1881-1914: Early Years

At the start of 1881, St Michael’s congregation worshipped in a metal church; by 1914, the building was essentially complete and the pattern of church activity set in the manner that would see it through much of the next half century. As well as securing the building in the period, the parish grew in size to 8,000 people, and the community constantly expanded what it did. Contemporaries were clear about which was their greatest achievement. An account of the early years, published in the 1910s, spends most of its time talking about the building, the donations and the inscriptions around them. The people and the community merit little attention. To modern eyes, it is the latter that is most striking.

An advertisement for iron buildings of a similar type to the original St Michael's building.
An advertisement for iron buildings of a similar type to the original St Michael’s building. Source.

The building of the church took place over thirty years. A temporary metal church was erected in August 1879, with an expectation that further building would follow. 1 The nave was completed in 1881, funded by the sale of St Michael’s Queenhithe. Once complete, the church attempted to retain the iron church, but was not allowed and the church embarked on programme of expansion. The church hall opened in 1887, followed by Mission buildings in 1888, and the chancel and side-chapel in 1894. Screens were also added to either side of the chancel – that on the organ side was paid for by Frank Blaiklock (a clerk at the Bank of England) and his wife Georgina in 1898 in memory of their only son Cecil Stanway Blaiklock, who had died aged only 8 in 1883. By 1914, the church was complete. The parish Magazines record a succession of dignitaries opening the various further extensions of the church, culminating with the completion of the Vestries in 1908.

A ticket to the consecration of the Chancel, 1894.
A ticket to the consecration of the Chancel, 1894. [Courtesy of London Metropolitan Archive].

The parish had an initial population of 5,000, later enlarged by the addition of 3,000 people from St Mark’s parish next door. Estimating numbers for the congregation as a whole is difficult, but the first decade showed very rapid growth. Annual reports from the early years suggest that congregations were initially very small, though much swelled at Easter. In 1879 the weekly congregation was twenty two, and over fifty at Easter. 2 However, by the 1880s far larger numbers were recorded. Part of that growth was simply a result of natural population growth. The church records a huge number of baptisms – through the 1880s and into the 1900s, around 100 children a year were baptised in St Michael’s – 20 were baptised in May 1884 alone and this is far from atypical. 3 By the mid 1880s, congregations numbered fifty, with those attending at Easter over 200. By 1880, this rose to around 300. 4 After this, the size of the Easter congregations seem to have reached a plateau. In 1904, Easter attendance was 233, well below the 307 recorded in 1890. However, other indications suggest that the church community had grown. Certainly, the clergy believed the minimum number attending at Easter in the early 1900s ought to be 400. 5 A better indication of the size of the community is perhaps shown by the Parish Magazine, which was sold, and thus suggests an even greater commitment than attending an Easter service. Its print run was 280 in 1903 and grew in increments to 600 by 1911. 6 The community at St Michael’s seems to have continued to grow throughout this period.

Nonetheless, the clergy were often disappointed with their congregation’s attendance, not just at Easter, but also at other services. They repeatedly complain that people only come to church to be married, christened and die. In the same Parish Magazine, they complain about their behaviour at weddings, specifically ‘the profane habit of throwing or scattering confetti or rice either in or immediately outside the church’ which ‘should be given up by all those who respect the House of God and their own Christian profession.’ 7 There are similar complaints that attendance at weekly Masses is poor – in 1904, the Vicar deplored the failure of people to come to church for the daily Eucharist, with only 5 or 6 people usually present. 8 This is not surprising, the number of Masses was high and the congregation must have been stretched thin. There are daily Masses, and five services on the Sunday. In particular, it was male attendance that bothered the clergy. The Priests bemoaned the lack of men at the Parish gathering, and – despite allowing mixed seating within the church in 1886 (though also retaining some women only seating), this problem persisted. 9 Throughout this period, although women dominated the congregation in numbers, they could not serve on the church council. Only in 1923 were the first women elected.

