intro b4kxstp
dunghill or game
an absolute rake
suburban wits
charles dickens
the banality of the sublime
maps b4kxstp
rural middlesex

intro to before king's cross st pancras


The City of London viewed from the top of the tower of the Church of St Mark, Myddlelton Sq EC1. Accessible by a footpath rising across the fields from Clerkenwell, images of the metropolis viewed from Pentonville Hill (formerly the Mantells) have been popular for centuries. To see  a C18 engraving of the same view showing the New River Basin and pump house, with Sadler's Wells and Islington Spa Walks to the far left by the river and sheep grazing in enclosures where the above housing now stands:

pleasure in the fields

“No sooner was I strolled into the Fields,
Where e’ery Hill a pleasing Prospect yields,
But I began to feast my wandering Sight
With all the various Objects of Delight”
The Field Spy, Ned Ward (1713)

In the summer sunshine one afternoon in 1713 a tall figure mounts the gentle incline of a field path rising into the countryside to the north of Clerkenwell, London. It is holiday time and crowds in their best attire pass along the rough clay track and stroll or sit in the grass. They have resorted to the fields in search of recreation: children play while their parents relax, couples frolic and men and women in groups or singly seek out a variety of distractions, their usual concerns abated for a few precious hours.

If not a typical rural scene, yet skylarks trill as they soar in the sky above, while butterflies flutter and insects buzz and busy themselves on the flora and grasses below.

Farmers and their labourers toil also in these same fields, for they belong to immensely valuable working farms, providing the capital with hay for the horses that are its chief means of transportation and with grazing for fattening-up a variety of cattle on their way to Smithfield live meat market, or for cows to supply Londoners with fresh milk and luxury dairy products.

The rambler on the path is the poet and ‘Grub Street hack’, Ned Ward. The lines produced as a result of this country stroll (and several further references: better known for his descriptions of the bustling life of the streets of London, Ward nonetheless loved the proximity of open space and fresh air to his crowded urban haunts) have provided a crucial resource for the writing, 300 years later of these accounts of London’s fields.

For, in all the capital’s many histories, life in its immediately neighbouring countryside has rarely drawn more than a cursory glance.

In the very distant past, tribal humans and wild animals had used this same path, passing along the heavily forested brow of the Clerkenwell spur from London to the Northern Heights at what is now Highgate. In time, had they looked southwards over the Thames valley they would have seen just a few rough huts and stockades nestling upon low hillocks rising above the broad swamp-girded river, over subsequent millennia witness to the at first tentative but increasingly confident growth of one of the truly great cities of the world.

Should the pre-historic traveller have looked westwards, down through a clearing in the ancient wild wood cover, below lay the riverine swamp that is today King’s Cross St Pancras, the River Fleet since the turn of the C19 descending from Hampstead Heath in a subterranean storm drain, now passing between the two great railway termini and the many platforms of the multi-level underground tube station.

The ancient Gray’s Inn Lane (Gray’s Inn Rd WC1) from Holborn connecting to the Great North Road at Highgate had crossed the open river at a broad ford, the site situated just southeast of King’s Cross Station.

It was here in the C14 was built the Bradford/ Battle Bridge, the Before King's Cross series of books relating the tale of how a settlement of small cottages at a crossroads by the bridge grew into a village surrounded by fields, and how by the early-C19 the district was finally absorbed as a suburb of a rapidly developing London.


“St Pancras, alias Kentish Town, the Manor whereof is the Corps of the Prebend of St Pancras, which has the sixth stall in the Cathedral Church of St Paul’s. The church is dedicated to St Pancras, and stands in the highway leading from Holborn to Kentish Town. It is an old, weather beaten building, perhaps as old as St Paul’s, having had many houses about it, but all decayed and gone, till of late some new ones have been erected near it”. Magna Britannia, Rev Thomas Cox and Anthony Hall (1720)

The first volume, b4kxstp1.0: kin, kith and strangers in the fields of London is laid out in ‘topographical’ and ‘chronological’ chapters, the former detailing the day-to-day lives of ‘ordinary people’ in the years around 1700, with alternate chapters developing an account of the parish of St Pancras and its immediate neighbours going forward through the centuries from their origins in early-Medieval times, of the ancient St Pancras church and insights into the lives and times of several of its vicars.

