on the urban periphery and beyond, again using the Regents Canal. The Market opened as a hay market in 1830 to replace the area off Piccadilly that still bears its name.
The southern markets were not successful and were quickly adapted as residential squares of small houses. These were Munster Square (originally York Square) and Clarence Gardens (1823-4).
From 1660 the Southampton Estate began to be developed as a grid of terraced streets, three or four
storeys high. Bloomsbury Square was laid out 1661 by the 4th Earl of Southampton as a prelude to his own house and spread steadily northwards. Euston Square, stretched across both sides of the New Road, was built in 1827.
The most dramatic intervention came in 1837 with the opening of Euston Station, with its cutting and
railway tracks carving a swathe through the fields and streets of Chalk Farm and creating tremendous
upheaval. Dickens, a one-time Somers Town resident, described the scene as a “great earthquake” in his 1848 novel Dombey and Sons. The railway was denied the legal right to press further into the city and halted at the edge of the Southampton Estate, two blocks north of Euston Square.
In 1860 the Metropolitan railway from Paddington to Farringdon was laid beneath the New Road using the ‘cut and cover’ method, thereby avoiding the legal complications and expense of tunnelling under properties. It was the first underground railway in the world and became an immediate commercial success; it was soon extended into the city at Moorgate and west to Hammersmith.
In 1875 the Midland Railway acquired further land to build their Somers Town goods depot with a frontage to Euston Road. The displacement resulted in a barrack-like development in the middle of Clarendon Square, replacing Leroux’s polygon. Subsequent overcrowding and insanitary conditions prompted early rebuilding of the worst of the housing in the area, in and around Somers Town. Much of this was provided by the LCC and later by the 1920s by the pioneering St Pancras House Improvement Society.
In 1906 the railway cutting to Euston was widened, resulting in the demolition of the eastern side of Park Village East and a new bridge to Mornington Terrace.
Rebuilding around the Canal Basin began in the 1930s as a neo-Georgian social housing development
for local workers and war veterans (the Cumberland Market Estate) built around Cumberland Basin by the
Crown Estate and handed over to the borough of St Pancras after the war.
The Regents Park canal branch was drained during the blitz, reputedly because it was too conspicuous during air raids, and the basin was filled with rubble from the many bombed properties in the Euston area.
It was covered with topsoil and became the base of the Crown Tenant’s Horticultural Society, who turned the basin into allotments as part of the Dig for Victory campaign. It survives as one of oldest running and largest collection of horticultural allotments in London.
Extensive bomb damage and slum clearance prompted an ambitious postwar programme of redevelopment after the war by the Borough of St Pancras. The Regent’s Park Estate was the largest of these. It was not built to any single plan, but rather to several, which accounts for its somewhat disjointed form but also for the variety of housing types. Development started in 1951 around Cumberland Market and progressed southwards towards Euston Road.
In the 1960s and 70s there were two further great changes; in the study area, British Railways rebuilding (including the demolition of the Philip Hardwick’s entrance portal and screen – the “Euston Arch” – in 1963) the new Euston Station (opened 1968) and the creation of the Euston Road underpass, with a cluster of tall office towers at the junction. In the 1970s the station redevelopment was completed with a frontage of commercial buildings by Richard Siefert.
Euston station remains a major hub of activity and is used by some 50 million passengers each year.
Steadily increasing traffic has made Euston Road more of a barrier to free pedestrian movement, reinforcing the separation of the Euston area from the west end and the city. Its architectural character has also been changed by a leap in scale and a shift from residential and smaller scale commercial uses to major office development.