The Foundation of St. Michael’s

Early in the nineteenth century there was much public concern about the rapidly growing urban populations, often living in poverty, and often far from their historic parish churches. 1 At the same time the Government attached greater importance to church attendance. In 1818 a new Act of Parliament became law: An Act for the Building and Promotion of Building Additional Churches in Populous Parishes. 2 Because the Church of England was the established church the creation of every new parish church required an Act of Parliament. The 1818 Act, together with its six subsequent amendments, enabled the Government to set apart a fund of one million pounds for the particular purpose of building new churches, operating through a commission. A Commission operating through Commissioners was set up to administer the fund. Six hundred new churches were built in the nineteenth century, and one of these was St Michael’s. 3 Not everyone was pleased by this prospect: the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote crossly in a manuscript that Lord Liverpool, then Home Secretary, could find money to build churches but not his Panopticon Prison.

The Commissioners’ remit was to locate communities of more than four thousand people who lived more than two miles from their parish church, and had the ability to fund a new church. Once these conditions were satisfied the Commission approved an architect and funded the construction of a new church. The geographical area became a legal entity by an Order in Council.

This was the process followed by Fr Penfold. First, Queen Victoria by an Order in Council dated 23rd October 1876 approved the constitution of the District of St. Michael’s Church out of the parish of Camden Town, Holy Trinity Haverstock Hill, and St. Matthew’s Bedford New Town. 4 Then, on the 21st August 1876, the Privy Council approved the creation of a new parish church, to be funded by money vested in the Commission from the City churches of St. Peter le-Poer and the Perpetual Curacy of St. Benet Fink. Next, Fr Penfold set about purchasing land on which to build the new church, the costs of which were in part met by The Ecclesiastical Commissioners who gave £5,300 from the sale of the site of St Michael’s Greenhithe, an old City Church, and the rest from various Church Societies and voluntary subscriptions. 5 Eventually, after some difficulty, he acquired the leasehold, and then the freehold interest of the site of the present church, pulled down the two existing houses and in 1879 put up a temporary ‘Iron Church’, holding the first service there on 24th August that year. 6 In 1881 the newly built nave of St. Michael’s Church was finally consecrated. 7

The process was not quite complete. Once built the status of the new St. Michael’s church was that of a District Chapel, a ‘daughter church’ of the Parish Church. As a ‘daughter church’ the new church was allowed to hold services, but not perform baptisms, marriages or funerals, which had to take place at the Parish Church. Once the existing priest in charge of the Parish Church died or moved away then the new church could itself become a Parish Church benefiting from a proportion of local tithe payments. This sometimes lengthy process was set up to protect the finances of the former Parish Church for a period of time. Formerly churches were funded by locally levied tithes and bequests, sometimes ancient. A new church in a new area, like St. Michael’s, had no such funds, but needed income. So to resolve this difficulty the 1818 Act allowed new churches to charge rent for pews, but seating in St. Michael’s was always free to all from the very beginning.

Mary Sokol.

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Page Header: Detail from an advertisment for Humphreys’ Ltd. Iron Buildings, showing the kind of building which probably served the congregation of St. Michael’s in the early years. Source

  1. Geoffrey Rowell, The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, Oxford, 1983.
  2. 58 Geo III, Cap.45.
  3. Roger Sainsbury, St. Michael’s Church Highgate: A History, 2014.
  4. Roger Sainsbury, St. Michael’s Church Highgate: A History, 2014.
  5. In the Beginning, the first history of St Michael’s Church, reprinted from the Parish Magazine 1923. The documents on which this claim is based are not in the St. Michael’s Church Diocesan Parish file held at the London Metropolitan Archive.
  6. London Metropolitan Archive, ibid. The conveyancing deeds reveal much of legal historical interest and show that Fr Penfold met difficulty and delay in establishing the necessary good title to the land.
  7. London Metropolitan Archive, St Michael’s Parish Magazine vol. 1 1884-86.