Mission Buildings, Clubs and Societies

Even before the erection of the iron church, the community had 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. 1 From 1881 their proliferation accelerated. Every year, almost every month, the church records new societies starting under the auspices of the church. Following the nave’s completion, Fr Penfold raised funds to build a Mission House in Camden Town. The 1923 Church History reports on the fundraising ’great Bazaar’ held on 9th May 1887. It was opened by Queen Victoria’s daughter HRH Princess Christian, who was given an address of welcome read by senior choir boy George Hoddy, and given flowers by ‘one of the Sunday School girls’. The royal party, clergy and parishioners were joined at the two-day event by numerous well-wishers including Lady George Hamilton and the wife of the future Duke of Rutland. All were treated to ‘two recitations’ by Madge Kendall, a famous actress, and a monologue by ‘the great comedian’ J.L. Toole entitled ‘Trying a Magistrate’. The sum of £350 was raised despite paying ‘somewhat heavy expenses’ for the impressive and very high profile event Fr Penfold had arranged.

Detail from the Booth Map, showing sites of the church (1), the original worship space at 5A Camden Road (2) and the Mission Buildings (3). Click to expand.

The Mission Buildings were built at the junction of York Street and York Place (now Greenland Place) – their site is marked 3 on the map above, with the church’s site as 1 and 5a Camden Road as 2. Given its late 19th-century Gothic style, the architectural historian Pevsner theorised that they might have been designed by the same architects as St. Michael’s itself, Bodley and Garner, though this has not yet been proven from the parish magazines2. They were officially opened with great ceremony and celebrations in 1888 by HRH Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck and grand-daughter of George III. It was still a noteworthy building ten years later – one of Booth’s Police Notebooks from 14 November 1898 mentioned “the new Mission Room of St Michael’s”, but Booth or his police source mistook its age, stating it had been “built 4 or 5 years ago.”3 In 2001 Fr Penfold’s grand Mission Buildings were largely demolished and the Spectrum Centre built on the partially retained and still visible walls of the old St. Michael’s Mission Hall.45

The Spectrum Centre and Upper Room today.

In the Mission Buildings the church organised an enormous number of activities: ‘Industrial exhibitions, Concerts, Social Gatherings, Temperance Meetings, Soup Kitchen, Men’s Benefit Society, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, Savings Bank, Clothing Clubs, Mothers’ Meetings, not to mention Sunday Schools’. To take another 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). 6

Some of these are clearly religiously inspired, both perennial, like Bible study, but also reflective of the movements of the time. The remit of the church’s activities was wider than these specifically religious aspects, whoever, with many of its activities meeting more general social and community needs, such as participation in the temperance movement. This was a live issue in Camden Town at that time, as reported by William Booth during his tour of part of the parish on 28 October 1898 under police escort:

South for a few yards down [Camden] High St and west into Chapel Yard 7 which is divided by a fence from Chapel Place: the houses are both 2 and 2 stories: a dirty squalid place, broken windows in almost every house: no backs to the houses: rather better at west than east end: inhabitants all work: mostly costers: a very rough lot: any amount of drink. Probably dark blue.

Out into High Street and west into Pleasant Row which is much as Chapel Yard: rough coster class again: “booze heavily and constant rows on Saturday night”8.

Booth’s notes on Chapel Yard and environs, 1898.

Other local agencies, churches and chapels were also active in the movement (Milton Hall at the parish’s north end was a temperance meeting hall), but St Michael’s also became very much caught up in it. In 1885 we hear that the children had exams in temperance – fortunately for the youth of St Michael’s, they won multiple prizes. 9

Another example of the wider social work of St Michael’s was its library, established in 1886. 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. 10 Similarly, the detailed reports following of the parish sports teams may be laudable, but reflects the strength of the community, not their spiritual efficacy.

Mary Sokol and William Garrood.

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  1. Annual Reports 1877/78 and 78/79
  2. Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England – London: North (Yale University Press, 1998), page 388
  3. Ernest Aves’ Notebook: Police Districts 18 and 19, BOOTH/B/356, page 87
  4. Our Church and Parish, 1923
  5. Streets of Camden Town, Camden History Society, 2003, p.34.
  6. Parish Magazine, XIX.1 (Jan 1904)
  7. Once the site of Camden’s first Dissenting Chapel and now the site of Waitrose
  8. Notebook: Police Districts 18-21, BOOTH/B/357, pages 21-23
  9. Parish Magazine, IX.5 (May 1894)
  10. Parish Magazine, 1.9 (Sept 1887)