About King's Cross voices

Between 2004 and 2008, King's Cross Voices worked with community members and local partners to record the memories and unique life experiences of those who have lived, worked and studied in the King's Cross area. 

The voices in the archive include teachers, shopkeepers, publicans, policemen, students, squatters, housewives, social workers, builders, actors, artists, campaigners, politicians, prostitutes, factory workers, cleaners, office workers and, vitally, a whole range of occupations within the railway industry which has been at the heart of the area for over 150 years.

King’s Cross is famous the world over for its railway and architectural heritage but in recent years the name King’s Cross has also been tainted by seediness and sleaze. It’s a place which people either seem to love or loathe, but up to now very little has been written about its people - those who have both lived and worked in the locality, perhaps out of sight and out of mind of the commuting crowds.

Today King’s Cross is in the throes of a massive redevelopment, and it is entering perhaps the most exciting period of its long and turbulent history. In response, King’s Cross Voices was created and was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the London boroughs of Camden and Islington. Between 2004 and 2008, the project was dedicated to recording and preserving the authentic voices of King’s Cross people before the physical reminders are forever changed, and as the composition of present communities are likely to be altered irrevocably. It is the first ever oral history project to document the life and times of King’s Cross, collecting interviews with a wide range of men and women - those who worked in the railway industry, students, shopkeepers, market traders, police officers, artists, campaigners, politicians, former sex trade workers, factory workers, housewives, publicans and many, many more.

From the outset of the project, extracts from King’s Cross Voices have been used in local exhibitions, sound trails, theatrical performances, and community publications.  Many of the interviewees were also photographed by a volunteer portrait photographer, and a unique collection of people’s own family photographs were also gathered for the project.

Acknowledgements

Many people have helped create the King’s Cross Voices oral history archive. These include those who have worked for the project, those who have given their time as volunteers and not least the bodies which funded the project.

The project was largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with additional financial support from the London Borough of Camden and the London Borough of Islington. The project was also supported by Argent, the British Library Sound Archive and South Camden Community Learning Centre.

Until December 2006 the project was managed by the former King’s Cross Community Development Trust. Since December 2006 King’s Cross Voices has been managed by the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.

King’s Cross Voices employed two full-time project workers: Leslie McCartney who worked as Project Co-ordinator from 2004 until May 2007, and Alan Dein who worked as Oral Historian from 2004 until May 2007 and then as Project Co-ordinator until January 2008. Many other people have contributed to the project, particularly those volunteers who were members of the advisory committee or interviewed people. Without them the project could not have been successfully completed.

All photographs of the interviewees are the copyright of Sarah Weal (2004-2007) and may not be reproduced without her permission.

Listen to the voices

The catalogues of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, including the recordings and transcriptions of King's Cross Voices, are available on public computers in all Camden Libraries.

You can search the database for particular recordings, and also listen to either a 'snippet' or the whole interview.

For more information, contact the local studies and archive centre.

History of King's Cross

The story of King’s Cross begins with the Fleet River and a small settlement, which grew up at a place known as Battle Bridge, named after an ancient crossing of the Fleet River which flows beneath, near the northern end of present-day Gray’s Inn Road.

Some of the earliest enterprises in the area were the spas, which developed around the Fleet's springs, becoming fashionable resorts in the eighteenth century. It was, however, an early attempt at traffic planning which determined the area’s fate. Thomas Coram built the Foundling Hospital for children in 1742-1747 just south of the present day King's Cross and ten years later, in 1756, the New Road was cut across the fields from east to west to channel traffic away from the city centre. Today, as the ever-busy Euston Road, it serves the same purpose.

By the early-nineteenth century Battle Bridge had become a depressing place. It was low lying and subject to flooding. The Smallpox Hospital had been built in 1769 and a fever hospital was added in 1802. It had become notorious for its tile kilns, rubbish tips and noxious trades.  The Regent’s Canal, opened in 1820, attracted other industries such as gas works. A rescue attempt was made in 1829. How different it could have been if the Panarmonion project, offering recreational and cultural activities, had been a success. It's failure led to the site being developed for housing, leaving only Argyle Square as open space. Associated with the plan was a statue of King George IV built in the middle of the road junction. It gave the area a new name - King’s Cross.