Women were present throughout the church’s wide range of activities. Even before the erection of the iron church, the community operated through any number of associations and clubs. The earliest societies – the Penny Bank, Coal and Clothing Clubs and the Maternity Society – were established in the late 1870s. 10 After 1881, the pace of development accelerated. Every year, almost every month, the church records new societies starting under the auspices of the church. To take an example from 1904, the Parish Magazine records Parochial Missionary Associations, a Slate club, Sunday Schools, Infant Schools, Bible Classes (three weekly), three Temperance societies, a Girls’ Friendly Society, a Men’s Club, a Boys’ Club, Mothers Meetings, Nurses Guild, Parish Library, a Debating Society and a variety of Sports teams (football in the winter, cricket in the summer). 11

Some of these are clearly religiously inspired, both perennial, like Bible study, but also reflective of the movements of the time. St Michael’s was very much caught up with the temperance movement. In 1885 we hear that the Children had exams in temperance. Fortunately for the youth of St Michael’s, they won multiple prizes. 12 The remit of the church’s activities was wider than these specifically religious aspects. Many were meeting more general social and community needs. For example, in 1886 the Parish established a library. This was not specifically religious, but offered a broad service. The following year, the organisers called for more donations of ‘story books’ to reflect demand. 13 Similarly, the detailed reports following of the parish sports teams may be laudable, but reflects the strength of the community, not their spiritual efficacy.

Though the community was broad, at its heart was the church and the clergy, usually three in number. For most of this period (1876-1903), Edward Penfold led the church, initially working alone and supported by a voluntary assistant priest and a congregation of around twenty people. Penfold was vicar of St Michael’s for 27 years and it was the main project of his life. In the early years, he seems to have dominated church life. It is he who makes the executive decision to build a temporary church room at the back, seemingly without consultation; when needed, he simply secures a new organist through his friends. 14 He was also made Rural Dean of St Pancras in 1894.

After 1881, Penfold was supported by a range of number of assistant priests – initially a single curate (J. Dixon and then H. J. Sharp), but from 1885, a pair of curates was more usual. Most curates served short tenures, two or three years. They lived together in the parish, and moved several times to try to find the right accommodation. They initially lived at 10, Gloucester Crescent, and then in Bayham Street to be closer to the people. 15 These priests seem to have run a punishing schedule, leading services, community activities work with the community. The Parish Magazines do record their attempts to restrict access to them from parishioners outside specific hours. 16 Nor were they immune to the appeal of vestments. They write in 1891 ‘we received a very liberal and acceptable present at Easter – a set of new surplices for the boys.’ 17

But if the assistant clergy did not spend long at St Michael’s, they moved on rapidly and well. J. Dixon (1881-83) became Vicar of Willesden, V. L. Keelan (1904-11) was appointed to the new parish of St Michael’s Golders Green (now the Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity and St Michael) – St Michael’s Camden Town sent a choir to its dedication service. 18 F. W. Osborn (1862-1951), later Penfold’s successor, was curate 1891-95, then Vice-Principal of Ely Theological College before returning in 1903. 19 In fact, from the very start, St Michael’s acted a training ground for clergy. J. R. Hodges was confirmed at St Michael’s, was a Sunday School teacher, trained at Oxford and then entered the Priesthood – initially as a curate of St Mark’s Notting Hill. 20 Some of the clergy went a very long way after St Michael’s. J. W. Williams (curate 1890-91) left for Cape Town and eventually became Bishop of St John’s, Kaffraria. 21 Empire saturates the discussions of the church, and its clergy. In 1908 T. H. Kett (curate 1903-20) took a seven-month holiday chaplaincy at Roodeport in the Transvaal, where he met three of his siblings for the first time since their emigration twenty-five years before. 22 E. H. P. Carter (curate 1885-90) ‘worked in West Bromwich and Ceylon’ before coming to St Michael’s. He subsequently also went to Africa and worked in Zululand. 23 It is impossible not to be aware of the breadth of the British Empire and the impact this had on clerical careers.

