No one has ever said to me, “Walk down Gray’s Inn Road because it’s fascinating” but guess what? It is. Even though it always rains when I’m there, Gray’s Inn Road has a lot of visible and hidden history. I’m just going to take you on the first part of my walk now, starting at King’s Cross Station and ending at the Eastman Dental Hospital. Google says it should take 13 minutes. Google has never walked with me and my camera!
King’s Cross Station honestly states its purpose
King’s Cross Station was surrounded in construction fence on the day I took these pictures. Despite that, I like this photo, because it shows off the transparent roof. You can see the truth about King’s Cross: what looks like a massive solid block of a building is airy and light inside. You know at a glance what this building is all about.
Just look at the generous simplicity of those graceful arches and the Italian-style clock tower. The architect, Lewis Cubitt, was an engineer who designed bridges and a few buildings. I haven’t found any of his bridges yet. Lewis used to get the credit for the Nene Viaduct in Peterborough, England, but apparently that’s been withdrawn. It’s now believed his father and brother, William and Thomas Cubitt were responsible.
No one challenges Lewis’s claim to have been the architect of King’s Cross Station, though, and of the hotel next door as well.
Inside King’s Cross Station there have been tremendous changes, but that’s a story for another day. It’s a major passenger hub, always busy. The famous Platform 9 3/4 of Harry Potter fame is here, though I wouldn’t recommend running into a brick wall to get to another dimension unless you know for sure you aren’t a Muggle.
And, like the fictional world of Harry Potter, much about the King’s Cross area is also invisible. It’s remembered in street names, history books, gazeteers, stories, crime reports, pictures, and literature.
Was there a battle at Battle Bridge?
I would like to take a tour with a guide and ask about a few things. The first is: Is this where Queen Boudicca made her last stand?
Boudicca (or Boadicea) is the fierce woman in the chariot in the picture below. She’s not at King’s Cross, she’s glaring across Westminster Bridge at the Houses of Parliament. There’s no particular reason for her to be angry at the British. Her fight was with the Roman occupiers.
From sometime in the distant past until the 1830s, the village at King’s Cross was called Battle Bridge, or Battlebridge. Some say Battle Bridge was named for a savage and one-sided fight between the Romans and the Iceni, led by Boudicca, in the year 61 AD. The Romans won. Is it true the battle happened here?
According to the 1952 Survey of London, which is available online, “Battle Bridge” is a Tudor era corruption of “Broad Ford”, referring to the crossing of the River Fleet here. The Survey says, “There is no foundation for the stories of a battle here between the Romans and the Britons.” Has that historical view changed since 1952? I don’t know but so far I haven’t found anything really solid to back up the battle story.
I lean toward the least exciting view, that there was no battle at Battle Bridge.
Scavengers, the great dust-heap, and the wretched females
Let’s fast forward to the 19th century, and into the 20th. King’s Cross has had its ups and downs.
An 1832 book by engraver and (I would say) geographer George Alexander Cooke says,
“The neighbourhood of Battle-bridge has undergone the greatest change it is possible to conceive; it had been for many years a filthy, and even dangerous vicinity; and at one side of it, the contents of the dust-carts of the town used to be emptied. Now all the mean and ruinous hovels have been removed, and the road on each side lined by decent, and not unfrequently splendid, houses. …
“The Small Pox Hospital is a beautiful ornament to this vicinity. …”
(From page 172 of Walks through London …, by George Alexander Cooke. Sherwood, Gilbert & Piper, 1832, via Google Books)
Next to that beautiful ornament was a notorious dust-heap, the euphemistic name for a mountain of garbage. In 1825, the land under the heap was sold.
I’ve read modern writers saying that in 1849, wagonloads of the finer dust were carted off to the River Thames and shipped to Russia where the material was used to make bricks. The year troubles me, because the reason the Russians needed bricks was to rebuild Moscow after the Great Fire in 1812, and I expect they wanted to get on with it.
The Coventry Herald of August 12, 1825 said,
“The ground on which the notorious dust-heap stood, at the end of Gray’s-Inn-Lane, sold for 15,000l. It is to be built upon. The dust and cinders upon it are transferred to the Thames, thence to be shipped for Moscow, to aid in the re-building of that celebrated city!”
A number of papers printed a syndicated article about the reuse of material in building, including the Fife Herald on May 17, 1838:
“… it is a well-known fact that the dust-heap that was wont to grace the top of Gray’s-Inn-Lane is now a competent part of the city of Moscow, to which it was exported as a material for brick-making after the conflagration of that city.”