Railways

To most people the area is synonymous with the station. The arrival of King’s Cross Station in 1852 followed by St Pancras in 1868 had an enormous impact, establishing it as an entry point to London for visitors, immigrants and goods from the north. The construction of the Underground lines confirmed it as a major interchange. For the people who lived in King’s Cross these developments were a mixed blessing, providing work but also great upheaval.  he expansion of land taken for railway use involved the demolition of whole streets of what were generally considered as slums, but many lost their homes and this added to overcrowding in the small terraced houses to the south of Euston Road. Model housing blocks such as Stanley Buildings, Derby Buildings, the late-Victorian flats of the Hillview Estate and more recent council flats are examples of projects to provide the district with good, affordable housing.

Still surviving today, however, is St Pancras Old Church.  It is named after Saint Pancras, a fourteen year old boy beheaded in Rome in 304 for his faith. A church was founded on this spot some years later making it quite possibly one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain. It stands in St Pancras Gardens, the former burial grounds of both St Pancras and St Giles in the Fields parishes. The coroner’s court, built in 1881, was erected on a piece of ground  used for the reburial of the remains of closely packed decomposing bodies which had been exhumed during Midland Railway’s approach works to St Pancras Station in 1866.

Once the fortunes of King’s Cross were linked to that of the railway industry, it also suffered from its problems. After surviving Second World War bombing the railways succumbed to post–war decline, particularly in goods traffic. Vast areas of sidings and warehouses became redundant and turned to wasteland; by 1955 the area was suitably run-down, a seedy backdrop for the Ealing comedy 'The Ladykillers' starring Alec Guinness released the same year. A low point was reached in 1966 when a plan was put forward to amalgamate the two termini, which would have meant the demolition of St Pancras Station. Since then a number of redevelopment schemes have come to nothing.

King’s Cross has suffered from years of neglect. It is noisy and chaotic yet visitors and residents look upon it with affection. It has some success stories. Camley Street Natural Park beside the Regent’s Canal provides a welcome green refuge. Euston Road is home to Camden Town Hall; the administrative centre of the borough, and opposite is the prestigious new British Library. Next door, St Pancras Chambers is being restored. Since 2007 Eurostar Trains has provided a link with Europe and in 2012 there will be a shuttle link with the Olympic site at Stratford. Meanwhile, with the development of 67 acres of disused goods yards, there is no doubt that this will once again bring enormous change to King’s Cross.

Cultural life in King's Cross

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 and 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), George Gissing, Paul Nash, and the Bloomsbury Group which began in Gordon Square before the First World War.

Several members of the group, which took its name from the area, lived in neighbouring houses. Some of the group's residents , 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. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the nineteenth century Indian educator and Islamic reformer, lived at 21 Mecklenburgh Square. Mohammed Ali Abbas, who lived at nearby 33 Tavistock Square, studied and then practiced law in London and was one of the founders of Pakistan. 

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.

The area has a number of community organised annual events, such as the King’s Cross County Show. These showcase local talent and enterprise helping to reinforce the area’s strong community networks. 

In 2008, Kings Place, London’s new concert hall, opened in York Way. The building is also home to the Guardian and Pangolin art gallery. Another eminent gallery to be open in the district in recent years is the Gagosian in Britannia Street.

King’s Cross is also home to The British Library, The Place (contemporary dance theatre and school) and the Canal Museum.

King's Cross - a tour in time

Take your own tour in time around King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations, Euston and King's Cross Roads and surrounding streets.  Over ninety historical pictures - many previously unpublished - illustrate the story of an area of London that is undergoing enormous change.

Written by local studies librarians, Mark Aston and Lesley Marshall, first published in June 2006 and reprinted and updated in 2011, 'King’s Cross: a tour in time' is available to buy from Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, price £5.99.

For more information, contact the local studies and archive centre.