The Coal Drops Yard shopping district is just the latest chapter in the colourful history of these unusual buildings.
Until the early 1800s, goods were mainly transported to London by sea and inland waterways. The task was a slow and often perilous one. The coming of the railways changed everything – by canal, the journey to London from the north took weeks, by rail, mere hours.
King’s Cross became the hub for anything and everything – potatoes, furniture, tobacco, timber, whale carcasses! Whatever London required, it arrived at King’s Cross.
The most vital of these goods was coal. Victorian London was a city powered by coal, and Coal Drops Yard was its coal store.
The drops were long, covered structures built in three storeys. The trains entered under a vast curved roof on the upper level, the coal dropped from bottom-opening wagons through a hole in the middle level where it was sorted and graded before being shoveled into sacks at yard level for transport on by horse and cart.
By the 1870s though, a more advanced system for offloading coal was developed across the canal. The coal trade shifted there, and from the late 1800s, major areas of the coal drops were converted to warehousing.
In 1879, the Eastern Coal Drops was purchased by the glass manufacturer Bagley, Wild and Company. By the 1930s, the company was delivering around 30 wagons of bottles a day, offloaded apparently by ‘gangs of fearsome and muscular women’, women who also came under suspicion for their nocturnal activities, a reputation King’s Cross carried into the 20th century.
As road transport overtook the popularity of the railway, and after a fire devastated much of the Eastern Coal Drops, the buildings fell into disuse.
Then, some 140 years after they were first designed, the buildings were given their second lease of life – as the beating heart of London’s ecstasy-fuelled club scene.
From the early 80s, the rave scene exploded across the city in a hedonistic haze of hardcore fun. Disused warehouses hosted often illegal raves, before giving way to a new breed of clubs and bars.
The grimy, crumbling Victorian buildings of King’s Cross were the epicenter of the throbbing party scene, with Billy Reilly’s bar Fabric under the arches of the Coal Offices, The Cross nightclub a stone’s throw away, and the most infamous of all – Bagley’s, spread over three floors at the southern end of the Eastern Coal Drops.
One of the largest clubs in the capital, Bagley’s (later Canvas) packed in 2,500 clubbers on a Saturday night. For over two decades, it hosted the city’s best DJs and some of the most iconic nights in clubbing history.
As with all good things, the scene came to an end. In 2008, Dave Swindells wrote for Time Out, “New Year’s Day marked a raucous last hurrah for an enclave of legendary King’s Cross Clubs. It’s just a workaday yard in the Badlands of North King’s Cross, home to run-down Victorian warehouses, rusting gasometers, redundant railway arches and the odd pusher or prostitute, but for more than 15 years the goods yard off York Way has also been the location of some of the best nightlife in London.”
Traces of this history remain – in the ‘ghost signs’ on the sides of the buildings, in the intricate cast-iron columns that prop up the viaducts, and the brightly painted walls of Bagley’s in the Eastern Coal Drops.
Download King’s Cross Station & Coal Drops Yard in Six Stories by Historian, Dr Jacqueline Riding to discover more.