Above: Looking north between the two newly-redeveloped Coal Drops buildings, with their unusual new roof.
There is more to do at King’s Cross Station these days than just looking at the shops within the concourse – or even buying a ticket and boarding a train. As the map below shows, there was a time when the land to the north of the railway termini at King’s Cross and St Pancras had a surprising number of goods trains using almost endless sidings and two Goods Depots. All that went on without the average passenger or nearby pedestrian knowing anything about it. From the 1900s, the use by freight handlers declined until by the 1950s much of the vast rail infrastructure was just rusting away. In some cases, the extensive land area was completely unused and because it was not easy to access few developers took much notice of it. By the turn of the millennium whole swathes of land were still sitting vacant with nothing happening at all. Things started to happen around 2010, probably triggered by the development of land around what is now St Pancras International Station and the addition of the new semi-circular concourse on the west side of King’s Cross Station.
Over the last decade, interest has been shown in two very large railway sheds related to the Coal Drops which were converted into a new development called Coal Drops Yard. After their use for handling coal declined the Coal Drops were used to store goods for most of the 20th century but, by the 1990s, they were being used as workshops, studios and even nightclubs.
The fully renovated Coal Drops Yard opened in November 2018. The renovation and innovative design was the idea of Tom Heatherwick. What was once a dirty environment handling coal in quantities that are hard to imagine today is now cleaned up and ready to be used for an entirely different purpose.
The Yard was launched as a ‘high end’ shopping experience – as if London is short of shopping experiences, high end or otherwise. This is a shopping experience with a difference. Most shopping malls or centres are erected on a site with an entirely new building – like the one at Stratford that opened in 2012. This one has opened within a precinct of listed buildings that was one of the dirtiest places in London. It was none other than a place where vast amounts of coal were brought by coal-trucks to London from the mines in the north of England. The complex was designed in Victorian times when all of London, indeed, all of England ran on coal.
Above: The map shows the vast railway sidings network in 1895. Overlays on the map show the main features related to the Coal Drops. RED rectangles – three Railway Termini and two Goods Depots. ORANGE – The two Coal Drops buildings. LIGHT BLUE – Regent’s Canal. BLUE – nine gas-holders that originally stood on the site of a large gas works. The holders were removed from the site and four of them were erected on a new site. Three of them (in YELLOW) were moved and now surround new housing. The fourth holder (in GREEN) was moved and now surrounds a small modern park.
Background to the Goods Yards at King’s Cross
The Great Northern Goods Station, of which the Goods Yard and Coal Drops Yard were part, began to be developed from April 1849 with the six-storey Granary or Main Goods Shed, designed by Cubitt and completed in 1852.
Coal was the main commodity being brought to London. In addition to coal, goods like stone, bricks, timber, livestock, fish, grain, fruit, vegetables, textiles and industrial machinery were all transported to and from the wider Goods Yard to the north of King’s Cross Station. From 1856, the Great Northern worked its own traffic for fish from Grimsby. The goods station and yards were also vital to the agriculture of East Anglia and Lincolnshire as well as the Industrial North.
Coal was used for heating homes, but most of it was used in industry including gasworks and ironworks. Of all the cargoes handled at King’s Cross, from the 1850s through to the twentieth century, coal was the most important in terms of volume and profit.
By the 1820s over two million tonnes of coal was being transported every year to the capital by sea and the River Thames, rising to over three million by the 1840s. It was known as ‘Sea Coal’. The pressures to improve efficiency and increase loads, leading to the over-burdening of the crafts or ‘colliers’, coupled with the inherent perils of the North Sea, made the seaborne trade extremely hazardous. By canal, the journey to London took weeks, but the building of the railways reduced this to just a few hours, outcompeting the canal as well as sea trade. The first supply of coal to London via rail was made in 1845 (London and Birmingham Railway). Up to 1850, only 1.6% of the coal sold in London was transported by canal and rail. From these humble beginnings, by 1856, rail was responsible for almost 30% of the trade and, by 1867, rail had surpassed seaborne coal.
