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Rail workers' war memorial unveiled at London St Pancras

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4 days ago Mark Brown Arts correspondent
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The arcane job titles of railway workers have been listed in a large war memorial unveiled at London’s St Pancras station, close to the location of bomb damage in air raids in 1918 and 1941.

“I like ‘junior chain-horse youth’,” said the artist Fabian Peake. “‘Scotcher’. ‘Incandescent burner attendant’.”

There is also “meat pitcher”, “number taker” and “under-shunter”, all hand-written by Peake and printed on white vitreous enamel with a black border, like funeral cards, and installed on a wall on the station’s grand terrace.

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The 4-metre high art work was unveiled on Thursday in what is the 150th anniversary year of St Pancras and the centenary of the end of the first world war. It is intended as a reminder of the fundamental role the railways played in both wars, as well as a memorial to lives lost.

Peake – part of a prodigiously talented family of artists as the son of the Gormenghast writer Mervyn Peake, husband of Phyllida Barlow, who represented Britain at last year’s Venice Biennale, and father of rising star artist Eddie Peake – said the memorial commission was a daunting challenge. “The main thing is to get the tone right. Some of my earlier ideas were perhaps a bit macabre. It was like putting everything in a great big soup and closing your eyes and finding the right emotion that would fit and would have the respect that it deserves.”

He came across the job titles in the Midland Railway Book of Remembrance and was fascinated by them. They had a poetic quality, he said. “It really brought home that these were ordinary people, just like you and me, doing jobs that we still do today but they went to war and did not return.

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“For me, the job names were more fitting than the names of people because you get those in memorials all over the country.”

Peake is primarily a painter and poet and he credits his father, viewed by some as the greatest of all fantasy writers, for encouraging “a sense of adventure”, a spirit “that anything can be tackled”.

He said: “He was very important. Probably in outlook, the way he would tackle any kind of situation, his methods of working were very broad and I think that’s what he passed on to me.”

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The memorial is the first in the station. One was supposed to be put up in 1921 but the scheme had to be shelved because of a lack of funds.

Josie Murray, a senior heritage adviser to HS1, the high-speed railway connecting St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, said the Midland Railway already had a memorial created by the famed architect Edwin Lutyens in Derby and it was felt at the time that that was adequate. “It was probably a few years ago that we started looking at [the idea of a memorial] and deciding where an appropriate place would be.”

The location was chosen because it is close to damage from two air raids, in 1918 and 1941. The 1918 raid killed 21 people and injured 33. It is also in a less busy part of the station so people, St Pancras hopes, will have time to slow down, look at the memorial and reflect.

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