The People of the Parish

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 parish magazine in 1923, 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.

Recorded in the first Parish Magazine of 1884, one of the earliest services in the new nave had been a Thanksgiving Service for the recovery of seventy-two people in the congregation from an outbreak of typhoid fever. Fr Penfold had appealed for funds and received £80 from friends and others in response to an appeal in the Daily Telegraph. He arranged for two nursing sisters from the Anglican Community of St Peter’s, Kilburn to come and help1. That community had been set up in 1861 by Benjamin and Rosamira Lancaster as part of a wave of Anglican orders set up for rural and urban social work following the founding of the Society of Saint Margaret in 1855 by the Anglo-Catholic academic, cleric and hymnwriter John Mason Neale. The Kilburn nuns, together with some members of the congregation, visited every known case of typhoid in the parish every day. Beef tea and ‘dinners’ were provided for the sick, and rather surprisingly wine and brandy prescribed by doctors for daily intake. Two local wine merchants liberally supplied the wine and brandy. After the patients were better some were sent away to the seaside to regain their health, cared for by Fr Penfold and their fellow parishioners.

Even before the Mission Buildings were completed in 1888, several Missions to the parish took place. The first was in 1885 when three priests visited the parish and undertook many tasks in ten days of intense activity. Holy Communion was held twice a day with a meditation between, and there were short addresses at midday, Bible readings, and addresses to men only, to shop assistants, servants, mothers, young women and children. Factories were visited and, where possible, addresses given to the workmen. The sick and dying were visited and the local Hospital visited daily. Holy Communion was given to the sick and children were baptised. At the conclusion of the Mission a closing service was held at which memorials were distributed to those who had made resolutions for spiritual progress, or undertaken work. In later years several other such large Missions took place, as well as many shorter ones lasting up to five days.

The parish had an initial population of 5,000, later enlarged by the addition of 3,000 people from St Mark’s Regent Park 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 marriage and baptismal registers record 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 They also show a high number of late marriages and of children in the same family baptised on the same day – Fr. Penfold and his Missioners aimed to visit every home in the parish and the registers quite possibly indicate that they urged their new parishioners to marry in the new church and baptise their children too.

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. It also remained engaged in issues in the wider church, especially the campaign against Welsh Disestablishment. Committees were formed to support that campaign in 1895, but the campaign eventually proved unsuccessful – at its climax in 1912 the parish magazine interpreted the failure as evidence that ‘once more the devil and his human agents have started an open warfare against God’s Church.’ 7

Despite the numerical growth, 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.’ 8 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. 9 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 allowed mixed seating within the church in 1886, whilst retaining some women-only areas10. The parish also undertook a Mission to Men in March 1888 under the leadership of E. V. Burridge – he died aged only thirty-nine the following year and the 1890 north aisle window of St Boniface is in memory of him. However, despite all these efforts, the lack of men persisted. Throughout this period, although women dominated the congregation in numbers and were present throughout the church’s wide range of activities, they could not serve on the church council. Only in 1923 were the first women elected.

William Garrood and Mary Sokol


  1. Geoffrey Rowell, The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, Oxford, 1983, pp. 98-110.
  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, XXVII.5 (May 1912)
  8. Parish Magazine, XX.4 (Apr 1905)
  9. Parish Magazine, XIX.4 (Apr 1904); repeated in, e.g., Parish Magazine, XXV.3 (Mar 1910)
  10. Parish Magazine, III.10 (Oct 1886)