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 on 11 December 1883 for the recovery of seventy-two people in the parish from an outbreak of typhoid fever – they all attended the service and all seventy-two names were read out. Nearly a hundred people had been struck with the disease in the parish that autumn and so Fr Penfold had appealed for funds, receiving £80 from friends and others in response to an appeal in the Daily Telegraph. He also requested help from the Nursing Sisters of St John the Divine1.

That body was an Anglican religious community originally founded as St John’s House in 1848 and re-founded in 1883 when all its Sisters and most of its nurses resigned from King’s College Hospital over a quarrel between the Sister-Matron and the hospital’s medical staff. The same community later became the inspiration for the Order of St Raymond Nonnatus in the BBC hit series Call The Midwife. The Community sent two nursing sisters, who worked for six weeks with members of the congregation to make daily visits to every known case of typhoid in the parish. Beef tea and ‘dinners’ were provided for the sick and the doctors involved rather surprisingly prescribed a daily intake of wine and brandy, generously supplied by two local wine merchants. 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 evangelistic Missions to the parish took place. The first was in 1885 when the parish was visited by three of Penfold’s near-contemporaries among high-church clergy – Richard Rhodes Bristow (1838-1914), vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham and later Canon of Southwark Cathedral, George Octavius Fletcher Griffith (1847-1913), vicar of St Barnabas’ Beckenham, Kent and Henry Russell Wakefield (1854-1933), vicar of St Michael’s, Lower Sydenham and later second Bishop of Birmingham. The three men undertook many tasks in ten days of intense activity – Holy Communion was held twice a day with a meditation between. The church also hosted services for intercessory prayer, a Mission service every night with a meeting afterwards, 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. Visits were made to the sick and dying at home and daily visits were also made to the new North West London Hospital, where several services were also held – it was just behind the church on Kentish Town Road and had only opened in 1878. Holy Communion was given to the sick and infants 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 taken on a definite role in parish life.

The parish had an initial population of 5,000, enlarged in 1904 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.

Further Missions must also have helped with numbers. One occurred in February 1895, again lasting ten days and again led by a three-man team – the Rev William Isaac Carr Smith (1857-1930), who that October sailed to be rector of St James’s, Sydney, Australia, the Rev Edward Stanley Carpenter (1854-1934), vicar of Highcliffe, Hampshire and Brother Ellard, a member of the Lichfield Lay Evangelist Brotherhood (a group of lay preachers set up in 1882 by William Maclagan, Bishop of Lichfield and based in Wolverhampton since 1892). It included outdoor processions led by robed crucifer, clergy and choir, but bad weather meant that (in the words of the 1923 History) “congregations … though good, were not so large as had been hoped for”. The 1923 History added that “the earnest words of invitation addressed at different points by the Missioners were instrumental in bringing in some who seldom, if ever, had been to Church before”. The parish’s Mission Buildings hosted a Church Army Mission under Captain Carter and Nurse Jennett from 10 to 18 March 1901.

Another ten-day mission in November 1906 was well-attended – the “very wet weather [at the time] … ceased in a most providential manner during the outdoor processions each night”, in the words of the 1923 History, which continued:

At the special services for men on the two Sunday afternoons over 100 men were present both times. One of the striking features of the Mission was the number of people who came forward night after night at the invitation of the Missioner, to renew their baptismal vows.

This third Mission was conducted by Fr Fitzgerald and Fr Murray, both of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, assisted by the Rev Charles Leonard Weatherburn (1870-1954), who had just become curate and priest-in-charge of the mission church of St Mark’s, Jarrow in north-east England. Fr Fitzgerald returned for a week in November 1908, holding an intercessory service each morning and an address and an instruction each night.

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

St Michael’s also recruited its choirboys fairly locally. One was George John Dowsett (1870-1887), the son of a journeyman printer-compositor who was living at 23 Phoenix Street in Somers Town in 1871 but had moved his family to 41 Kentish Town Road by 1881 and 181 Great College Street by 1901. Another was George Rolfe Hoddy (1872-1892), one of eight children born to a Post Office overseer who was living at 141 Bayham Street in 1881. Hoddy and Dowsett were both born in the St Pancras district and were both buried in the St Michael’s Parish plot at Finchley Cemetery, a few yards from the cemetery chapel, close to the right-hand side of the road. The plot is headed by a marble cross, whose base is inscribed with the names of the two choirboys and of Alice Edith Ford (1871-1890), one of the church’s regular communicants.

Despite the numerical growth, the clergy were often disappointed with their congregation’s attendance, not just at Easter, but also at other services, such as the daily morning eucharist begun on 1 November 1887 and still running in 1923 (previously Holy Communion had only been celebrated on Sundays, Holy Days, Tuesdays and Thursdays). 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 five-day Mission to Men in April 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

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  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)