There is a watercolour painting of the dust-heap and the Smallpox Hospital beside it in the Wellcome Collection. It’s called “King’s Cross London: The Great Dust-Heap, next to Battle Bridge and the Smallpox Hospital” by E. H. Dixon, 1837.
The sale of the land under the “notorious dust-heap” was sold to the Pantheon Theatre Company, whose theatre did not last very long.
In a book now available on Google Books called The Fleet: Its River, Prison, and Marriages, by John Aston, 1888, the author writes:
“Close by here [Battle Bridge], in Gray’s Inn Road, was a mountain of refuse and dust … This mound once had a curious clearance, so it is said. It was bought in its entirety, and sent over to Russia, to help make bricks to rebuild Moscow; and the ground on which it stood was, in 1826, sold to a Company for £15,000.” (page 45)
Another book found on Google Books from 1866, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, by John Timbs, there is more on this topic of the dust-heap and its ultimate fate:
“Early in the present century, the spot of ground on which now stands Argyle Street, Liverpool Street, Manchester Street, and the corner of Gray’s Inn Road, was covered with a mountain of filth and cinders, the accumulation of many years, and which afforded food for hundreds of pigs. The Russians bought the whole of the ash-heap, and shipped it to Moscow, to be used in rebuilding that city after it had been burned by the French. The Battle-bridge dustmen had a certain celebrity in their day. The ground on which the dust-heap stood was sold in 1826 to the Pandemonium Company for 15,000 pounds; they walled in the whole, and built a theatre, which now remains at the corner of Liverpool Street. The Company’s scheme was, however, abandoned, and the ground was let on building leases. …
“When the street now called the Caledonian Road was in the fields, there was at the Battle-bridge end of the road a large accumulation of horse-bones, which were stored there by some horse-slaughterers. And in 1833, Battle-bridge was described in the New Monthly Magazine as “the grand centre of dustmen, scavengers, horse and dog dealers, knackermen, brickmakers, and other low but necessary professionalists. …
“Mr. T. C. Noble has communicated to Pinks’ History of Clerkenwell the following particulars of the Dust and Cinder heap &c.–The estate at Battle-bridge comprised from seventeen to twenty acres. Of this my grandfather took sixteen small dilapidated houses, and the dust and cinder heap, which, it was said, had been existing on the spot since the Great Fire of London. He gave about 500l. for the lot, although the parties wanted 800l. Bricks were then very scarce, so he very soon realized a good sum for the old buildings, while Russia, hearing in some way of this enormous dust-heap, purchased it for purposes in rebuilding Moscow. The site of the mountain of dust is now covered by the houses of Derby Street …” (Volume 1, pages 100-101)
I gather there was the dust heap and a separate bone heap.
When I first heard of King’s Cross, it was referred to as a red light district. I remember hearing a radio play describing young girls coming down from the north, stepping off the train and into the night at King’s Cross, straight into a life of addiction, prostitution, and exploitation just like that. I guess there are still sex workers here, but during my walks, even in the dark, I haven’t noticed any.
A lot of money has been invested to renovate the station, the hotel, and the surrounding area.
King’s Cross is a place worth returning to for more stories, but it’s time to move along now.
A backwards glance at St. Pancras next door
Two major stations, St. Pancras and King’s Cross, are close together but they don’t look alike at all. One of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture, St. Pancras could be a fairytale castle. It’s hard to believe this building was nearly demolished in the 1960s. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.
London guide Jean Jacyna said St. Pancras Station and hotel are dear to her, in an article here on London Heritage Hotspots.
When I turned my back on St. Pancras and started down Gray’s Inn Road, the view had changed from misty and enchanting to dull and kind of aimless.
Gray’s Inn Road always leaves me feeling I’m in a bit of a no-man’s land. I don’t know why yet. I need to see this place on a sunny day and maybe that would change my mind.
Writing the phrase “no-man’s land” brings home to me that this short walk steps through a tiny encyclopedia of common problems and ways of dealing with them.
The Battle of Battle Bridge compels some people to conjure up stories of a bloody fight between armies, as if forceful extermination would be a good solution.
The great dust-heap at King’s Cross was a temporary solution to a different kind of problem – how to manage the waste of a growing city. The dust-heap wasn’t just a garbage pile, it was the source of a living for some people. These scavengers pulled the discarded and cast-off household goods, and all manner of lost treasures out of the mountain and sold them to dealers for money to stay alive. I thought the dust-heap pickers were miserably poor but accounts differ. Perhaps everything is relative.
Owning a dust-heap was apparently lucrative.
