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Victorian King’s Cross and the Maiden Lane GNR terminus


London’s Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park from 1 May to 15 October 1851 was in need of a temporary passenger station to transport the crowds of visitors. Great Northern Railway quickly provided the Maiden Lane terminus as a temporary passenger station for the duration of the exhibition. Low fares, used by the GNR to promote its services, stimulated a high and irregular volume of passenger traffic through the King's Cross area that proved difficult to manage.

Six million people (equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time) visited the Great Exhibition, with a peak attendance of 109,915 on 7 October. The event made a surplus of £186,000, used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.

In the centre of the British Avenue exhibits at the Crystal Palace was Dent’s Turret Clock, awarded the Council Medal for its strength, accuracy and lower cost. Struck by the suitability of the clock for the tower at King’s Cross, a price was negotiated both for the clock and three bells (bass, tenor and treble) obtained from John Murphy, an Irish foundry. The largest, weighing 29cwt (1,475kg), was for striking the hour; its sonorous peal frequently heard at the Great Exhibition, where it had also received a medal. The station clock tower was a feature that signalled the importance of railway time (as it was not until 1880 that Greenwich Time became legally binding) and was complemented by clocks within the station.

The only existing representation of the Maiden Lane terminus shows Queen Victoria’s departure to Scotland from a special platform on the arrival side on 27 August 1851. This image confirms what had been described as a light and elegant iron roof. The public viewing platform, seen on the left, appears to have been created from temporary works that carried spoil across the canal from the permanent station site. The spandrels on the east side are all that now survive of the temporary station.

While Queen Victoria had her own carriage and a train for her entourage, others could also avoid the company of members of the public by paying for the rail transport of their carriage and horses. This was how the Iron Duke rode the Iron Road a few months before his death on 14 September 1852. The Duke of Wellington embarked from the temporary station, his carriage rolled onto an open carriage truck. Only partly protected from the elements, his mode of travel suggested how strongly averse he was to sharing a railway carriage.

Queen Victoria arrived to the London terminus again in 1853, but this time to the main GNR passenger station we recognise today, with yellow stock brick, a projecting clock tower and arched openings.

By Peter Darley

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