Private initiatives amid industrial ruins

Artists and craftspeople are forever seeking studios that they can afford and were naturally attracted to derelict or neglected Victorian warehouses and arches, with their sense of abandoned history and cavernous spaces. 

Some historical buildings were colonised more formally through rental, for example the coal drops and the arches under Wharf Road, others by squatting such as in the stables opposite the Culross Building that ran from Battle Bridge Road to Goods Way. Photographers used these stables for exhibitions, antique restorers as woodworking studios, and a violin maker to repair violins, with a sideline in restoring Mercedes cars. 

The coal drops from the early 1980s housed a variety of businesses, including the famous Bagley’s nightclub. Neighbours included workshops that made scenery for the theatre. John Sullivan, who made barrows and repaired them, had been in the stable arches since 1982, having moved from Covent Garden when that area was redeveloped. Richard Aumonier was a sculptor involved with restoration of classical buildings. He found the arches offered not only peace and quiet (when not reverberating with music from the clubs) but also a space where he could create noise and dust. Another craftsman carved polystyrene into lettering. 

The large-scale dereliction of the Railway Lands created its own opportunities. In December 1994 the former Train Assembly Shed area became home to the Raceway, the UK’s longest indoor go-karting circuit with 1,050m of track. Some of the former coal stacking ground on the western side of York Way was, through the 1990s, central London’s only full-length golf driving range.

The Motor Repair Depot, by then known as the Roadline Depot, was entered by turning left at the walled end of Battle Bridge Road, opposite the former Mission Hall of the Culross Building. Owned by National Carriers Ltd, it had fallen into disuse by the mid-1980s. The large repair sheds and earlier buildings, together  with an assortment of equipment and vehicles, were abandoned. Culross residents and other magpies would pick over the remains, amazed that the site could be left empty and unsecured for so long.

The depot sheds and warehouses proved an ideal location to squat for the Mutoid Waste Company, which moved there in the late 1980s from the old bus station in the Caledonian Road. Influenced by the film Mad Max they became famous for building giant welded post-apocalyptic sculptures from scrap machinery and waste materials and for customising broken down cars. They developed a good relationship with many Culross residents. As one recalls, ‘I gave them my car and they turned it into a crocodile’ (Steve Neylon, interviewed by Giles Rollastone for King’s Cross Voices ).

Embracing the burgeoning acid house movement by the late 1980s, despite their philosophy of creativity without artificial stimulants, they organised large shed parties, decorating the depot with large murals, mutated cars, machines, sculptures made from waste material and dragons belching flames. Charging a tenner entry, within two weeks they were overwhelmed by numbers. Some semblance of legality was maintained by inviting the police, showing them around and creating a favourable impression, but the police evicted them in 1989 after several raids. By then a collective of some twenty artists had been together for five years.

They returned briefly to squat the buildings for a memorial event for their drummer Ivan Tarashenko who had been killed in the 1987 King’s Cross Underground fire. In his memory, 400 people played drums on various objects including cars and dustbins. The noise was indescribable … Another Culross resident described the experience as, ‘Mad Max gone mad! It was absolute incredible and you just felt like you were living at the centre of the Universe’ (Abigail Dodd, interviewed by Giles Rollastone for King’s Cross Voices).

Some twenty-five years after these events, Mutoid Waste and their recycled steampunk creations feature regularly at Glastonbury. Joe Rush, one of the two founders, designed and directed the vehicles and special effects for the spectacular closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and the mobile stages on which Coldplay and Rihanna performed so memorably.

King’s Cross goods yard had always operated twenty-four hours a day, but this activity took place out of the gaze of the public. In the 1990s, King’s Cross once more came alive at night, this time with young people going to clubs that opened at midnight through until the morning. Clubbers flocked to the abandoned Victorian warehouses and brick railway arches at King’s Cross for the legendary warehouse parties. Younger people, turning off Wharf Road that joined York Way north of the canal, knew the area as ‘Club City’.

Bagley’s was the nightclub that started and underpinned the area’s nightlife for fifteen to twenty years. It occupied the warehouse at the southern end of the Eastern Coal Drops and four arches under Wharf Road. The owners, Johnny and Billy Reilly, invested heavily in soundproofing and engaged with the residential community to respond to the inevitable complaints. These could be many and varied: Camley Street Natural Park was concerned that the rhythmic thumping was disturbing the mating habits of amphibians.

Bagley’s, which later became Canvas, hosted several clubs on a regular basis, one such being TDK (see TDK at The Cross, with the Coal and Fish Offices illuminated, August 2006, Fabio Venni). The nightclub venue was in the old stables, in the arches under Wharf Road Another was The Church, initially a gathering point for Aussies but increasingly attracting Londoners, which became infamous for antipodean high jinks and drunken revelry, including strippers, on a Sunday afternoon. Its motto was: ‘If you haven’t sinned, you can’t be forgiven.’

The spaces that were once filled with revellers finally fell silent during Christmas 2007, when The Cross, The Key and Canvas were shut, leaving London bereft of the semi-derelict quarter that fostered some of the finestwarehouse parties in the capital since the mid-1980s.