The Midland Hotel: 'Without us, this masterpiece would have been lost for ever'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Jane Fawcett, now 89, recalls the 1960s campaign in which she and John Betjeman saved one of the glories of London's Victorian gothic architecture – the soon-to-reopen Midland Hotel

The reopening of the magnificent Midland Grand Hotel in London's King's Cross this year is eagerly awaited – the culmination of a £150m restoration project that will restore one of the high points of Victorian Gothic architecture to its former glory.

As Gilbert Scott's creation enters a new phase in its extraordinary life, the focus is on the painstaking work that has gone into transforming the hotel back into a major landmark in the capital's life once more.

That narrative obscures perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the hotel's story – how it was saved from demolition nearly half a century ago thanks to campaigners who now look back on what they did with mixed emotions: pride at what they achieved then, dismay at how their deeds risk being forgotten now.

In 1963, Victorian Gothic design was then considered deeply unfashionable. Faced with spiralling maintenance costs, the government threatened to raze the edifice. The man most widely credited with saving the Midland from the wrecking ball (leading it to be mothballed until its reincarnation today) is the late Poet Laureate John Betjeman.

But campaigners now claim that the writer, whose statue greets passengers alighting at St Pancras station, was just a "publicist" for a behind-the-scenes fight. The building's real saviours go unmentioned – and uninvited to glitzy parties for its reopening.

One of the heroes speaks out today. "Betjeman was instrumental because he was good at publicity, but we did all the work," says Jane Fawcett, the Victorian Society's secretary between 1963 and 1976. Now 89, it is Mrs Fawcett and the society's former chair the architectural scholar Nikolaus Pevsner, who should be credited with saving the structure. The pair pursued what Mrs Fawcett calls the "nuts and bolts" of the drive that saw the Midland Grand listed in 1967.

"I think Betjeman was at the vanguard of changing people's attitudes but all I'm saying is we didn't get enough credit for the long slog we had for four years before we managed to get the buildings spot-listed," Mrs Fawcett says. "I think it is fair to say we did the focus of the work... We were the recognised organisation doing the spadework."

From its beginning, the hotel had led a troubled existence. Built in 1868, its £438,000 construction cost was considered extremely expensive. Cutbacks were implemented before it was finished. Visitors today can see empty plinths where statues were planned but never planted. After it opened, the country's railway boom turned to bust. The hotel struggled, and closed in 1935.

Decades later, the hotel became the base for British Railways' catering division and was gutted to provide for the organisation's needs, leaving the spectacular exterior. In the 1960s, the British Railways chair Dr Richard Beeching, proposing to scale back the country's railway network, advocated merging St Pancras and King's Cross stations. According to the historical case files, the Midland Grand was set to be demolished to make room for a new concourse. The nearby station buildings, engineered by William Henry Barlow, were also threatened. The Society, founded in 1958 by a group of friends including Betjeman and Pevsner, mounted an opposition.

"It was dirty and run-down and people couldn't see beyond their prejudice and the dirt," said architectural historian Gavin Stamp, author of Lost Victorian Britain. Stamp joined the Victorian Society as a teenager to help to save St Pancras. "Everyone thought it was hideous."

The Victorian Society has backed the building for 40 years. In the 1960s, it collected letters of support from hotel operators. The society's leaders now claim that Betjeman, a member of the Society, has been given an exaggerated role.

"It's erroneous to attribute saving the building to him," says Ian Dungavell, the Victorian Society's current director. "He wasn't keen on it initially and just went along with the rest of the Society's view and latterly became spokesman for it.

"We were a bit miffed that his statue was put in St Pancras instead of Pevsner's. He was a celebrity, people like supporting celebrities."

Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green, remembers sneaking into the building with her father when she was a child. "We used to wander around it and I remember how dusty and cobwebbed it was," she says. "I remember it being a thing of wonder." She confirmed that her father's role was minor. Although Betjeman had been a passionate supporter of a failed attempt to save the original arch entrance to nearby Euston station, he reportedly said that St Pancras Chambers was "too beautiful and too romantic to survive".

In October 1967, the former Midland Grand was spot-listed as Grade I, in effect protecting it from further demolition threats – the Victorian Society had won, though no one would realise for four decades. "In 1967, few would have given St Pancras a chance," says Sir Neil Cossons, chair of the Royal College of Art, who also campaigned to save the building. "Listing then was its life-saver. It bought time for the public view to catch up, for the lily-livered to have spine put into their backbones."

In the late 1990s, the developer Manhattan Loft, working with London & Continental Railways, announced its intention to restore the hotel. Critics now claim that its redevelopment has succeeded in regaining the original building's cathedral-like majesty.

Last year, 67 private apartments at the building's summit opened. They will be joined by a 244-room five-star hotel, allowing the Midland Grand to check in customers for the first time in more than 75 years.

Stamp claims that the Victorian Society was left out of the developer's launch-party celebrations.

Mrs Fawcett is reserving judgement on the new development: "It's terribly exciting but I suspect it will be very vulgar. Though I'd be interested to see how they've tackled it."

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home