The Manx St Pancras

Railway Station, Douglas, Isle of Man:  entrance

Railway Station, Douglas, Isle of Man: entrance

Railway Station, Douglas, Isle of Man:  booking hall

Railway Station, Douglas, Isle of Man: booking hall

 Photos:  Matthew Binns

The Isle of Man Railway terminus station at Douglas is not what it once was.

Until it was drastically rationalised in 1979-80, the Manx capital’s station had the air of an important terminus, with two island platforms covered by iron canopies. The ironwork was removed, and one platform, the goods yard and a carriage shed were cleared to make way for a bus depot.

The grand headquarters building, built in Ruabon brick in 1887, survives as one of the finer Victorian buildings in Douglas.

Its Manx architect James Cowle also designed in Douglas the Tynwald Legislative Building (1894), the Victoria Road Prison (1891, demolished 2013), and elsewhere on the island the Onchan Methodist Church (1868), the spectacular Gothic house Crogga at Santon (1878), St Thomas’ Chapel at King William’s College (1878), St Catherine’s Church, Port Erin (1880) and the Ward Library, Peel (1907).

A proposal to redevelop the station, ostensibly “to make the building commercially viable to ensure its future preservation”, has produced a chorus of protest from Manx people [http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/business/it-s-all-change-for-victorian-station-1-6781032#comments-area], but it hasn’t yet caught the attention of people in the UK who admire Victorian buildings and love the Isle of Man.

The proposal talks of removing floors, ceilings and partitions, and inserting a mezzanine to accommodate an enlarged restaurant and a retail outlet, and to provide a glazed ‘al fresco dining area’.

The 1984 entry in the Manx Protected Buildings Register offers almost no protection to this building, which “is not felt to be a good example of such a Victorian structure”.

Actually, in terms of its magnificence and its significance in transport history, this is the St Pancras of the Isle of Man.

(I call to mind, whenever I visit the real St Pancras, that at one point in the 1960s that magnificent station was within ten days of demolition. After the train-shed and the hotel were listed Grade I in 1967, over thirty years elapsed before anyone found a way of making St Pancras pay its way.)

The Manx listing of the Douglas station pompously remarks, “…there does seem to be a considerable feeling of emotion on the part of the general public directed toward retaining the station intact regardless, and as public servants the authorities must take such views into account.”

Emotion, however genuine, needn’t enter the debate. All this project needs is intelligence, imagination, sensitivity and financial acumen.

There are lots of practical examples in the UK, and a few in the Isle of Man, to prove that the best way to ensure historic buildings contribute to present and future prosperity is by treasuring and nurturing their integrity, by maintaining their intact surviving features, rather than by creating a tacky pastiche to satisfy a developer’s bottom line.

The principle applies to all sorts of buildings – a monastery [https://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=1451], a pumping station [https://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=3442], a theatre [https://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=3003], a flour mill [https://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2918] or a factory [https://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2585].

I hope that before Douglas railway station is trashed, Manx politicians – and Manx property developers – will recognise that the smart money lies in conserving the historic environment, not laying it waste.

Update:  In response to rising public concern, the Infrastracture Minister, Phil Gawne MHK, has backtracked on plans to gut or demolish the building:  “If [enthusiast groups] can demonstrate the historical integrity is being undermined by this plan then I am happy to look at this again.” [http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/taxpayers-cash-for-railway-to-be-cut-1-6830523]

Further update:  Phil Gawne MHK in a recent interview reiterates his willingness to engage in dialogue with railway heritage organisations:  http://www.manx.net/tv/mt-tv/watch/66948/douglas-railway-station?utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=twitterfeed.  The footage provides, for the first time as far as I can tell, images of the proposed alterations and of the current condition of the station forebuilding and the separate clock tower.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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