Maxwell Fry and Margate Station

Margate really is the end of the line, or at least it was for the South Eastern Railway.

The first trains to the Isle of Thanet reached Ramsgate in 1846, when the South Eastern Railway laid tracks from Canterbury. Later that year, they ran a line from Ramsgate to the Margate Sands station, on the seafront where Arlington House now stands. 

In 1863, the rival Kent Coast Railway (soon taken over by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway) built a line from Herne Bay to Ramsgate, opening Margate West station where the current station stands. They also built a third station, immediately to the east of the South Eastern Railway station, but soon abandoned it – catering company Spiers and Pond took it over, converted it into the Hall By The Sea, sold it to circus superstar Lord George Sanger, and it’s now the site of Dreamland. A fourth station, Margate East, served the Cliftonville side of town.

During the First World War, the government took control of the country’s hundred competing railway companies, and it became obvious that there was a more efficient way to run the railways. The Railways Act 1921 created a new Southern Railway, and in 1923 they took over the Isle of Thanet’s tangled railway lines and started rationalising them. They decided to start by building new stations for Ramsgate and Margate. They chose a young architect who would go on to have a significant career. 

The year the Southern Railway took over, Maxwell Fry graduated with distinction from Liverpool University. He had been trained in town planning as well as architecture, and after a brief time as town planner, he joined the architect’s department of the Southern Railway. From 1924, he designed new stations at Ramsgate, Dumpton Park, and in 1926 Margate opened.

While essentially classical in style, in Margate Station you can see the modernist architect that Fry would become. The building is formed around its function, with the main booking hall flanked by roughly symmetrical wings that originally housed tea rooms, a cafeteria, ticket offices, an accounts department, and a parcel office. The red brick building is dressed in stone, with arched windows, and is decorated with doric columns and roundels with reliefs of early steam trains and Viking longships. 

It’s not unlike the work that Edwin Lutyens was completing around the same time, which included the Cenotaph in London and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. The two share a style, now deeply unfashionable, that spanned the globe and defines a certain period of the British Empire. But despite similarities, Fry’s station is more rooted in function, and its fundamental simplicity – it is less tricksy than something by Lutyens – hints at the modernist Fry would become.

In 1934, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius fled from Nazi Germany and set up an architectural practice with Fry, in London. Although the partnership only lasted two years, it made Fry England’s first homegrown modernist. He built clean, modernist buildings across Britain for the rest of his life, and was involved in drawing up plans for the rebuilding of London after the Second World War that led to many more modernist landmarks. 

In 1951, Fry was commissioned to plan and create a new city, Chandigarh – a capital for Punjab after the partition of India. He secured the services of Le Corbusier, and over the next three years designed housing, a hospital, colleges, swimming pools and shops. 

After Chandigarh, Fry returned to the UK and collaborated with Ove Arup on a new headquarters for Pilkington Glass in Lancashire. As part of the project, Fry gave the Festival of Britain designer James Gardner his first commission to design a museum. Gardner continued to work on museum and exhibition design, and in 2000 his design company became HKD, now based in Margate – in a studio that looks out to Margate Station.

Maxwell Fry is often forgotten, mostly overlooked, but he was one of the first British architects to embrace modernism, and he worked with Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Arup. Next time you catch the train, look more closely – Margate Station is a significant building, by a great architect. 

Originally published in Margate Mercury 2019