St Michael’s Between the Wars

In the aftermath of the First World War, life slowly began to return to normal at St. Michael’s, although the effects of the war were still keenly felt. The war memorial and a new aumbry cover were both inaugurated in 1920. Newly-weds from among the congregation often had to move out of Camden to set up home together, but retained links with the parish. In 1921 the church resumed its Holy Week tradition of an open-air Stations of the Cross, complete with two cornet players. The men’s Bible Classes resumed in January 1922 after their wartime lapse and a new banner of St Michael was dedicated at Michaelmas that year, executed by the Sisters of Bethany, Lloyd Square and designed by Ninian Comper, a pupil of Bodley.

Post-war economic hardship and the Great Depression led to several burglaries at the church. However, the inter-war years also featured amateur theatricals, Women’s Socials, visiting preachers and youth holidays to the east Kent coast. In October 1925 the parish was visited by Sister Faith of the Community of St Peter, who had been one of its parish-workers from 1907 to 1919 before being posted to Korea. Due to the rules of her Community, her address at the Parish Buildings was for an all-female audience. In February 1927, Osborn was succeeded as vicar by Edmund Douglas Merritt (1879-1956), an old friend of Keelan and Kett. Nine days of social events and services were held at Michaelmas 1931 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the nave’s completion, including a Requiem Mass for Fr. Penfold.

A new statue of Our Lady was commissioned from Faith Craft and placed to beside the side chapel entrance with a blue curtain behind it. It was dedicated on the Feast of the Purification in 1926 as a memorial to a major evangelistic Mission in the parish in November 1924. The April 1926 Parish Magazine stated “We are not quite sure about the haloes above the heads of the figures. It may be that they will look better without them, but we shall see later on.” A collection was already being held for a new font and it was put in place in 1928 during major restoration work on the interior and exterior. A new font cover soon followed early in 1929 in memory of Denn Winearls (1860-1928), one of Fr Penfold’s original churchwardens.

The statue of Our Lady today (note that the haloes remain or have been replaced).
The statue of Our Lady today (note that the haloes remain or have been replaced).

The church’s immediate surroundings were also changing. On 24 February 1932 the Mayor of St Pancras opened Barnes House to its immediate south-west. It was named after Edmund Barnes (1842-1926), who had been born in Blandford, Dorset but moved to London between 1851 and 1861 to train as a teacher and organist at the Church Missionary College in Highbury (the site now occupied by Sutton Dwellings about half a mile south of Highbury and Islington station). In 1869 he became headmaster of St Clement Danes School and organist of St Clement Danes Church on Aldwych, for which he moved to Kentish Town and Camden New Town (2 Alma Street in 1871 and 39 Osney Crescent in 1881). He had retired to 220 Camden Road by 1891, remaining there until his death, though in the 1891 census it seems he was keeping his family going by working as a musical instrument maker. He was elected to the London School Board five times and the London County Council once and was also appointed chairman of the St Pancras Bench of Justices in 1905. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Barnes is best known, however, as the very first Mayor of St Pancras after it was made a Metropolitan Borough in 1900. Barnes House was the Council’s Tuberculosis Dispensary and Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, consisting of fourteen three-room flats, seven four-room flats and one six-room flat. The building’s ground floor frontage onto Camden Road consisted of five shops, all but one of which were initially used as showrooms for the Council’s Electricity Department1.

A more problematic neighbour to the north-east was the large canal-side factory of the Aerated Bread Company (ABC), which had replaced a branch of the Young Man’s Christian Association on that site in 1915. The ABC used carbonated or fizzy water instead of yeast to introduce carbon dioxide into the dough, hugely reducing the need for the workers to handle the dough and making the baking process more hygienic. The bread it produced was mainly used to supply the ABC’s chain of self-service tea-shops, one of which was sited between the factory and the church’s liturgical west end.

The ABC factory features at 4:16 in this 1930 silent movie trip along the Grand Union Canal (Huntley Film Archive, Film 8598).

