1876-1881 – Temporary Quarters

Edward Bainbridge Penfold was appointed the first vicar and immediately instigated the procedure for establishing a new district chapel. First, Queen Victoria by an Order in Council dated 23rd October 1876 approved the constitution of the District of St. Michael’s Church by taking parts of three existing parishes in the area – St Stephen’s Camden Town (a parish since 1852), Holy Trinity Haverstock Hill (a parish since 1852), and St. Matthew’s Bedford New Town (a parish since 1859). 1 Then, on the 21st August 1876 the Privy Council approved the creation of a new church for the district. It was to be funded by money vested in the Commission from the City churches of St. Peter le-Poer (demolished in 1907; site now 19 Old Broad Street) and the Perpetual Curacy of St. Benet Fink (demolished 1842-1846 to improve the Royal Exchange site and parish united to that of St Peter le Poer; site now occupied by No.1 Threadneedle Street). It is unclear when it was promoted from a district to a parish in its own right, but it was probably when St Pancras New Church underwent a change of vicar in September 1877.

Boundaries of the parishes surrounding St Michael’s (blue) and the ancient St Pancras parish boundary (red). Also shown (green) are the areas taken from Holy Trinity (A), St Matthew’s (B) and St Stephen’s (C) to form St Michael’s.

Penfold presided over the district’s first service on 25th February, 1877 at 5A Camden Road, ministering to sixteen communicants from an altar obtained from St. James’s Diocesan Home for Penitents in Fulham, built in 1871. In 1871 5A Camden Road had housed two families, headed by a bricklayer and a farrier, as well as a bird shop. Next door was a tobacco shop and three doors away was the Halfway House pub (now the Camden Eye), taking its name from the earlier era when it was a rural stopping-point on the road from Tottenham Court Road to Hampstead and Highgate. The scullery at the back of 5A’s ground floor became a vestry, whilst the shop partitions on the ground floor were removed to make a 100-capacity worship space in what had been its front room. Officially known as the Mission House, that worship space was soon nicknamed “the Shop” and is now a betting shop. There was not enough room for children in it and so a separate Sunday morning service was held for them at the new Hawley Crescent Board Schools, themselves only opened in 1874. The Hawley Crescent Schools also housed the Sunday Schools which Penfold opened on 28 October 1877 and now form Hawley Primary.

The Mission House had a small font right from its inception. This had originated at Holy Trinity the Less (on what is now the site of Mansion House tube station). The font was the only fitting to survive that church’s destruction in the Great Fire – the church was demolished and its parish merged with that of St Michael Queenhithe – the ‘hithe’ in its name refers to its proximity to the docks of the Pool of London (its site now mostly lies under the northern carriageway of Upper Thames Street near Southwark Bridge). That parish’s medieval church had also been destroyed in the Fire but was rebuilt between 1676 and 1686, with Holy Trinity’s font moved into it.

That very same font was seen in Queenhithe by the mapmaker and guidebook-writer Thomas Allen, who described it in his 1839 History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Other Parts Adjacent as a “font in a ballustrade [sic]; it is a handsome octangular basin of statuary marble, enriched with four cherubic heads, and the outer surface is nearly covered with flowers and fruit in relief; the cover is oak.” The basin was probably placed on a new pedestal at Queenhithe and it was also broken sometime before 1876 – the metal tie used to repair it was still holding it together in 1901. St Michael Queenhithe closed in 1875 and was demolished a year later. However, its name lived on in St. Michael’s Camden Town, since the Church Commissioners granted £5,300 from the Queenhithe site’s sale towards the site and construction of the permanent church in Camden Town. The Queenhithe parish was merged into that of St James Garlickhythe, which took most of the old church’s fittings. However, the font and its pedestal were instead briefly put into storage in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral before being moved to 5A Camden Road.

5A Camden Road and its neighbours in the censuses for 1871 (RG10/230) and 1881 (RG11/205). The priests had moved out by 1891.

Fr Penfold initially lived at 1 Gloucester Street (now the north end of Albany Street) and by 1881 had moved to the first floor of 5A, with his housekeeper on the second floor. In mid-June 1876 he was joined by his first assistant priest Archer George Hunter, though Penfold could not afford to pay a stipend and so Hunter’s costs had to be paid by his affluent lawyer father.2 Hunter later wrote:

We had one great advantage, we had no money, and we told the people so, therefore they did not expect us to put our hands into our pockets. We assured them that when there was any real need we would do our best to supply it. We found the Charity Organisation Society a very great help. The honest had no objection to having their cases inquired into; others found that their want was not so great after all! We told everyone what we were out for, and many found their way to worship with us in our little church.

Next, Fr Penfold set about seeking a site for the district’s permanent church, no mean feat in such a heavily built-up area. He made inquiries and found two adjacent houses with long rear gardens at 11 and 13 Camden Road, just three houses away from the temporary church. These were probably still middle-class dwellings as they had been in 1871, when 11 housed the widowed Bengal Engineers officer John Charles Harris (1826-1910) and 13 the French sculptor and silverware artist Leonard Morel-Ladeuil (c.1820-1888). Harris was from Hackney and had served with the East India Company’s forces from 1843, rising to the rank of major before his retirement sometime between 1862 and 1871. Morel-Ladeuil had been working for the British firm of Elkington & Co. since 1859 and his designs included those for the Milton Shield (1867) and ‘The Pompeian Lady’ (1877) – the former aptly features the Archangel Michael expelling the rebel angels from heaven.

