Railways have become synonymous with time keeping as their successful operation is measured through following a timetable. Before the railways time was a much more local matter based on the 24hr rotation of the earth resulting in East Anglia being about 5 minutes ahead of London and Bristol being some 12 minutes behind and places further afield having even larger differences.
With the growth of the rail network in the 19th century these differences in time resulted in some confusion, not least with timetabling. Thus arose ‘Railway Time’ based on ‘London Time’ which was set at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This was first adopted by the Great Western Railway in 1840 with other rail companies following. The Midland Railway Company adopted Railway Time at all its stations on 1st January 1846, however it was not until the passing of the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act 1880 that a unified standard time for the whole of Great Britain was achieved.
St Pancras Station was no exception in the grand display of time. Outside the station the clock tower on the Midland Grand Hotel has a clock on each elevation while inside the station a massive clock was displayed at the south end of the trainshed. At 16ft 9ins (5.15m) diameter it was said to be the largest clock at any railway station in England, with the length of hour hand being 4ft 5ins and that of the minute hand 7ft 3ins (Williams F.S 1877:348). The clock dial was made of slate. All the clocks at St Pancras were constructed by Mr John Walker of Cornhill, London.
This splendid clock remained in place for nearly 100 years until the late 1960s when British Rail determined that it needed modernisation. St Pancras, built in the mid-19th century, was once one of the greatest stations in the country and was linked to a lavish hotel that could accommodate hundreds of travellers. By the 1970s St Pancras had fallen into disrepair and only narrowly survived a plan to have it demolished.
Then British Rail decided to sell off its great timepiece – built by Dent Clocks, manufacturer of Big Ben’s clock – and arranged a price of £250,000 with a US collector. But as workmen were taking the clock down, they dropped it. It was smashed to pieces and would have been dumped and buried had Mr Hoggard not bagged it up and placed it on a train to Nottingham having bought it for £25. Then he dumped it in his garden. For 18 months he worked on the clock which he attached to the barn at the end of his garden, and it has even kept good time for most of its stay in Thurgarton.
As a consequence of this St Pancras was left without a main station clock for a number of years until someone, somewhere heard this very story in the 2000’s when the station was being prepared to be the new London home of Eurostar.
London and Continental Railways (LCR), the new owner of St Pancras spared no cost in transforming St Pancras to make it by far the finest train station on the Eurostar network and indeed one of the very top two or three in the world . But they were stumped about the great clock that had once provided travellers with the time and a meeting place.