This may have made for cleaner bread, but the fumes from the factory’s chimneys made for a dirtier St Michael’s. Indeed, the clerestory and west window were so dirty by August 1924 so that – in the words of the Parish Magazine – “one of our worshippers thought they must be of stained glass which had got discoloured!”. Cleaning the windows was justified as a way of decreasing the church’s electricity bill, since it had previously been forced to use lights “even in the morning on dark days”. As part of its plans for a 1937 extension, the ABC leased a corner of land from St Michael’s and demolished the church lavatory on it, but not before completing a new one at the other end of the choir vestry (now the Gabriel Room). The £10 annual rent of the land was used to augment the vicar’s stipend. The factory was finally demolished in 1982 and the site is now occupied by Sainsbury’s2

The 1937 negotiations were in the hands of a new vicar, Norman de Langdale, who had succeeded Merritt in 1936. Born in Jarrow, County Durham, de Langdale was the son of a former printer who had also become a priest. While agreeing the lease of the land, he also filed a complaint against ABC, alleging that the planned new buildings would block the access of light and air to the church’s windows, especially those of the Lady Chapel and that “inconvenience may arise if certain windows in the new buildings are left open during times of Divine Service and at other times when the clergy … are engaged in ecclesiastical duties”. He and his solicitors thus reached an agreement with ABC that the new building would be faced with light-coloured faience tiles and that those tiles would be washed at least twice a year. If they were not, the vicar or his agents were allowed to enter ABC’s property and have them cleaned, at ABC’s expense. ABC was also required to keep most of the windows facing the church locked between 6.30 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day and to pay the church £350 in compensation.

In his dealings with the London ecclesiastical authorities, de Langdale stated that in his opinion, “At the present time the restoration of the reredos should … be taken in hand”. They agreed and £100 of the compensation was allocated to this project, which seems soon to have become a full-blown redesign. £170 of the compensation was used to clear the church’s overdraft and the rest on cleaning the side chapel and establishing a Fabric Fund to cover future problems with the building.3

High-altar-reredos

One of the church’s assistant priests during the inter-war period was the Australian Angus Elor Palmer, who took a party to see the Silver Jubilee procession for George V from a window on Ludgate Hill in 1935 and later that year acted as curate-in-charge in the interregnum between Fr Merritt and Norman de Langdale (1894-1980).Another of the assistant priests was Arthur Baldwin Davis (1870-1938), former Secretary-General of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. After curacies in Essex, Huntingdonshire, Fulham and Notting Hill, ill-health had forced him out of parish ministry in 1912. He began assisting at St Michael’s in 1920 and formally became a curate there in 1927. His health again worsened and he held his last Mass at St Michael’s on Christmas Day 1936, though he retained his curacy until his death. His widow Rachel Mary Rivers Davis donated the entire cost (£98/12/6) of a new statue of St Michael. This was produced by Faith Craft, though its designer is unknown – it was probably William Wheeler, though other possible candidates are William Lawson and Ian Hogate. The statue was dedicated in the nave at the first Evensong of the Patronal Festival on 28th September 1939 – less than a month after the outbreak of the Second World War.4

“The Festival this year was held under very difficult conditions. At the beginning of the week it seemed as if war was inevitable, but we started our first Evensong with a great hope that after all it might be averted. And then on Sunday we continued our Festival with great joy and happiness, knowing that God in his great mercy had granted our prayers and that our country would have peace. St Michael’s and all the Holy Angels had once more joined in battle with the Devil and his angels and once more a great victory was won against the forces of evil … The Social events went very well considering everything and in spite of the absences caused by ARP [Air Raid Precautions] work, etc.”5

The Munich Agreement was signed early on Friday 30th September 1938, the day after Michaelmas. It seemed that war between Britain and Nazi Germany had been averted. Yet an article in the August 1939 Parish Magazine regarding the Girls’ Club outing to Southend stated: “We saw some very interesting things, in fact, one of our party kept rushing from one side of the carriage to the other to see the Air Raid shelters in the gardens.” By the time of Michaelmas 1939, Britain was again at war.

Edward Smith.

PREVIOUS

  1. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the St. Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras, 1932, page 63
  2. R. Leon, ‘The rise and fall of the Aerated Bread Company’, Camden History Review, 25, 2001, pages 47-51.
  3. London Metropolitan Archives, MS18319/102
  4. London Metropolitan Archives, MS18319/107
  5. Parish Magazine, November 1938