As recently as a decade ago King’s Cross was not the place to head to if you wanted to enjoy a pleasant evening out with friends. Anyone arriving from the north of England was advised to jump straight on the Tube and go elsewhere in the capital if they wanted to partake in drinks and food in more comfortable surroundings. Following the completition of the mainline station re-generation and the benefits that this has brought to the wider area, how times have changed.
Big Chill House, just a few minutes walk from King’s Cross terminus, is one of a number of plush and trendy venues that is helping to put this up-and-coming north London district on the map for all the right reasons. It’s popular during the day and is equally busy at night. But nice as it is to have a drink or two here, the reason I wanted to visit was because it was London’s first gin house, orginally called The Bell. This on it’s own is a fascinating bit of history, however there was more to come from Stephen Geary, the maverick behind it.
Before King’s Cross, this district was known as Battle Bridge, thought to be a corruption of ‘Broad ford bridge’ which crossed the Fleet (a river that passed through this area, but is now largely hidden). Some have cited the legend that the Romans defeated Boudica, queen of the Iceni here and Boudica herself has been said variously to be buried under a number platforms nine or 10 at King’s Cross, but that to me seems to be pure fiction. Geary was the surveyor of the Battle Bridge estate
Perhaps more fascinating than his gin house though were the plans Gearing drew up in the 1820s in conjunction with Italian music teacher Gesualdo (Gemaldo) Lanza to build lavish pleasure gardens for the newly formed Panharmonium Company on what was shown on an earlier map as undeveloped land (labelled as ‘New Road Nursery’). Coming at a time when the colourful Vauxhall gardens were just winding down, this would have been a wonderful place to visit had it all have been built with the Grand Panharmonium Theatre flanked by a refreshment room, ballroom, music gallery and gardens. To cap it all, there was to have been an overhead miniature railway with suspended cars encircling the site.
In the end, the scheme – which would have been almost just across the road from King’s Cross station – ran out of money and was abandoned. The King’s Cross Theatre, which is sadly no longer in use for performances, is the only building from Gearing’s Panharmonium plans that was actually completed and can be found on what is Liverpool Road. Particulars of a sale in February 1832 list bricks, balustrades, gates, plaster figures and unfinished buildings from the “late Panarmonion Gardens.” And the following month there is a record of an accident when an arch at the site was being pulled down.
What was built instead was Argyle Square, constructed around enclosed gardens, which can today be enjoyed by all and there were originally four entrances. Most of the buildings that surround it, which date from post the collapse of Geary’s scheme and first appeared in the rate books from the 1840s, are now hotels frequented by train travellers. However, I think it’s fascinating to think about the leap of faith that the developers had in constructing this neighbourhood before King’s Cross station and, passenger railways in general, were things of fiction.
While the Panharmonium Company plans may be largely forgotten, Geary has had a lasting on the name of this neighbourhood. He raised money for the King’s Cross Monument, featuring a statue of George IV on the top, and it was completed in 1835 on what is today a busy junction in front of the present station, just by the Five Guys burger joint. Downstairs at the monument, he gave the Metropolitan police its very own station.
Unfortunately the structure wasn’t to last. Impressive as it was, it was clearly in the wrong location given how busy the New Road, linking Paddington and Old Street was becoming (and this was even before King’s Cross station was built). By the time it was demolished in 1845, the base had been degraded to a beer shop. There is however nothing in the area to remember Geary – the man who gave the name to London’s first railway terminus and the wider district.
Categories: Changing London