Midland Railway coal drops, Holmes Road, Kentish Town, NW5 — Camden I.A. + Transport Survey
Supplement to GLIAS Newsletter 105, August 1986
The group which was formed in 1985 by members of GLIAS and Camden History Society continues to concentrate on sites in the Kentish Town area. The text of this interim report has already appeared in the CHS Newsletter.
Between Holmes Road and Spring Place is an isolated section of railway viaduct, its 16 red-brick arches currently in use as workshops and stores (photo below). It gives the impression of being part of some long-forgotten branch of the nearby North London line but it is, in fact, the remains of the coal drops of the Midland Railway depot.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries such was the importance of coal for domestic use that almost every railway station had its adjacent coal depot to serve local needs. The Midland Railway, serving as it did the coalfields of the East Midlands, was a major transporter of coal. Its need to convey coal to London was a major factor influencing the extension of its line south from Bedford to St Pancras in 1867 instead of using the lines of the rival Great Northern Railway.
Many depots consisted of a row of sidings where merchants could store coal in the wagons in which it was brought. Trucks were unloaded over the side on demand, the merchant paying demurrage to the owner, either railway company or colliery. From the owner's point of view it was better to unload wagons quickly and return them to service. This could be achieved by the use of coal drops, where wagons on a viaduct were unloaded through apertures in the structure into hoppers beneath. Both the Midland and Great Northern owned a great number of these in London, particularly around St Pancras.
The site in January 1986
The arches in Holmes Road are the last vestige of a busy Midland depot which also had some 40 stables, weighing machines and 10 offices for merchants. The remaining viaduct, which has no shoot apertures, was the northern half of a wide structure; the other part, containing the drops, was demolished in 1972 to make way for the Camden Council depot now on the site. One feature surviving is a 4ft wide enclosed staircase from bottom to top at each end.
Documentary sources have furnished only a partial picture of the depot's operation and history, contemporary rate books being unhelpful. Only in 1881 and 1939 does the depot receive a specific entry. Normally the site is within an entry for the whole of the Midland's property 'between Euston Road and Haverstock Hill'. Post Office directories are more helpful, but their entries relate to the 10 offices for the coal merchants rather than to the drops. The group is pursuing further investigations at the Public Record Office, Kew.
To date we do not know how the drops were operated. We know that the wagons gained access to the drops on a second viaduct from the north, abutting the centre of the drops viaduct at right angles — the Ordnance Survey 1:2500 for 1879 shows this viaduct to have three tracks. The same source shows a total of 32 tracks extending widthwise across the drops viaduct, two over each arch. Although OS maps are not always accurate arrangement would make sense in the context of an LMS list of 1928 indicating that each of their 16 arches was divided into two 'bays'. To convey from the central approach viaduct to the tracks across the drops would have required a traverser of some sort.
From a combination of sources we can deduce that the Holmes Road site, formerly used for brickfields, was redeveloped as a coal depot in 1873. The Post Office Directory for 1874 shows nine of the 10 offices occupied by coal merchants. Midland Railway minutes confirm the construction of these offices at this date, but there is no firm evidence for the drops until the OS map of 1879 and the rate books in 1881.
By the time of nationalization in 1948 only one coal merchant remained. He was still there until 1963/4 when the site is mentioned only as part of a British Road Services depot. The viaduct from the north had been demolished at least ten years earlier so that the coal drops could not have functioned since about 1953.
This report is based on work by Malcolm Tucker, David Thomas, Tim Smith and David and Ruth Hayes.
© GLIAS, 1986