The topographical chapters describe the household and fields of the Pancras Prebendal manor farm which stood on Pancras Way, its hay meadows and pastures now in development as King’s Cross Central;

with also, accounts of the local families running and serving agricultural and victualing businesses by the old St Pancras church

a brick works, grazing business and a large farm by the Brill Common (St Pancras rail termini, the British Library and the Francis Crick medical research institute);

cottages, alehouses and taverns by the Battle Bridge and the Bagnal Marsh, and downstream at Black Mary’s Hole (the site of the King's Cross Holiday Inn and Union Tavern on King’s Cross Rd);

a farriers and blacksmith's shop, with farms, milking sheds and warehousing at the busy innship of Pindar of Wakefield (now the Monto Water Rats music bar) on Gray's Inn Lane;

and two further large dairy farms on the lane (now called Gray's Inn Road).

The highways meeting at the crossroads by the Battle Bridge, with also several busy field paths, connected these settlements to the neighbouring hamlets of Tottenham Court and Lisson Grove, and to the villages of Kentish Town, Hampstead, Highgate; Paddington and Marylebone; Islington, Stoke Newington, Hoxton and Hackney; and likewise to the suburbs of Clerkenwell, Holborn, Bloomsbury, St Giles’s-in-the-Fields, Covent Garden and Soho.

Against the background of the reformation of the Church of England, the chronological chapters highlight the tale of the Rev Randolph Yearwood, a Cambridge-educated son of a yeoman farming family from Cheshire who as a young man, having negotiated the turbulent years of the Civil War and Commonwealth, was in 1655 appointed preacher to St Pancras in the Fields.

He gained the office with the assistance of networks from Cheshire and Emmanuel College Cambridge connecting him with the most radical puritan and republican factions, including the settlers and independent investors in, and traders with the New World colonies. The most ardent challengers of Royalist power, and the most intransigent enemies of the king’s backers in the City of London establishment, they became known as the 'interloping colonial merchants'; as the original American capitalists, I have given these revolutionaries the acronym ICM.

Appointed to important offices in Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate regime, Yearwood yet survived the restoration of Charles II, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, the Exclusion Crisis when the country very nearly returned to civil war, and the Papist Plot, his incumbency lasting until his death on the eve of the 1688 revolution that brought William & Mary to the throne.

Throughout his incumbency, however, he was opposed by a confederacy of powerful St Pancras parishioners...

Normally, the area’s otherwise obscure turn-of-the C18 subjects should remain hidden from our gaze, but by a happy coincidence of historical circumstances and archival survival it is possible to give a sufficient account of many of those who not only visited but also lived and worked in these fields.

The works of Ward and his fellow wits’ pens add flesh and tone to a skeleton constructed from rare tax records, with enumerations for a newly introduced annual king’s aid for just two quarters during the years 1693 and 1694 the first ever itemised accounting of the local population to have survived. For the roughly square mile of countryside that is today King's Cross St Pancras, they provide an estimate of approximately 100-120 individual residents of 21 taxable households and a handful of tenement cottages, with no equivalent record of the area preserved for very nearly another century.

So that, by also using evidence from the parish registers (which between 1689 and 1715 include anecdotal personal information) and from the records of the Middlesex Assize county days and the archives and published accounts of criminal proceedings at the Old Bailey, supplemented further with details from the civil and religious courts, probates, state papers, contemporary publications and tales gleaned from an explosion in reportage following the 1695 deregulation of the London newspaper trade, we can arrive at a substantially rounded picture of the lives of 'ordinary people' in the fields.

fields for recreation… & their development

“Westminster is in a fair way to shake hands with Chelsea, as St Gyles’s is with Marybone; and Great Russell St by Montague House, with Tottenham Ct: all this is very evident, and yet all these together, are still to be called London: Whither will this monstrous city then    extend?” A Tour through England and Wales, Daniel Defoe (1724)

The tale continues in a series of ebooks, advancing through the C18 and into the C19 with tales of gamesters and gladiators, spas and pleasure gardens, fairgrounds and theatres, musick and dance, prostitutes and highwaymen, finance, fashion and forgery… and also local people’s travels and migrations across an increasingly shrinking globe.

