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
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...