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. Parochial events and entertainments initially took place in the Mission House at 5A Camden Road until the parish moved out in 1883. Following the nave’s completion, such events moved to a temporary room built at a cost of £140 close to the present site of the Resurrection Chapel and accessed either via the small door in the nave wall outside the chapel or via an external door. That room was opened on 25th January 1885 by Lady Maud Caroline Hamilton (1846-1938), wife of Lord George Francis Hamilton (1845-1927), Conservative MP for Middlesex and Ealing, First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for India. According to the 1923 history she had been “for many years a very good friend of St Michael’s, and until quite recently a regular visitor at the Monday Mothers’ Meetings”. From 1915 to its dissolution in 1923 she was also the final president of the Parochial Mission-Women’s Association, intended to provide working-class ‘mission women’ to provide tuition for each parish – St Michael’s was one parish which benefited from the Association’s work.

The walls and roof of the new room were made of corrugated iron – the 1923 History refers to the “dripping reminiscences for those who rubbed their arms against them during a crowded entertainment or after a frost”. The new room immediately started to be used for choir practices, Confirmation classes, Guild meetings, Bible Classes, Mothers’ meetings, temperance meetings and teachers’ meetings. However, it was not big enough and so Fr Penfold raised funds to construct a larger purpose-built set of Mission Buildings 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 Maud Hamilton and Lady Janetta Manners, 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 Garner2, but the 1923 History states it was the church architect “Lacey Ridge”. St Michael’s certainly seems to have attracted architects – as well as Bodley, Hare and Ridge, the 1923 History states that Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) was “at one time closely connected with St Michael’s” and that the “best white cope and the red altar frontal were given” in his his memory – no concrete link can yet be proven other than his 1896 design for Kentish Town Police Station.

The buildings 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 Charles Booth’s Police Notebooks from 14 November 1898 mentioned “the new Mission Room of St Michael’s” but 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.

C H Challen presented a piano to the Mission Buildings, which was still in use in 1923, and Mr Marsh was appointed the first caretaker, holding the position for sixteen years. There 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 Charles Booth or one of his researchers 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, just behind a brewey located by Hawley Lock. However, 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 prizes9. In 1896 Penfold called the parish’s temperance endeavours “very successful” but his interviewer also noted his comments that “As to DRINK he really could not say whether habits of excess appeared to be on the increase or not”. In February 1912 the parish even shipped in the vicar of Winnipeg, Canada, the Rev Edmund Charles Radiger Pritchard, to lead a Temperance Mission – one of its secondary aims was “arousing deeper interest in the work of the Church abroad”.

This was not the only social evil Penfold reported in the parish, particularly on Camden Road:

There are not many PROSTITUTES living in the parish, and brothels are only very occasionally discovered. [Penfold] mentioned Delancy St. as one of which he was inclined to be suspicious from time to time, and said that at this moment he had had a report sent him to say that people of doubtful reputation were living at No. 7 in his own [Gloucester] Crescent. He had not a high opinion of the prevailing moral standard, as regards marriage, and the relation of the sexes, quite apart from the question of professional prostitution. He mentioned the opinion of a Sister who had worked in his parish, and compared the virtue of the people very unfavourably with that of the people of the East End, where she had previously been10.

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. 11 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. Notebook: Clergy District 18 (Somers Town and Camden Town) (BOOTH/B/215), pages 123 and 129
  11. Parish Magazine, 1.9 (Sept 1887)