The Empire also animated the parish as a whole. They kept in touch with Williams in South Africa, from where he wrote numerous letters about the local population and where the parish sent gifts, including ‘another parcel of fifteen frocks has been sent to him from St. Michael’s for the children of his kafir mission.’ 24 For some years, the parish funded an ‘African Child’ in Central Africa, who was reportedly very good at Holy Scripture, but ‘not very sweet in her intercourse with her companions.’ 25 Visiting colonial dignitaries came to speak at the church, 26 and details of the Universities Mission to Central Africa were regularly reported. 27 The church as a whole aimed to spend 10% of giving to overseas aid. Less pacifically, the church also supported a collection for ‘all those engaged in the [Boer] War, for the wounded and the dying.’ 28 George Roberts of the parish died of enteric fever aged 20 during the campaign whilst serving with the City Imperial Volunteers. On 17th May 1901 a memorial tablet to him was erected in the south-west corner of the church, beside his usual seat – it can still be seen. 29


The wider world impinged on St Michael’s in a number of other, very specific ways. In common with other London churches, the clergy had strong views on the political actions that affected the church and St Michael’s directly. For much of this period, this issue was schooling. St Michael’s had acquired the church schools when they were transferred from St Mark’s in the parish re-organisation, but had a longstanding interest. In 1894, it endorsed a candidate for the School Board elections to ensure support for religious teaching in schools. 30 In 1904, the leaders of the church urged voters in the L.C.C. Elections to vote ‘only for those candidates, whether Moderate or Progressive, who will administer the new Education Act fairly and without partiality.’ 31

Despite this, this funding for the church schools was continually precarious. The following year, the vicar borrowed £100 to keep it running because the L. C. C. did not pay what was owed. 32 Most deeply felt of all though was the campaign against Welsh Disestablishment. Committees were formed in 1895, but in 1912, at the climax of the unsuccessful campaign, the church reported it thus: ‘once more the devil and his human agents have started an open warfare against God’s Church.’ 33 The writings of the parish suggest a community that was large, confident, and open to the world. It is no surprise that in 1914, the same Magazines were the place where practical details of the outbreak of war and what must be done were also recorded.

William Garrood.



  1. Annual Report 1879/80
  2. Annual Report 1879/80
  3. Parish Magazine, I.5 (May 1884)
  4. Annual Reports 1884/1885 and 1885/1886
  5. Parish Magazine, XIX.5 (May 1904)
  6. Parish Magazine, XXIV.1 (Jan 1909), Parish Magazine, XXVI.12 (Dec 1911)
  7. Parish Magazine, XX.4 (Apr 1905)
  8. Parish Magazine, XIX.4 (Apr 1904); repeated in, e.g., Parish Magazine, XXV.3 (Mar 1910)
  9. Parish Magazine, III.10 (Oct 1886)
  10. Annual Reports 1877/78 and 78/79
  11. Parish Magazine, XIX.1 (Jan 1904)
  12. Parish Magazine, IX.5 (May 1894)
  13. Parish Magazine, 1.9 (Sept 1887)
  14. Parish Magazine, I.12 (Dec 1884)
  15. Parish Magazine, VI.8 (Aug 1892)
  16. Parish Magazine, VI.4 (Apr 1892)
  17. Parish Magazine, V.5 (May 1891)
  18. Parish Magazine, XXV.8 (Aug 1910)
  19. Parish Magazine, X.4 (Apr. 1895), Parish Magazine, XVIII.10 (Oct. 1903)
  20. Parish Magazine, III.1 (Jan 1886)
  21. Parish Magazine, XVI.11 (Nov 1901)
  22. Parish Magazine, XXIII.6 (June 1908)
  23. Parish Magazine, III.2 (Feb 1886), Parish Magazine, XII.2 (Feb 1897)
  24. Parish Magazine, VI.7 (July 1892)
  25. Parish Magazine, XX.4 (May 1905)
  26. The Bishop of Zululand came to speak in 1913 (Parish Magazine, XXVIII.2 (Feb 1913))
  27. Parish Magazine, XXVIII.4 (Apr 1913)
  28. Parish Magazine, XV.1 (Jan 1900)
  29. Parish Magazine (June 1901)
  30. Parish Magazine, IX.8 (Aug 1894)
  31. Parish Magazine, XIX.3 (Mar 1904)
  32. Parish Magazine, XX.7 (July 1905)
  33. Parish Magazine, XXVII.5 (May 1912)