11 and 13 Camden Road in 1871 and 1881 (B stands for Building, showing there was not a house at that street number).

Penfold set about purchasing the houses and their site, at a final cost of £2,470. In Hunter’s words:

Then came a period of begging. Edward Penfold was the last man to offer God that which had cost him nothing, and he was resolved on building a really worthy church. For this we asked Mr. Bodley, one of the chief architects of the day, to prepare designs, and whilst he was doing this we were bothering our friends, everyone indeed who we had ever met, to help us. We had this claim on them; or at any rate this excuse for going outside the parish, that there was next to nothing to be got from those inside, though what there was was given very freely and gladly. Here my better-to-do friends at [my previous curacy in] Beddington came in and they did come, in response to my shameless asking! The Vicar secured various grants from the Patrons of the living, the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and his many friends, and the congregation I think, without exception, did their part nobly till a sum of over twenty thousand pounds was gathered together.

The conveyancing deeds for the site are now in the St. Michael’s Church Diocesan Parish file held at the London Metropolitan Archives. They reveal much of legal historical interest and show that Fr Penfold met with difficulty and delay in establishing the necessary good title to the land. However, they do not include any documents to support the 1923 history’s claim that Penfold supplemented the Church Commissioners’ grant with funds from various Church Societies and voluntary subscriptions3.

Eventually Penfold acquired the leasehold and then the freehold interest on the site and demolished the houses there, enabling the nave’s foundations to be laid on 1 November 1878 at a cost of £850. After getting permission from the Metropolitan Board of Works, a temporary ‘Iron Church’ was erected on the building site in August 1879, with capacity for 300 and on roughly the site of the present-day chancel. The last service in the Mission House was held on 17 August 1879 and the first in the Iron Church a week later on 24 August4, with a sermon by Henry William Burrows, prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral and canon of Rochester Cathedral – he had been perpetual curate of Christ Church, Albany Street during Penfold’s second curacy (1870-1874). The historic font was also moved into it.

An advertisement for iron buildings of a similar type to the original St Michael's building.
An advertisement for iron buildings of a similar type to the original St Michael’s building. Source.

There was immediately an expectation that further building would follow5 and Dove Brothers Limited of Islington were taken on, but it took until 25 March 1880 for the contract for the nave’s construction to be signed, agreeing the final cost at £7,387. A cornerstone was laid on 5th June 1880 by one of the local landowners, namely the eight-year-old Marquess Camden. A sermon was preached from atop one of the half-constructed walls by Walsham How (then Bishop of Bedford, a suffragan see in London). His text was 2 Chronicles 36.23:

Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.

A cutting on the laying of the foundation stone for the permanent nave, 1880.

The tracery for the nave windows was all cut on site and the mortar was ground by a small steam engine, sited where the first chancel-step now is. The nave roof was nearly completed by January 1881, when a severe snowstorm got through the Iron Church’s ventilators and forced services to be suspended for several days. By Michaelmas (29th September) that year it was ready and on 8 am that day the Iron Church hosted its last communion service. Three-and-a-half hours later Walsham How made a second visit to consecrate the permanent nave, preaching this time from Matthew 28:17 (“And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.”).6 The large congregation at the consecration consisted of parishioners, neighbouring and famous clergy and many visitors. The Camden and Kentish Town Gazette ran a report on the event, quoted in the Parish Magazine7. The historic font was also moved to the permanent nave, where it lasted until 1901.

Once the nave was complete, the church attempted to retain the iron church, perhaps to use as meeting rooms, but this was disallowed by the Metropolitan Board of Works – in mentioning this the 1923 history also noted with some satisfaction that the Board “has now ceased to exist”, perhaps implying divine retribution. The actual cost of construction and of the temporary furniture for the nave had been £8854 plus £850 for laying the foundations – £800 of this still remained unpaid at the time of the nave’s consecration and that debt was only cleared in 18868. It still had no panelling, no ceiling decoration and no heating apparatus – instead one huge stove stood by the west door and another near the small door to a temporary vestry or church room on the site of the later side-chapel’s outer wall.

As built, the nave’s east end was a flat brick wall, awaiting demolition to build a chancel once funds were raised. There was still much more work to be done but St. Michael’s Church was now firmly established in Camden Town as an Anglican Church within the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

Mary Sokol.

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  1. Roger Sainsbury, St. Michael’s Church Highgate: A History, 2014.
  2. A.G. Hunter, Incidents in My Life and Ministry, 1935, pages 11-15
  3. Our Church and Parish, 1923.
  4. London Metropolitan Archive, ibid.
  5. Annual Report 1879/80
  6. London Metropolitan Archive, signed Act of Consecration, St. Michael’s Church, the Diocesan Parish File. 19/224/503/(1) London
  7. London Metropolitan Archive, St Michael’s Parish Magazine vol. 1 1884-86.
  8. Our Church and Parish, 1923