A different kind of conflict emerged, not between rich and poor but between groups with different views about the value of preserving beautiful buildings. In the 1960s, as I mentioned earlier, St. Pancras was almost demolished after being bombed in both wars and not maintained or repaired.
The theme of conflict continues along Gray’s Inn Road, but it takes another turn.
Hospitals on Gray’s Inn Road: Man vs disease and infirmity
I love the quaint names of English institutions. The Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital is exactly what it announces itself to be. This hospital started as a private institution and then eventually became part of the National Health Service.
The history of health care here and down the road at the Eastman Dental Hospital could be a proxy for the history of health care more generally, in the UK and elsewhere. It’s a fight between humans and the things that wound and kill us – diseases and injuries – but underlying that is the ongoing conflict over who is entitled to medical care and who should pay for it. The Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital started out as a private institution and became part of the National Health Service later. Now it’s in the same organization as the Royal Free Hospital.
“Previously to the Founding of this Hospital, there was no Medical Establishment in this vast Metropolis where the destitute stranger, when overtaken by sickness or disease, and disabled from moving about, could find an asylum for his immediate reception.
“In the Winter of 1827, a wretched female, under eighteen years of age, was seen lying on the steps of St. Andrew’s Church-yard, Holborn-Hill, actually perishing through disease and famine. She was a total stranger in London, without a friend, and died two days afterwards, unrecognized by any human being. This distressing event being witnessed by Mr. William Marsden, Surgeon, who had repeatedly been struck with the difficulty and danger arising to the Sick Poor from the system of requiring letters of recommendation before admission to the Public Hospitals, and of having only appointed days for admission, he at once determined with the co-operation of the late Alderman Harmer (at whose residence the early meetings of the Institution were held), Mr. John Watson, Mr. George Simpson, and several other Gentlemen in the Neighbourhood, to set about founding a Medical Charity in which destitution and disease should alone be the passport for providing free and instant relief. On this principal the Free Hospital was established in Greville Street, Hatton Garden, under the name of “The London General Institution for the Gratuitous Cure of Malignant Diseases”, and opened to the public on the 28th of February, 1828.”
The hospital carried out its mission. When the cholera epidemic hit London in 1832, the Free Hospital opened its doors even as all the others were shutting theirs.
The hospital charity, supported by private donors, kept growing. The need was unending. In 1842 when the former barracks of the Light Horse Volunteers became available, Marsden and two other hospital governors put up their own money to take it over, trusting the public would make donations as well.
I didn’t know the history of the building, but I did notice that it had an entry high enough for a person to ride through on horseback.
From 1828 to 1856, the report I’m quoting from says there were over half a million patients treated by what was finally known as the Royal Free Hospital.
“Many wretched females have been restored to health, and not a few reclaimed, who, but for the timely aid afforded them by this Charity, must have closed a life of sin and misery by a premature death.”
(If you’re thinking “a life of sin and misery” sounds familiar, you probably heard it either at church or by The Animals.)
A “wretched female” in need of being “reclaimed” meant a prostitute.
I suppose we could think that being close to a hospital open to prostitutes was somehow responsible for King’s Cross become a red light area, but I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. King’s Cross isn’t the only place where the sex trade has been carried out in London; far from it.
The Royal Free Hospital grew and relocated. The former barracks now house the Eastman Dental Hospital, part of University College London. This dental hospital is one of a few started with a gift from the American inventor George Eastman in 1931. One of Eastman’s wishes was to provide dental care to children whose parents couldn’t afford it.
In the same spirit as the Royal Free Hospital, the National Health Service came into being in 1948, more than 100 years after Marsden found the dying girl. The NHS was founded on the principle that everyone should have access to medical care regardless of wealth.
I have more to say about Gray’s Inn Road, another time. It is a fascinating street to look into.
When I was in the middle of researching this post, Sheldon Goodman came out with an interesting piece on his blog, The Cemetery Club. You may enjoy Sheldon’s “Why is King’s Cross Called King’s Cross?“. Next time I’m in London I hope to take one of Cemetery Club’s tours.
Did you like this blog post? Please share it with your friends! I’d love to have more readers.
Special message to my subscribers
I’m so sorry to have been offline for a while. I will tell you the truth, one of our two dogs got very sick. If you aren’t a dog owner that may not sound like much. I didn’t think it had affected me but looking back I see that there were several weeks when I simply couldn’t concentrate properly. Last week we said goodbye to our dog, sad but grateful for all the good times, and also grateful we were able to make him comfortable to the end.
But I do owe you an apology! I am very appreciative of your support and I don’t want you to think I take it for granted. I look forward to bringing you many more London Heritage Hotspots, and I hope you’ll like them.
Bye for now, and thanks,