And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto his stature?*

*Gospel of Matthew, English Revised Version

Eschewing the rhetorical question (or riddle?) for the factual, The Guardian’s notes and queries/ethical conundrums online page asks “How long is a biblical cubit?”, and in response Michael L Cox of Nuneaton, Warks, asserts that the cubit is the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger.

The Cubitt who has piqued my interest is the civil engineer Lewis Cubitt, younger brother of Thomas (builder-developer) and William (civil engineer). Their Gray’s Inn Road works, under William’s direction, became one of the major Victorian contract building firms. Thomas developed an integrated building works at Thames Bank as well as a brickworks on the Medway. Lewis designed many of the housing developments constructed by Thomas.

I’m standing before King’s Cross Station, quite a long way back across the piazza for the full effect. To provide the London terminus and hub for the Great Northern Railway, it was constructed between 1850-52 by Lewis Cubitt as architect and his brother William as engineer. It’s a “remarkable example of the form of a building directly reflecting its function”: the great vaulted windows in the station’s frontage mirror the two massive vaulted arches, one for arrivals and the other for departures.

Felix Mara wrote in the Architects’ Journal that the architecture of the redeveloped King’s Cross stands comparison with “recent projects, including Farrell’s Asian megastations, with which it has stylistic affinities”.

Lewis’s original design resembles his earlier one of 1844 for the Bricklayers Arms railway station in Southwark.

The completed project by 1854 included the Goods Yard complex, comprising the Granary Building (now home to the arts college, Central St Martin’s), the Train Assembly Shed, and the Eastern and Western Transit Sheds. The buildings were aligned to the axis of the Copenhagen Tunnel, through which trains arrived from the North.

The Granary Building was mainly used to store Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers, while the sheds were used to transfer freight from or to the rail carts. Off loading from the rail carriages was made easier by cranes and horse powered turntables and, from the 1840s, hydraulic power.

Loaded and unloaded carts were moved into the Train Assembly Shed and formed into trains for departure northwards. Stables were located under the loading platforms- some of these remain in the Western Transit Shed.

In the 1860s, offices were added on either side of the Granary to provide more clerical workspace.

Dumb waiters were used to transport papers up and down, and windows between the offices and sheds allowed traffic to be monitored.

The structural rivet Cubitt used in his development of the Granary inspired the hinges used by eyewear brand Cubitts, named after the brothers.

Land north of the Regent’s Canal formerly in industrial use had become “railway lands”. The former temporary Great Northern Railway Station was reused as a potato goods shed, part of the larger local wholesale potato market. The company added the Eastern coal drops in 1851, and the Western coal drops in 1860, allowing coal shipments from the Northeast and the Midlands to be distributed around London by the canal network, and later by road.

Lewis also designed the Great Northern Hotel, which opened its doors in 1854 to patrons of the Great Northern Railway Company. It was one of the earliest purpose built railway hotels in the country. Its fire resistant construction was pioneering, with thick walls dividing every room and corridors constructed of brick arches.

The hotel’s curved south west front reflects the original alignment of Old St Pancras Road. Originally the hotel looked across a large expanse of garden to the station. Over the years the garden was annexed by station buildings and became Station Place. Now, the new western concourse of King’s Cross Station follows the curved line of the hotel.

The Midland Railway, which ran lines from Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield into Euston and King’s Cross, came into conflict with the Great Northern Railway, and began to feel pressure to create their own London terminus. St Pancras Station was finally opened in 1868, though in the process the company came close to bankruptcy.

The Victorian Web comments:

“The two stations … supply a vivid lesson in the polarities of nineteenth century architecture. (Lewis Cubitt was a very successful bridge designer – much of his work was overseas. He deserves more attention than he has received from historians.)”.

In 1845 the Illustrated London News had reported the demolition of a short lived building erected as the base for a memorial to George IV, with the “grandiloquent name of King’s Cross”. The journalist Walter Thornbury described it as “a ridiculous octagonal structure crowned by an absurd statue”. The base was used for exhibitions, then as a police station, and later a public house. The upper storey was used as a camera obscura.

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