Provisioning the Metropolis

The Granary, which fronted the Train Assembly Shed, was completed in 1852. It received grain from the north by rail and, after storage on floors 1–5, moved it on by canal and road.

The Granary was built to store grain and flour on the five floors above the ground floor, providing an area of over 80,000sq. ft (7,500m2 ). Grain was measured by volume in a variety of units, including quarters, bushels and sacks. The Granary could store about 25,000 quarters, which was equivalent to about 5,000 tons of grain, sufficient to make some 9 million loaves of bread. A reconstruction of the Granary complex, showing the internal arrangements for movement of grain around the building, as well as movements more generally, is shown (courtesy of Pre-Construct Archaeology). There was ample hydraulic power to lift sacks of grain to upper floors, and shoots that moved sacks from floor to floor and into delivery carts.

The Potato Market comprised a series of warehouses leased by the big wholesale Covent Garden merchants into which were received the potatoes brought down from Lincolnshire and elsewhere, together with seasonal crops such as rhubarb and celery and other vegetables for London’s millions. The volume of potatoes handled each year varied according to the weather in the growing areas. Available data show that the supply to the metropolis varied from 70,000 tons per year to 120,000 tons per year, with an average of 100,000 tons.  

The narrow entrance to the Potato Market created difficulty in working the wagons delivered. Picking out the wagons required by each trader for his daily orders involved much shunting and capstan turntable work, for which there were fifty-three turntables and fourteen hydraulic capstans. Storage was provided in a line of potato warehouses, built in 1864, that ran close to York Road, some with basement cellars. Twin turntables and snatch heads outside each bay are seen in the image (courtesy of SSPL/NRM) looking north under the East Handyside Canopy, which provided roof cover from 1888 for the warehouses.  

Once within the warehouse, the wagon could be emptied and the potatoes stacked in sacks. They were then ready for loading onto drays for distribution to customers or to other markets around London. Drays would await loading in the cart road that ran along the east side of the warehouses, just west of York Road, a roadway that was covered in 1896.

The home-grown fruit and vegetable trade was constrained, before the covering of the roof of the market, by lack of dry storage. The trade grew substantially after 1888, but data is lacking before the 1920s, when it reached about 40,000 tons per year. Such perishable produce had to reach Covent Garden in the early hours, and the hours before dawn were very busy in the Potato Market.

Trade in bananas from the West Indies grew very rapidly in the first years of the twentieth century. Imports were started about 1902 by Elders & Fyffe through Bristol and Manchester (Salford) Docks. Within three years, six more boats were in service and three were being built. It was at this point that  Elders & Fyffe, who wished to increase the service from Manchester to London, approached the GNR for heated wagons and storage accommodation in the goods yard. They were offered three bays under the new Outwards Shed, in what were formerly the Western Coal Drops.

The volume shipped via King’s Cross increased from 2,255 tons in 1905 to 7,768 tons in 1907, suggesting that bananas had rapidly become a staple of many Londoners’ diets.

Before the advent of the railways, Londoners obtained fresh milk from cows kept in the back yards or cellars of houses. By 1890 the railways were bringing in 84 per cent of the liquid milk consumed, rising to 96 per cent in 1910. Milk consumption had increased from about 6 gallons (27 litres) per head per year in 1850 to 21 gallons (95 litres) in 1910, each Londoner consuming nearly half a pint (0.28 litres) a day. 

Milk became an important traffic for the Company in the 1880s. In 1884 King’s Cross dealt with 44,273 churns (a churn held 10 gallons or 46 litres). The Company built special sidings at King’s Cross in 1893 for the milk trade, and by 1910 about 250,000 milk churns were being delivered each year, four or five special milk trains being run every day with many other wagons attached to ordinary trains. The milk platform was formed with a low area so that trucks could be backed directly alongside rail wagons for the transfer of milk churns. 

The image shows milk churns accumulating on Platform 1 on the fourth day of the General Strike in May 1826.

There were no cattle or livestock sidings at King’s Cross goods yard, cattle instead being taken off at sidings in the northern approaches to be driven down Market Road to the Metropolitan Cattle Market.

Special fish trains were a feature of the fish trade from as early as 1852, when rates of 50–80 shillings per ton were agreed with traders from Edinburgh to Sunderland for rail carriage. Herrings, either fresh, salted or smoked, were the staple of the fish trade. As the fish trade grew, it was increasingly supplied by express goods trains run at passenger train speeds from Aberdeen, Hull and Grimsby, which had grown into the chief east coast fishing ports, arriving at King’s Cross throughout the night and in the early hours.

Here, underneath the West Handyside Canopy, wagons of fish were moved onto the Long and Short Fish Roads, sidings devoted to handling fish, where they were unloaded and the fish carted to Billingsgate in the early hours. There were several warehouses and cold stores that served the Sunday morning fish market when fish was sold by auction, as Billingsgate was then closed.

The railway saw its role as supporting the growth of small as well as large enterprises, fostering the movement of goods used by any trading communities. The transport of quails is an example of the special measures that the railway sometimes had to take to service particular trades.

The quail was highly regarded as a table delicacy in the UK, with demand far outstripping supply. It originates from the Great Lakes area of Central Africa, but undertakes a complex migration in spring that led vast flocks over the Sudan and up the Nile Valley before crossing the Mediterranean and heading for their summer habitats in Europe and Russia. The exhausted birds are obliged to pause before crossing the sea, and here they were netted in their thousands. They had to undergo a similar ordeal on their return journey in the autumn.

The Egyptian Quail Syndicate, headquartered in Alexandria, was the receiving house for almost all the quails caught, handling around 1 million quails each year. The birds quickly recovered after being fed and watered, and were placed in coops that accommodated 100 birds. These were loaded onto fast steamers to Manchester, and thence by train to London, in consignments of about 100,000 quails. Experienced attendants accompanied the birds all the way to London, administering to their needs for food and water.

Arriving at King’s Cross in the early hours (image of ‘quail train’ at King’s Cross from Railway Magazine, 33, 1913, courtesy of ICE) the birds were transferred to warehouses where they were fattened on millet, consuming about a ton a day. The cries of thousands of wild birds reached a deafening intensity, while their Egyptian attendants glided from coop to coop.