From: Cathedrals of Steam (2020), by Christian Wolmar:
“It was not long before a second terminus obtained a foothold on
the north bank of the Thames, stimulated, as ever, by competition
between the main railway companies in south London. This was
Charing Cross, a bare mile and a half to the east of Victoria and built by the South Eastern Railway, the third major force in south
London railways other than the two main users of Victoria, which
had long sought to reach the West End. And unlike any other
railway company, it did…
…Hungerford Bridge (see image above) built across the Thames to reach Charing Cross station was another monstrosity. Brunel’s footbridge was removed by the railway company, which sold the chains and ironwork to be recycled for the celebrated Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Designed by the South Eastern’s engineer, Sir John Hawkshaw, Hungerford’s over-engineered lattice iron structure was in a style known as ‘pony truss’…The ironwork, which to make matters worse was painted in red oxide, was so heavy and thick that trains passing along the bridge almost disappeared from view. The arched brickwork support on the central supporting pier did little to improve the appearance of the bridge as it was equally banal and leaden. The bridge’s only redeeming feature was its utilitarian functionality. It carried four tracks, which proved essential for the density of traffic. Adjoining it were the narrow footpaths on each side that replaced Brunel’s far more appealing footbridge, a legal requirement that the railway was forced to provide and did so grudgingly, charging users a halfpenny to cross the river. Perhaps the bridge’s enduring quality was its solidity since it remains in place today, thankfully shielded now by elegant new matching independent suspension footbridges (Golden Jubilee Bridges) on either side; a Millennium project that greatly improves the riverscape in this area popular with tourists…
As the station was built on an incline rising from the river, there
was plenty of space in the arches underneath, which was long used
as cellars for wine merchants. There were half a dozen platforms as well as the customary cab road and a small concourse overlooked by a large clock on the inner wall. Agreeing to meet people ‘under the clock at Charing Cross’ became a music hall joke with a louche undertone. The Railway Magazine commented that ‘half feminine London used to wait there at night for its young man, and the other half said that was who it was waiting for’.
Apparently, when Cannon Street opened in September 1866, this second group of women discovered that the first-class compartments of the trains between the two stations provided an ideal and cheap venue, at a fare of only sixpence (2.5p), for a ‘quickie’, as the journey took seven minutes and the windows had excellent blinds. Unfortunately, though, once the stop at Waterloo Junction, which opened in 1869, started being used on most journeys, the number of drawn blinds on these trains noticeably declined. They would easily have found elsewhere to go, however, as the area around Charing Cross was not salubrious and had long been a red light district.
Rudyard Kipling lived nearby on his return from India in 1889, attracted by the low rent and cheap eateries in Villiers Street alongside the station, which inspired him to write his first novel, The Light That Failed (1891), a story of unrequited love. Charing Cross was planned as an international station from the outset…The rapid connections with the Continent gave Charing Cross a key role in the war…
The highlight of Charing Cross station was the obligatory station
hotel, which in keeping with the fashion of the time was large
There were 250 bedrooms in the seven-storey hotel that was spread across a wide French Renaissance-style frontage almost adjoining Trafalgar Square. It was designed by Edward Barry, the son of Charles Barry, the architect for the Parliament building under construction at the other end of Whitehall. Until the 195os, the outside of the attic rooms and the mansard roof were in the same style as similar buildings in Paris, which gave it a really French flavour, but sadly this was lost when the top floor was rebuilt in a more conventional Georgian style. (Historic England: “The two upper floors were reconstructed in about 1953 to the designs of FJ Wills and Son following bomb damage in 1941.”) Thankfully, perhaps, the interior was not quite as extravagant
as the Midland’s but, in fact, it was almost equally impressive in
a more restrained way, exuding a feeling of serious dependability;
class and timeless style’.” Like the Grosvenor, Charing Cross had a lift, which was so slow it was fitted with comfortable seats.
The hotel was such an instant success that a ninety-room annexe,
connected to the main building by a footbridge over Villiers Street,
was added in 1878 and it contributed considerably to the railway’s
profitability, earning in the initial years a handsome 20 per cent
rate of return on the investment.
The original Charing Cross monument had stood at the top of
Whitehall for three and a half centuries, as the grandest of a dozen
similar crosses erected across the country by Edward I in honour of his deceased wife Eleanor. The cross was destroyed by the Puritans in 1647 and Barry was charged with erecting a replacement. He managed to copy the design from an indistinct print of the original held in the British Museum, but his effort was actually even grander and more ornate than the original. At seventy feet tall and built from Portland Stone, it is an elaborate monument that stands among the taxis in front of the station but is passed unnoticed by most Londoners and visitors, being rather overshadowed by the hotel itself and Trafalgar Square nearby…
…Hawkshaw’s roof proved to be less solid than his bridge. Just
before Christmas 1905, work was being carried out to renew part
of the roof when the men on the scaffolding above the station
heard a sudden noise. They soon realized that the enormous
roof was beginning to sag in the middle and started to flee. The
station was hastily evacuated just before a seventy-foot section of
the roof and the huge windscreen at the river entrance crashed
onto the stationary trains below. The side wall on the western side
also collapsed, demolishing the next-door Royal Avenue Theatre.
Thanks to the warning signs, which resulted in a partial evacu-
ation and the fact that the collapse was in the middle of the day
rather than rush hour, only six people were killed. The subsequent
inquiry suggested that the structural integrity of the original roof was compromised by the failure of a supporting wrought-iron bar.
A fault with the initial welding had been exacerbated by the extra
weight of the scaffolding that had been erected for the maintenance. The station had to be closed for three months while repairs were undertaken, and an entirely new roof, a simple utilitarian flat design, was erected.
The collapse of the roof did have a fortuitous side effect. The station had been in need of refurbishment and, following the completion of the new roof, the amenities at the station were greatly improved, with the creation of a new large booking hall and waiting room. It also resulted in a better connection with the Underground, which was under construction at the time…”