As the C18 progressed, and London expanded westwards into wealthy suburbs upwind from the smoke-laden skies of the metropolis (the poor settling in the East End, and with much of the inner suburbs becoming overcrowded rookeries) house building around the Battle Bridge was slow to commence, the area retaining its exclusive agricultural and leisure uses until a first ribbon development on Gray’s Inn Lane by the bridge in about 1760.

By then several of the local alehouses, taverns and spas had become famous pleasure gardens, the resort of citizen families and of their servants and apprentices, of soldiers on furlough and sailors on shore leave; and of couples on assignations, peculiars, rakes and whores, all seeking leisure and pleasure, spectacle or vice.

But the district was meanwhile becoming more and more associated with the noxious trades and polluting industries serving the expanding metropolis, with its most basic public services for long neglected. Over the following decades, an accelerating development of mostly second and third-rate terraced housing had taken off, the village adopting the name Battle Bridge as it expanded into the surrounding fields.

It was at the crossroads immediately to the north of the bridge that in 1830 a monument to a recently deceased King George IV was erected by public subscription, part of a residential and pleasure complex (Argyle Square, the Clarence Theatre and the short-lived Panharmonium Pleasure Gardens) whose over-ambitious and under-capitalised projectors were soon bankrupted.

The name King’s Cross was, nevertheless, adopted by the locals in an attempt to re-brand the suburb as it became fully absorbed into the advancing conurbation.


London going out of Town; The March of bricks and mortar, George Cruickshank (1829)

A year previously, the cartoonist George Cruickshank used the view from a back window of his house in the northern terrace of Claremont Sq for his cartoon London going out of Town; The March of bricks and mortar, depicting ‘militarily-organised’ house builders and their brick kilns and ranks of scaffolding, bricks, tiles and chimney pots invading and occupying the fields of Islington and St Pancras all the way to Hampstead in the north, the haystacks retreating in a disorderly rout. The view is very nearly from the exact same spot as the panoramic views southwards featured above.

Down in the Fleet valley, the adjacent termini of the Great Northern and the Midland Railways (the King’s Cross and the St Pancras stations) were built in 1854 and 1862 respectively, their noise and smoke, their hustle and bustle and the associated transient, criminal and sex industry populations (along with impoverished though respectable working class communities) confirming the immediate neighbourhood’s low status.

For more than a century its reputation remained blighted, the very name King’s Cross a byword for seediness, although the reality was by no means as grim as the national press and more socially elevated neighbours chose to believe. It also became, at least over recent decades (as this writer can wholeheartedly confirm), a vibrant and exciting place to live, with close access to the West End and City and immediate transport links to the rest of London, the country and abroad.

kxstp today

"An extraordinary part of London is taking shape: 50 new buildings, 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets, 10 new public squares, 67 acres, 45,000 people who live, work and study in the area. After a decade of careful planning and a lot of very hard work with many partners, the first phase of King's Cross is now open to the public. The location, the connections, the canal side setting, the rich and varied heritage, an exciting cultural scene, a thriving business community, and a strong sense of local community. All these things come together at King’s Cross to make it unique, exciting and really quite special". King's Cross: a new part of London is taking shape

Today, King’s Cross St Pancras lies about 15-kilometres from the green belt, with a population in the immediate vicinity of the railway termini of over 10,000 and a population of a 'greater King's Cross' district of nearly 50,000, [see Kings Cross Environment and endnote 1]. These figure will grow as more of the planned 2000 new build homes in KXC become available.

The Euro Star rail terminal having opened in November 2007, development of approximately two thirds of what were once the meadows of the prebendal manor (for decades known as 'the Railway Lands’, a 100-acres brownfield site of rail track, derelict sidings and goods yards to the north of the stations) is now well advanced, the King’s Cross Central (KXC) business, leisure and residential district granted its own brand new postal code, NC1.

This is a new cultural quarter, part of a multibillion-pound public/ private-financed regeneration of the wider district that has attracted world-renowned artist Antony Gormley and designer Thomas Heatherwick to locate studios in an area already well-populated by the creative industries: arts, crafts and fashion, theatre and dance schools, game playing development and multimedia studios.

With the world’s first centre dedicated to the art of illustration in all its forms (the House of Illustration) having recently opened in KXC, a Gagosian art gallery is already well established in Britannia St WC1: standing opposite blocks of grade 2-listed Victorian model flats, a couple of surviving 250-years old terrace houses on the corner with King’s Cross Road recall a time when this was the bustling ‘main street’ of the still rural Battle Bridge village. And in Argyle Square the Sartorial Gallery has settled into one of the terraces built in the 1830s on what was then the very last local field to be developed while in April 2013 the non-profit Dairy Art Centre opened in Wakefield St WC1, just to the north of St George’s Gardens.

