It was a Tuesday afternoon, 5 December 1905. Charing Cross station was getting ready for the evening rush hour. At 3.45pm an audible clank rang through the station. One of the iron tie rods in the station’s arched roof had given way. Seconds later, two entire sections collapsed.
The tragedy at Charing Cross claimed the lives of six workers and seriously injured eight. It might have been much worse. Tons of material fell onto the trains and tracks below. Carriages were ‘smashed to matchwood’, according to one report. The glass wind-break wall at the river end also tumbled. By incredible fortune, no passengers were on the platform or in the carriages directly under the 20 metre section that collapsed.
Still, there were fatalities. One employee at WH Smith lost his life, and two contractors on the roof also died. Not all of those killed were inside the station. The falling roof pushed over the great western wall, which all but flattened the under-construction Royal Avenue Theatre (now the Playhouse Theatre). Three workmen lost their lives here. Fortunately, the accident occurred very close to Charing Cross Hospital, and the many injured quickly received medical treatment.
Was the tube to blame?
As with any disaster, ‘search and rescue’ soon turned to ‘speculate and blame’. One swiftly advanced theory was that a new tube tunnel (what we now call the Bakerloo) had undermined the foundations, causing subsidence that put strain on the building.
No evidence was found to support this idea. Instead, the collapse was put down to a combination of fatigued ironwork and a heavy load of scaffolding. The station’s glazing had for some time been under repair. All for nought, as it happened.
What happened next?
As you can see from the images, the damage to the station was extensive. It took more than three months to put right. The station was out of action for this entire time, only reopening on 19 March 1906.
The three-month closure of Charing Cross was obviously a huge inconvenience for many, but not everyone. Workers building the underground station that would serve the Northern line found that the absence of mainline passengers made their work much easier. Excavations were made in the forecourt that would not have been allowed had the mainline station been operational.
Charing Cross’s arch was designed by Sir John Hawkshaw and built in 1864. He also masterminded a similar roof for Cannon Street, which was demolished in the 1950s. His name is remembered in a Wetherspoon pub at Cannon Street Station.