St Michael’s in Context

St. Michael’s Church began life in Camden Town when the first service was held on 25th February, 1877 at 5a Camden Road. The ground floor front room, now a betting shop, became the church while the room at the back was used as the vestry. There were sixteen communicants at that very first service, presided over by Fr Edward Bainbridge Penfold, the first vicar.

Fr Penfold and his assistant priest the Reverend (later Canon) A. G. Hunter, lived upstairs on the first floor of 5a, and immediately began work on plans to build a new permanent church to serve the people of Camden Town. Four years later, on 29th September 1881, St. Michael’s Day, the nave of the new St. Michael’s Church on its existing site was consecrated by the Suffragan Bishop of Bedford, Walsham How, at a service attended by parishioners and many visitors. The local paper, the Camden and Kentish Town Gazette, reported on the large congregation, among whom were many eminent clergy. 1 There was still much more work to be done and the chancel had yet to be built, but St. Michael’s Church, an Anglican Church within the Anglo-Catholic tradition, was now firmly established in Camden Town.

Fr Penfold’s new church was built in the centre of a busy urban area of London, but one that was relatively new in 1881. Camden Town never was a village, and neither were Agar Town, Somers Town nor Camden New Town. The Doomsday Book 1087 reports four rural manors attached to St. Paul’s Cathedral: St. Pancras, including Agar Town and Somers Town, Cantelowes or Kennistoune (Kentish Town), Tottenhall and Rugmere.

Rocque’s famous map of London c. 1750 shows empty fields north of an isolated Old St. Pancras Church.

Modern day Camden can be seen on the upper edge of this map, marked 'Mother Red Caps.' Click to Expand.

 

Fifty years later a map c. 1800 shows the River Fleet flowing towards the Thames through the scattered houses of the small country hamlet of Kentish Town. Some of the country lanes there, running through fields, were the resort of highwaymen preying on travellers. An ancient roadway, then a coach road and now Kentish Town Road, ran from London to the more populous village of Highgate. But now houses lined what became Camden High Street. This quiet rural scene was set to change with remarkable speed as increasingly many people left the countryside to move into towns and cities.

In the late eighteenth century the two largest local landowners, Charles Fitzroy, Baron Southampton, and Charles Pratt, the first Earl of Camden, began to build Camden Town. 2 A map of 1834 shows new streets and a major new road, Camden Road, built in 1826. A new street called Park Street, now Parkway, led to Regents Park and the new Regents Canal had opened to traffic in 1820. In 1830 the London and Birmingham Railway arrived. This was followed by the East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway, today known as the North London Line, in 1850, and by the Midland Railway in the 1860s. The Great Exhibition Map of 1851 shows St. Pancras Old Church now surrounded by the streets of Somers Town, and many new streets in Camden Town. In the triangle formed by the junction of Kentish Town Road with the new Camden Road, where St. Michael’s church now stands, there were instead three large houses with very long gardens sited next to Kentish Town Wharf and saw mills and printing works. Two of these houses were later demolished to make way for the Church.

Later maps of 1863 and 1870 show Camden Town now completely laid out with streets, while further north Kentish Town was no longer a village surrounded by fields but a dense urban area. Agar Town was a large unplanned urban sprawl soon to more or less disappear under the lines and Goods Yards of the Midland Railway, while the streets of Somers Town surrounded St. Pancras Church. The viaducts of the North London Line still dominate the north of Camden Town. 3

 
 
 

These maps reveal quite strikingly that the later nineteenth century developers of our part of North London did not include any new Church of England churches in their plans for the new Camden Town. There were, however, three existing Church of England churches in the south of the area now serving a vastly increased population. These were the ancient church of Old St. Pancras and two architecturally significant new Church of England churches built between 1822-4: the new St. Pancras on Euston Road and an imposing neo-Greek church on Camden Street. Once the new St. Pancras, designed by architects W. and H. Inwood, was built the ancient St. Pancras Old Church became a chapel. The Inwoods also designed the neo-Greek church on Camden Street, first known as the Camden Chapel, later as St. Stephens, and then in 1920 All Saints. Today the church is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The novelist Fanny Burney was there at its consecration in 1822, and her son the Rev. Alex D’Arblay was the first curate, but his curacy was short-lived because of his serious problems with time keeping. 4 In these later maps nonconformist chapels appear for the first time. To the north there was a Baptist Chapel at Chalk Farm, a Dissenting chapel in Kentish Town, and by 1870 an English Presbyterian Chapel and Reading Room in Camden Square.

This new, densely populated urban area was a source of concern to many. At first many fine new houses were built to accommodate the middling classes in the new suburb. But the building of the railway lines with numerous bridges and goods yards caused the destruction of many homes, and the displacement of large numbers of people. In Dombey and Son (1848) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) the novelist Charles Dickens, who lived in Bayham Street as a child, described the terrible mess and dirt in Camden Town that resulted from railway building, and the immense dust heaps on Battle Bridge Road that belonged to ‘the Golden Dustman’. 5 Newspapers, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the vicar of St. Pancras, Canon Dale, all denounced the poverty and squalor of Camden Town. Even worse was the notorious Agar Town, said to present the most appalling spectacle of temporal and spiritual destitution in the whole diocese of London. Concerned, the Government of the day took action, demolishing the rookeries and planning new homes, only to be overtaken by yet more railway building and chaos until what was left of Agar Town merged with Camden New Town around Camden Square. 6 The philanthropist Charles Booth’s survey into life and labour in London c. 1898-9 included colour coded maps to indicate relative wealth or poverty. These maps evidence that by the end of the nineteenth century Camden had become poorer and more overcrowded. Nearly every house was in multiple occupation. 7

Robert John Kemble signs the marriage register with an 'X' in 1884.
Robert John Kemble signs the marriage register with an ‘X’ in 1884. [Courtesy of London Metropolitan Archive].

These were the difficult conditions that surrounded Fr Penfold and St. Michael’s Church in Camden Town. The first Register of Marriages and of Baptisms shows many people were illiterate, signing the Registers with an X instead of their name. No employment was registered for women but men were variously described in occupations such as bookmakers (e.g. print makers), harness makers, builders. There were also many labourers who probably worked on building the new railway. The number of late marriages and number of children in the same family baptised on the same day indicates that quite possibly Fr. Penfold and his Missioners, who aimed to visit every home in the parish, urged their new parishioners to marry in the new church and baptise their children too.

Mary Sokol.

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  1. London Metropolitan Archive, signed Act of Consecration, St. Michael’s Church, the Diocesan Parish File. 19/224/503/(1) London; St. Michael’s Parish Magazine vol. 1 1884-6 included an newspaper extract describing the event.
  2. Streets of Camden Town, Camden History Society, 2003.
  3. We thank Gillian Tindall for help with local history and for permission to study maps from her private collection.
  4. We thank Gillian Tindall for this information; see Streets of Camden Town, ed. Steven Denford and F. Peter Woodford, Camden History Society, 2003, p. 83.
  5. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1864-1865.
  6. The Rev. R. Conyers Morrell, The Story of Agar Town, no date, Premo Press NW1, now deposited with the St. Michael’s Parish papers at The London Metropolitan Archive.
  7. As noted in Streets of Camden Town, p. 12.