History of the Coal Drops
The Eastern Coal Drops was built in 1851. A long, covered structure (with an adjoining brick viaduct) of three storeys, two consisting of arches, with the trains entering and leaving the shed via four tracks on the upper level beneath a wide-span wooden roof. The coal was dropped from bottom-opening wagons through a hole into the middle (‘hopper’ or loose bulk container) level, carried on cast-iron columns and beams, where it was graded and then shovelled down chutes into sacks or carts at yard level. The structure was divided into 48 cells.
The Western Coal Drops building was completed in 1860. It was similar to the Eastern Coal Drops, but with an open cast-iron structure and a simplified, more advanced design. Originally a water basin allowed for the coal’s onward transport by barge. This building was converted to a general goods area when the adjoining Western Goods Shed was built in 1897–99. The nearby Coal Offices, which are part of a curving block of buildings following the course of Regent’s Canal, were where the GNR’s coal trade was administered.
As the name suggests, the yard was originally built to receive goods trains carrying coal mined in NE England including Yorkshire. Coal was crucial to London’s national dominance and the expansion of her industries.
In 1866 the independent Coal Trader, Samuel Plimsoll built his own coal drops at Cambridge Street on the other (southern) side of the Regent’s Canal. Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98), born in Bristol, was an English politician and social reformer, now best remembered as the sailor’s friend for having devised the Plimsoll line. To reach his new drops, John Jay built an independent viaduct, completed in September, which ran through the centre of the yard (between the Eastern and Western Coal Drops). This viaduct was demolished during the current redevelopment, but its line is indicated through the new and repurposed landscaping of the yard.
Above: Looking south along the side of one of one of the renovated Coal Drops buildings, with its new shops and restaurants.
The Scene Today
Because the coal arrived in coal-trucks at the King’s Cross terminus, special high-level tracks were built so that the coal could be dropped from the trucks into the awaiting carts below – hence the name ‘Coal Drops’. The two buildings were still standing in their original form in 2010. The derelict buildings were being used as a storage area, not having been used for their original purpose for several decades.
Heatherwick’s unusual plan was to take the two long buildings, which stand near each other – but at different angles – and try to make them into one cohesive unit. His solution was to re-design the two slate roofs so that they merged. A new roof was designed, covered with 80,000 slate tiles brought from the same Welsh quarry as the original 1850s roof covering. As well as sandblasting the walls of the old buildings and restoring the brickwork, the building has been integrated into its surroundings so that it easy to walk from one pedestrianised zone to another.
To put the project into context, this is the latest stage in the £3 billion development of King’s Cross, which has taken 18 years of work so far. What was once disused railway property that was in effect a no-mans land, with a reputation as a red-light district, has become a hotspot for creativity, technology and now shopping. The new area extends across 27 hectares – an area larger than Soho. It not only includes the new Coal Drops Yard but it integrates with the landscaped Regent’s Canal on the southern side. New pedestrian access paths have been laid out, linking the new area with King’s Cross Station and St Pancras International. Housing has been provided in several forms, including apartments built in a circular form to ‘fit into’ old cast-iron gas-holders. One other huge Victorian structure is providing offices, restaurants, shops, public space and, in the centre, the campus for Central Saint Martins. It is one of the biggest urban rejuvenation projects in Europe. It even has its own postcode – N1C.
As far as Coal Drops Yard is concerned, it is early days. The number of restaurants and shops that are already open is low but not all the surrounding developments have been completed. More apartments are yet to be built and, of course, Londoners are yet to find out about this new ‘happening place’. With two railway termini, just five minutes walk away, one of those being an international station, access to the site is excellent. There are also many bus and underground connections too. What was a rather uninteresting walk along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal in this part of London is now turning into a place of discovery for the pedestrian. It is turning into another version of Camden Lock in the sense that Coal Drops Yard is also situated beside the Regent’s Canal. Whether it ever becomes as busy as Camden Lock on a weekend remains to be seen.