In the summer of 2011, Central St Martin’s school opened its doors to 4,500 students and staff in redesigned C19 warehousing in KXC. Part of the newly formed University of the Arts London (UAL - a collegiate university combining six individual institutes including also the London College of Communication (LCC) and the Camberwell and Chelsea art colleges), the university comprises Europe’s single largest educator in art, design, fashion and communication, with also the launch of a unique School of Performance.

And plans are advancing for the creation of an Islamic cultural and educational hub in the north of KXC, comprising a new Arts and Culture Centre and the relocation to the site of the Aga Khan University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations and the Institute for Ismali Studies. The first phase will involve building accommodation for 200 mostly graduate students of the university in canal-front premises that will have ground floor shops and restaurants.

As well as the British Library having opened more than a decade and a half ago next door to St Pancras station, the Guardian and Observer national newspapers have more recently moved to brand new premises on York Way N1 (formerly Maiden Lane).

Overlooking the Regent’s Canal and Battle Bridge Basin, Kings Place is a ‘creative hub’ devoted to world cultures, an office complex in which the newspapers’ co-tenants include the Music Base community of music and ‘arts’ related performers; composers, artists, and agents etc; the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment; with also concert halls, public art galleries, a café and restaurant.

Meanwhile, to the west of St Pancras stations, construction of the Francis Crick Institute on a site behind the British Library is now well advanced. Opening in 2015, it will be a world-leading centre for biomedical science run by a partnership comprising the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London.

Other major businesses include GoogleUK, which has commenced building a new national HQ situated in a 2.4 acre, £1bn development on St Pancras Square NC1, lying between the two rail termini and neighbour to the French banking giant BNP Parisbas's new UK headquarters, and London Borough of Camden's new council offices.

The most recent businesses to take up offices in KXC include Vistaprint, global IT services company CSC, SAV Credit, Luis Vitton and PRS for Music. Sainsbury plc’s putative move into a new corporate HQ (it would have had a half-acre roof allotment for the development and demonstration of urban food production) were blocked by the supermarket giant’s problems subletting its current Holborn Circus HQ.

KXC’s tallest building will be for student accommodation (the wider area providing homes for many thousands) and meanwhile work on the first tranche of social housing has completed, all construction work benefiting from the labours of local people trained at a built-for-purpose construction skills centre.

In total, 40% of the KXC development will be public space, including three new parks, five squares, 20 streets and three new bridges over the Regent’s Canal, the refurbishment of 20 historical buildings including four listed gas holders redesigned for residential/ leisure uses.

    1.            King’s X ward: 11,410; St Pancras & Somers Town: 12,490 (2001 census)






“Now, leaning on my Staff, I stood and view’d
The couchant Cattle as their Cud they chew’d;
No threat’ning Envy in their Looks appear’d,
A gen’ral Peace seem’d
settl’d thro’ the Herd,
Each casting, as he lodg’d
upon the Ground,
A friendly Eye upon his Neighbours’ round.
How bless’d, thought I, are these that know no Care,
Whose short-liv’d Comforts unmolested are!
How happy above Man,
who sheds their Blood,
And rends their Muscles
from their Bones for Food!
That he may satiate an intemp’rate gust,
And in his Veins support a pamper’d Lust.

Thus Man who does so oft
for Mercy pray,
To savage Brutes less
Mercy shews than they.

With Pleasure here I stood
a while to see
The Herd, tho’ arm’d, from War and discord free;
No Whig, thought I, or
Tory can be here;
No Av’rice, Jealousy,
Revenge or Fear,
No Rivals to contend for
Pow’r and Place,
No Knaves disguis’d with
a Religious face,
No flagrant Orators to sow
the Seeds
Of Envy, or to prune
Rebellious Weeds:
These less offensive Brutes enjoy the Fields,
And feed, in Peace, on what kind Nature yields,
Whilst craving Man pursues a needless Store,
That wretched Thousands
may become more poor,
And his proud Self unhappier than before”.
The Field Spy, Ned Ward (1713)

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